Do we still undervalue
soft skills in leadership?

15th August 2017

So I’m going to come clean. I’m a woman and I prefer people rather than things. There, I’ve said it! Feels good actually.

But I should probably be ashamed. For starters, I’m clearly doomed to failure when it comes to my career. Secondly, I completely fall into the gender stereotype trap. In fact, it’s possible that women like me exist purely to reinforce statements made - both publicly and in private - like that of Google’s James Damore. In a ten page dossier he claimed that women are ‘biologically’ programmed not to succeed in the tech industry, stating that ‘women preferred people to things’ and that they are ‘more prone to neuroticism’ and therefore unlikely to hold down highly stressful jobs.

Now this (surprisingly) isn’t a feminist rant. It isn’t an article on gender either. The neurotic bit – well I’m just going to leave that there. But by publicly stating his position, what Damore has failed to recognise is how potent that heady mix of technical knowledge and management capability can really be. In short, he’s fallen - head first - into the perennial debate on what makes a great line manager and it’s on this issue that I wish to make my point.

Last week, I interviewed a senior reward expert from the finance sector and we discussed how there was a shift occurring within the industry in terms of skills value. Whilst many of the technical and analytical requirements of junior staff were still a starting point for careers in the sector, it was the people bit that was starting to take centre stage.

Previously, companies were promoting those with technical prowess into managerial roles and they were quickly climbing the greasy pole. Now there is a realisation amongst progressive organisations not to overlook the softer – more feminine – traits required to manage people more effectively. In short, emotional intelligence is now in greater demand and therefore those adept in social dialogue, team building and consultation are warranting a higher price tag.

By critically reviewing job specifications and making soft skills count, it will save time and money, helping create a strong, high performing culture.

As an HR professional myself, it’s easy to see how a lack of attention to people skills can really cause senior management problems. Particularly in those industries that thrive on technical know how. Talented individuals with analytical expertise are often promoted into roles that don’t necessarily match their skills sets. It’s true you can invest in managers to develop their inner “softie” but it’s much easier if you can identify their potential from the start.

Get it wrong and the financial consequences for a business are significant. Not only does it disrupt efficiency and productivity, senior managers are often forced to take the time to address the issues created by poor people management. In one case I witnessed, an additional person was recruited into a team to work alongside the existing department manager. This was because they lacked the capability to manage a team. That doubled the firm’s labour cost in one go!

Had they looked more closely at the role before recruiting into it in the first place, they may have got the better candidate and a better mix of skill. By critically reviewing job specifications and making soft skills count, it will save time and money, helping create a high performing culture.

At managerial level, the range of competencies required to lead a team is complex and broad, so it’s great to hear that in one sector at least, there is growing emphasis on promoting those with the soft skills, rather than those that simply demonstrate high levels of technical excellence. After all, as a manager, you’re there to enable others to be great at the technical stuff. As a successful Chief Ops Officer from the oil and gas sector once said to me, “I’m a great people manager, but an average geologist. That’s great for being a COO.” In other words, they understood the business and the industry, but they recognised that in order to lead, they needed to be fantastic at managing people and not a technical wizard.

And here is where the gender argument falls down. Because the COO in question was male - therefore debunking the myth that soft skills are predominantly the domain of us girlies.

Anyone familiar with the terms ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ leadership will be aware that the latter is often aligned to what are deemed feminine traits. Even Hofstede – a pretty awe inspiring Dutch social psychologist – distinguished feminine from masculine traits in his seminal work on culture, back in the 1980s. He was pretty clear that it wasn’t just women that demonstrated a more feminine approach in the workplace – men did too.

There has been much discussion both in the academic space and popular media on the roles boys and girls are pre-conditioned towards. This article does little to illuminate these debates, but for me, it’s about ensuring that those soft skills or interests in people are not lost to things and objects.

Of course, there needs to be a balance. The tech sector would not survive without knowledge-based capabilities. Financial services would not flourish without analytical minds and there’d be a long queue at the petrol pump tonight, if engineers and geologists couldn't fathom out how to get the black stuff out of the ground. But to argue that those who possess a passion for people are not as likely to succeed and that it’s women who tend hold these traits, is short-sighted. In my view, you disregard the value of soft skills at your peril because experience has taught me employees leave line managers – and not organisations.

So, three cheers for the people lovers!

By critically reviewing job specifications and making soft skills count, it will save time and money, helping create a strong, high performing culture.