When you think of training your employees, the first thing that likely comes to mind is ensuring your workforce is well-versed in the technical skills needed to perform their jobs well. Many smaller businesses, pressed for time or resources, typically overlook “soft’ skills” – that collection of intangible, immeasurable behaviors that drive all business activities.
Business owners who have already tended to operational efficiency in order to remain profitable are discovering that basic people skills can be critical as they struggle to find ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and remain competitive.
As early as 2006, US Department of Labor employer surveys showed that youth entering the job market were not prepared with essential interpersonal skills needed to succeed. The major skill deficits reported were:
- Oral and written communication
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Critical thinking and problem-solving
But this is far from a generational gap. Traditional colleges and vocational training programs are only now starting to integrate interpersonal skills into technical curricula. So, unless your older workers have received specific training in soft skills throughout their careers, they may also benefit from some attention to these topics.
Take a quick look at how your team performs in the following categories to determine if you need to attend to soft skills. Include yourself in your assessment because as their leader, your team looks to you to model the expected behavior.
Communication skills: This topic is broad; personalities, comfort levels and styles of communication vary widely, so let’s just look at the basics. On any given day, your employees are communicating with customers, colleagues and the public. They’re using phone, email, text messaging and in-person meetings to affect your bottom line. Are you confident and comfortable with how they are representing you and your company? Have you checked the emails and/or text messages between your customer service reps and your clients lately? Does your millennial workforce even use the phone to have a conversation with the customer? Or do they rely on abbreviated text messages? (LOL!) While you want to have a comfortable relationship with your clients, getting too casual risks confusion and misunderstanding.
Are team meetings productive and presentations engaging or does the meeting leader tend to ramble on and get derailed by side conversations? Do your foremen deliver clear and complete directions to the labor force? Or do they leave the crew scratching their heads and improvising on a job site?
No doubt, there is always room for improvement where communication is concerned. Just be sure your team’s lack of skill in this area is not actually damaging your business.
Teamwork and collaboration. Do the members of your teams play well with others? Effective teams have role clarity among the members and a good mix of talent. There should be good leaders and good followers, accountability for deadlines and reporting progress, as well as collaboration across functions to achieve a common goal. These principles apply equally to a special project as to daily field operations.
Of course, everyone has an off day now and then, but if you find you are spending a lot of time settling disputes, intervening to correct avoidable operational glitches, or worse, having to do rework on a client site, chances are your teams could benefit from some training in effective teamwork.
Critical thinking and problem solving. Whether it’s a challenge from a client, an issue with a supplier or an unexpected call from a key crew member, your team’s day will be full of problems to solve. How they respond to these opportunities to apply critical and sometimes creative thinking can make all the difference in both the success of the business and the morale of the team.
Some people seem born to solve problems. Others panic at the mere thought of a plan going wrong. You probably have some of each of these personalities in your business. The fact is, though some critical thinking comes naturally, you can develop confidence in every team member by teaching problem solving skills they can rely on to address issues as they arise.
Training resources. If you don’t have an internal trainer or a relationship with a training consultant, there are several places you can turn. Local enterprise resources such as Service Core of Retired Executives (S.C.O.R.E.), trade associations, Chambers of Commerce and community colleges often run skill-building workshops, and some will even come to your workplace. On the internet, MindTools.com is a good place to start. It offers assessment tools, articles and a free newsletter as well as corporate training services if you need them.
The category of soft skills encompasses much more than the three behaviors we’ve discussed. Think about the specific challenges you have in your business, the outcomes of which, positive or negative, will be affected by employee behavior. Would any of them be easier to address if your team were more proficient in these critical soft skills? Would they even be an issue? If so, you can’t afford not to conduct soft skills training.
Hire Power is a monthly column designed to help you recruit, hire and retain the best talent for your company. We’ve got a rotating panel of columnists ready to give you practical, tactical advice on solving your labor problems. Email Chuck Bowen at email@example.com with topic ideas.