The Soft Skills are the Hardest Skills
Developing strategies, marketing, finance, IT, sales, customer service… I could go one with the list of hard skills that are always listed when I deliver training on starting, leading and growing a business. Towards the end, there’ll usually be someone who says something like resilience, confidence, passion, courage, self-management, empathy, creativity, emotional intelligence… The ‘hard’ skills always come first. Why?
My personal opinion is that the hard skills are listed first, because we’re naturally inclined to do the easiest thing first. Hard skills take time, effort and practice to master but, in the end, they can be learned by anyone who takes the time. ‘Soft’ skills on the other hand, take way more work, personal exploration and practice. They involve having those difficult conversations, becoming vulnerable and, in some ways, going against what society has taught us is the ‘only way to lead’ a business.
But, here’s the thing: Yes, the hard skills are absolutely essential for growing and leading a business. I mean, you can’t run a marketing business if you don’t know how to develop a marketing strategy. You can’t run a web development or app making business if you don’t know how to code and you can’t be an accountant without knowing your way around an Excel spreadsheet. But equally, how can you grow a business if you don’t have the emotional intelligence and resilience to bounce back from inevitable setbacks? How you can you grow a business and build a team without being able to have difficult conversations? How can you lead others without confidence? Hard and soft go hand in hand, like the song from that old sitcom Love & Marriage, they : ‘go together like a horse and carriage, this I tell you brother, you can’t have one without the other’ (you sang that didn’t you? I know I did).
Why are soft skills so hard and what can you do about it?
Unlike, learning to code, or work an Excel spreadsheet or develop a winning marketing or strategic development plan, things like confidence, courage, resilience, empathy, creativity and emotional intelligence can’t be learned by reading a book. You won’t attend a course and suddenly find that you’re resilient. You won’t have a conversation with an advisor and find that all of a sudden you have emotional intelligence.
Soft skills are hard, because they can’t be learned in the ways that we typically learn things. They can only come with practice and practicing soft skills leads to vulnerability and, in our society, vulnerability is seen as weakness. To practice soft skills, you have to let the armour that you’ve built to protect you from criticism, rejection, failure and ‘looking weak’, fall off.
To be courageous, you have to walk through fear. To be resilient, you have to have experienced failure, loss and hardship. To be confident, you have to know…know that you are an expert, know that it will always work out, know that you are where you are because you are supposed to be there, know that there will be challenges, know that you will have to get uncomfortable, know that what you have to say is meaningful.
All of that, is hard work and arguably takes way more time to learn that any ‘hard’ skill. There’s also the little fact that when you’re weak in a hard skill, you can always delegate it to someone else, with soft skills, there’s no delegating. It’s on you!
So, what can you do about it? This makes for a lengthy discussion but here are 3 things you can do:
- Create safe spaces: I don’t mean find a room or physical place to go but make it ok to ask for help. Make it ok for yourself and your team to admit that you’re finding things tough, and you need more support – physically, mentally or emotionally. You can do this by joining a network if you’re working by yourself, by creating monthly ‘team time hours’ if you have a team, or by hiring a mentor or coach. This opportunity to be vulnerable increases resilience and productivity since having a lighter mental load with appropriate support systems makes doing the day job much easier.
- Self-reflection: Don’t just talk about self-reflection. Make it a non-negotiable part of you daily, weekly or monthly routine. Where are the fears that keep you constantly shying away, that exacerbate your need to be perfect, that make you feel you don’t belong and will get ‘found out’ some-day soon, coming from? Are they real genuine fears or are they based on deep rooted beliefs about your worth and ability? How have you been showing up for your business? Your team? Your customers? How can you be more courageous when it comes to running your business? How does being courageous manifest itself for you and what will being courageous in your decision making add to your business? When a crisis arises, reflect on how you handled it – did you react, or did you respond? How could you have reacted differently? What else could have been going on? These are hard questions and I suggest getting an accountability partner, a coach, a mentor or joining a mastermind, so that you have some-one to force you to answer the tough questions, you’re refusing to ask yourself because it’s easier to stay nice and safe.
- Practice: Soft skills are like muscles and you don’t become an Olympic athlete by training half-assed. You practice as often as you can, even, or especially when you don’t want to. In the words of Brian Tracy: ‘Eat that frog’. Do the hard things first. When you have that difficult conversation first thing in the morning, you’re lighter, things may not have been as bad or as uncomfortable as you thought they were or would be and you’re free to work the rest of the day without the dread of that conversation. Make eating your frog your strategy for dealing with everything that pops up. Ask yourself today: what are you not doing that you must do? And make doing that your new priority for practicing.