It’s the Soft Skills, Baby!

As my twin daughters prepare for high school next year and my son continues his college pursuits, I find myself thinking about the skills that they need to thrive as adults. As their parent, I want to make sure I’m providing direction and leadership to help them build the skills they need to thrive in whatever passion they pursue.

During the 1990s, when I was in my MBA program, there was a lot of debate about what skills leaders needed and what classes we should take. Clearly in the 90s, there was an emphasis on technology. But the bigger question: Was it smarter to take classes related to the hard, or job-specific, skills (such as analytics, finance and accounting) or the soft (aka people) skills (like general management, emotional intelligence and communication/active listening)?

Warm and fuzzy is a good thing
I always believed in the soft skills even though my undergraduate degree was in accounting. I took several managerial classes in my second year of business school and they provided me with a great foundation for the leadership style I still employ today. But I now realize they also play a key role in my parenting philosophy. I was interested in soft skills because I was exposed unknowingly to their power and impact as a child.

Growing up, I went on sales calls at night with my father, who was an insurance salesman. However, I didn’t realize my father’s nighttime visits to a family’s home were sales calls. They felt like friends getting together and like my dad knew these people intimately.

He asked questions about their kids and family. He listened intently. They laughed together, cried together and shared stories about the old country. It was fun. In fact, I’m smiling as I write and think about those meetings with my dad at the kitchen tables of people I didn’t personally know. My father was deeply engaged in their life and used this time to make new and even stronger connections.

What impressed me the most was that he didn’t always make the sale. Some people didn’t need or believe in insurance. But either way, he always left on good terms and with a deeper relationship than where he started. I always was proud to be with my father. He was so nice, so gentle and he knew everyone. We could not walk into a store or a restaurant without someone saying, “Hey Mike, how are you?” I always thought that was so cool. As I look back, I realize what made my dad a great leader and salesmen at work and at home was his soft skills.

Soft skills are trending
Every day I’m reminded of the importance of soft skills and that their value is more relevant than ever in today’s world. These skills are the keys to parenting and leading teams. Soft skills seem so simple, yet sometimes they’re completely overlooked, underdeveloped or even dismissed. Last week, I tweeted about a great Inc. article called 3 Unspoken Words that Could Be Holding You Back. The article speaks to the simplicity of soft skills and the power of their impact. It takes less than three minutes to read, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Today, I read a Harvard Business Review article called As AI Makes More Decisions, the Nature of Leadership Will Change. This article talks about the importance of soft skills in a world that may be dominated by artificial intelligence, and specifically points to the need for leaders to demonstrate vision, engagement, adaptability and humility. This isn’t a new need, but the importance of possessing these traits will become greater only as smart technology increasingly replaces the hard skills.

Practice rather than preach
These traits are exactly what I’m trying to teach my children:

  1. Get engaged and seek out experiences. In college and high school, see and discover everything these institutions have to offer. Don’t let fear of failure or the unknown hold you back, rather let that fear propel you forward.
  2. Have an initial vision of what you want to pursue. Then, when you go after your vision, you do it with great enthusiasm.
  3. Give it your best. You don’t need to be the best but you do need to give it your best effort.
  4. Life changes and so will you. Be prepared to adapt your vision as the world and you evolve. Change should be an opportunity and not a threat.
  5. Be humble. You should be confident, but never be cocky.
  6. Be open. Accept that others may know more than you—and that’s a good thing. Spending time with them also provides you with many opportunities to learn and expand your own knowledge.
  7. Forge relationships and connections with others. Work to build lasting connections and relationships because they make life so enjoyable.

I guess I could easily say to my kids, “It’s the soft skills, baby!” It’s what my dad taught me through example and what I hope I’m teaching my own kids. As parents and leaders, we shouldn’t neglect the importance of soft skills—now more than ever. Thanks Dad!