The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

A few weeks ago, I popped in on a marketing event for a skincare company. A company consultant was scheduled to speak and asked if I’d provide some feedback on her presentation. She did well, but it was another consultant, a young lady endearingly nicknamed “The Millennial,” who really caught my attention as she put the financial benefits of her part-time job into perspective. She said, “Instead of having to choose between buying groceries or a new dress, I can now afford to buy groceries and that new dress!”

As she continued to speak, I noted a parallel. How many professional business people can say they’re great at their jobs and skilled communicators? When people launch their careers they immerse themselves in the technical aspects of their work. To be a good accountant you have to know how to prepare financial documents, right? But what then? How many people take the time to develop the interpersonal skills needed to sell themselves, their company and their ideas?

I recently worked with a partner at a prestigious law firm. Dave, as I’ll call him, was whip smart, hard-working and an insanely good problem solver. He was also an insightful guy, who had come to see these qualities as foundational rather than a guarantee for success. As Dave put it, expertise without a sizable roster of clients doesn’t mean diddly to a law firm. Like the aforementioned skin care consultant, Dave wanted it all. To be a top-notch lawyer and rainmaker. He saw it as a great way to distinguish himself from competitors who he observed as either people oriented or great legal minds, but rarely both.

It comes down to this: If you can’t effectively share your ideas or connect with others, at any level, who’s going to follow you? It makes you wonder why companies, even schools (law schools included), tend to give short-shrift to communication skills. When budgets are tight, communications training is often the first to go. Even the nomenclature “soft” skills in itself implies a level of inferiority to hard skills, but to assume communication skills don’t impact a company’s bottom line is a mistake.

A 2013 Google study outlined by business writer Joel Anderson reinforces the point. Dubbed ‘Project Oxygen’, Anderson reported on research that examined all available data to determine which skills and characteristics were most predictive of success at Google. Anderson wrote, “Even at Google, a company built around the idea that hard engineering skills like coding and mathematics are what truly define success, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) expertise finished last among the top eight characteristics of Google’s best employees.” 

So what were the top seven characteristics? Yep, all soft skills:

  1. Being a good coach

  2. Listening well

  3. Possessing insights into others

  4. Having empathy toward colleagues

  5. Being a good critical thinker

  6. Being a good problem solver

  7. Being able to connect with others across complex ideas.

A similar study at MIT Sloan revealed a 250% return on investment (ROI) after factory workers in Bangalore, India were taught soft skills over the course of a year. Researchers cited increased productivity as the main reason for the gain.

Soft skills can be hard to master and unlike hard skills, are more nuanced. There are the fundamentals like eye contact, body language and vocal inflection, but as the Google study reveals, listening skills and emotional IQ are also of critical importance. Have you ever met someone who looked at their watch while you were speaking to them? How did it make you feel? How about people so focused on themselves that they fail to ask you questions? Or what about the colleague who checks-out after completing a presentation. You gave them your attention, but when it’s your turn to speak, they’re slumped in their chair checking e-mails. 

Our brains are hardwired to judge. How we relate to people, how we speak, dress and even sit are noticed and assessed by others. And don’t expect anyone to tell you, you don’t seem ready for prime time. It’s sensitive stuff and often difficult to quantify or articulate. You just wont get the business or promotion.

Here are 5 easy ways to bolster your interpersonal skills:

  • Be present in a conversation. If you have to look at your watch or phone during a conversation, at least explain why so you don’t come across as arrogant or bored.

  • Take note of the way other people communicate. If you’re outgoing and a prospective client is introverted, try dialing back your energy to accommodate their communication style.

  • Don’t interrupt. Let a person finish their statement before chiming in. Good listeners are regarded as more trustworthy.

  • If you’re concerned about the tone of a sensitive e-mail, read it aloud to see if it delivers the intended meaning. 

  • Demonstrate engagement by asking questions and then follow-up questions to clarify. The best way to build rapport is to demonstrate genuine interest in another person’s work.

Everyone has their communication challenges. For some, better eye contact and executive presence fit the bill. For others it’s about how to best start and end a speech, engage the media or finesse small talk with a prospective client. Anyone can kick their communications skill-set up a few notches with as little as an afternoon of coaching.

And the award for worst media disaster of 2014 goes to....

 

It just keeps getting worse for Bill Cosby. The steady drumbeat of sexual assault allegations is at this point deafening. Now, a new low in the scandal. Cosby is being sued by Judith Huth, a Southern California woman who claims the comedian molested her 40 years ago when she was just 15 years old. The suit marks the first civil lawsuit filed against Cosby since he settled a similar case in 2005, and the first time a woman has publicly accused Cosby of sexually abusing her while she was still a minor.

If Cosby is innocent, it’s time for him to sing it from the mountain tops. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. He had the chance last November during NPR and AP interviews. In both instances, Cosby refused to answer questions about recently reignited, decade old rape allegations. From a PR standpoint, the AP interview was especially disastrous and telling. Cosby not only challenged the reporter’s integrity for broaching the rape allegations, but tried to bully the journalist into deleting the segment. 

 

 

While Cosby has stayed tight-lipped, his lawyers have vigorously refuted the accusations. They’ve questioned why it took decades for the women to come forward, (Many didn’t want to risk the scorn and fall-out from taking-on “Americas Dad”) and reminded everyone that Cosby has never faced criminal charges. 

But in the court of public opinion, Cosby is behaving like a man who has something to hide. The fall-out has been merciless. NBC and Netflix have discontinued shows they were developing for the comedian, TV Land has suspended “Cosby” show reruns, concert venues have cancelled his appearances, and Cosby has stepped down as a trustee of his beloved Temple University.

Some PR executives have suggested that if guilty, the only way for Cosby to restore even a modicum of his legacy is to come clean. Cop to the allegations, deal with the legal and financial fallout, and dedicate the rest of his life to sexual assault and rape causes. But the Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson believes there may be good reason for Cosby’s continued silence. In a November 2014 article titled, “No Wonder Cosby’s Keeping Quiet: He Could Still Be Prosecuted,” Michaelson writes, “Not all of the women’s claims are blocked by the statute of limitations…..this might be why Cosby is keeping mum on the accusations, despite the obvious public relations disaster. If he were to confess, he could well be prosecuted for his crimes.” 

Case in point; a 2004 allegation of sexual assault and battery by Andrea Constand; the most vocal of Cosby’s alleged victims. The alleged attack occurred in Pennsylvania which has a 12-year statute of limitations on sexual assault. And then there’s Huth, now 55, who suggests the statute of limitations be waived in her suit because she discovered "her psychological injuries and illnesses were caused by the sexual abuse perpetrated by Cosby" within the past three years.

Despite the legal maneuvers and revelations, an indictment still looks to be a long shot. Huth’s claim sounds calculated and financially expedient, and as has been widely reported, the district attorney investigating Constand’s 2005 allegations said he didn’t have enough evidence to pursue charges, (even though he found her credible). There’s also the issue of evidence or lack thereof. We have yet to hear anything about rape kits in any of the cases. 

As the scandal continues to develop, it’s anyone’s guess where the chips will fall. But one thing is certain. Cosby has been sucked into the vortex of 24/7 news coverage, and it won't be letting up anytime soon. Cosby is too big a name, and the allegations too numerous. It’s still so difficult to fathom. Bill Cosby a serial rapist? With this much smoke, it's hard to ignore the likelihood of a fire.