Many executives are rightfully focused on making data-driven decisions and developing organisations with the capability to do the same. It’s also just as vital that executives have highly developed soft skills to lead their companies in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing business environment.
According to HCI research done in conjunction with Randstad RiseSmart, the higher up in the organisation, the greater the percentage of soft skills that are required for a role: 67 percent for entry-level and individual contributors; 75 percent for mid-level positions and 82 percent for senior leaders. The overwhelming need for these soft skills is tied to the ability to learn and to adapt to change, and this type of agility is becoming more important than functional or technical skills.
When leaders take the time to invest in practices that support strengthening their soft skills, they raise their awareness of the emotions of others and impact the culture of the organisation in a powerful way. Gartner Group found that design thinking, strategic management and adaptability are the soft skills with the highest growth in demand for C-suite executives. Leaders with strong soft skills simply get along with others, are able to influence others through positive behavior and communication, and thus, know how to lead productive teams. The good news is that every leader can learn and enhance soft skills.
building emotional intelligence
Empathy is the essence of emotional intelligence and is the biggest single leadership soft skill needed today, according to studies by Development Dimensions International, a global leadership and HR consulting firm. Other soft skills include listening, respectful behavior, calmness under pressure, discernment, openness to learning new things and receiving feedback. All these qualities create fertile ground for creativity, innovation and agility, which are key criteria for success in today’s business environment.
Empathy can be taught. Having worked with engineering leaders to promote effective communication and engage teams in a more empowering way, I can tell you that empathy is a crucial skill in building trust. By being inquisitive as to why another person may be thinking or feeling a certain way, and then seeking to understand before being understood, leaders changes the dynamic between themselves and those who report to and interact with them.
Empathy gives leaders perspective on why their employees may not be able to grasp a specific concept or process and enables them to get to the core of an issue at the onset. Empathy is about how to authentically communicate caring to people so they know they are supported. It entails feeling with someone by being supportive and listening, as opposed to feeling for someone. Rather than judge or try to fix a problem, a leader who empathises creates a space for an individual to safely experience feelings, but without taking it on as the leader’s own problem. Empathy with boundaries builds inclusivity.
Empathetic leaders successfully curate the skill of presence with themselves. This trickles into all their relationships and how they lead.
how to coach leaders to develop soft skills
Coaching to enhance soft skills starts with creating a practice of being present, listening and practicing the art of curiosity in how we relate and communicate. This enables an individual to show up as both a leader and a human.
Executive coaches start by holding the best vision of the leader with whom we are working. When we provide guidance to leaders in this area, we do not hold judgments or assumptions about them. We take a neutral stance, holding the leader in the highest regard for what he or she is capable of being. We make generous assumptions about the individual and serve as thought partners by holding a vision of the leader exhibiting the skills he or she desires to develop. This builds accountability for leaders as they establish a habit of practicing and developing a particular soft skill.
executive presence starts with internal awareness
In order to build accountability within employees, a leader must be accountable for their own growth and development. This starts with developing awareness of one’s impact on creating the culture of an organisation and the talent it attracts.
As an executive coach, establishing executive presence tends to be one of the most common interests and goals set by new leaders and managers. Effective leaders who embody executive presence know how to relate to others, read others, listen and seek to understand. As leaders develop, they have to be aware of strengths they have had in the past that may not be important in their current roles and what behaviors they need to strengthen. Executive coaching gives leaders the time and space to develop internal awareness of what they need to work on to expand their executive presence. Coaching serves as an accountability tool to shift habits into behaviors needed for their roles.
Habits enable us to get along in the world. As leaders develop soft skills, they’re able to see if the habits they practice are still of value, or need to be adjusted. This is all part of building trust with what they sense and feel in the moment. When leaders practice being present and listening to their own body cues, they develop the ability to self-observe without judgement, to be curious and have greater awareness about what actions would be most productive and positive.
being fully present
The important part of building soft skills is being able to get out of one’s head and into one’s body. In executive coaching, we teach the importance of being fully present. We have to engage our bodies because every action originates in our physical being. Executive coaching helps leaders gain a fresh view of how they think about themselves.
As a coach, I start by sharing insights, perspective and questioning what will work best for the client. I try to connect their behavior with how they are experiencing themselves in the moment. Sometimes leaders can inadvertently sabotage their ability to be fully present because they are pre-occupied with what they are feeling, and their internal beliefs, assumptions and judgments.
Being aware and present with oneself is all part of how leaders develop the ability to listen more deeply to themselves, and once this connection is made, they’re able to do the same with the people they manage, to listen for what is unspoken. Successful leaders are able to discuss more than the ‘block-and-tackle’ items on a list. They first connect by finding out how the person they’re talking with is doing with a particular project and their emotional state. They seek to connect on a human level.
curiosity as a critical soft skill
Leaders can develop genuine curiosity with ease once they are able to listen deeply and seek to understand themselves and others. In the book Curious, author Todd Lashing says that curiosity is often neglected because it operates below the surface of our desires. It’s not as simple as thinking positively, being optimistic, being grateful, being kind or feeling good. Curiosity is about how we relate to our thoughts and feelings. In other words, it’s not about whether we pay attention, but how we pay attention to what is happening in the present.
Lashing says that curious people have a higher sense of well-being.
Curious people are always exploring and trying new things. When we experience something new and find success, our brain produces a chemical known as dopamine. In curious people, this high level of dopamine generates a feeling of well-being and keeps them in a high-spirited state. In addition, when we overcome fear to try a new activity, we feel a deep sense of accomplishment, which skyrockets our motivation levels.
Leaders can cultivate curiosity in all conversations by asking questions, which chemically activates the executive function of the brain and empowers employees to access their own innate intelligence.
In my experience, it is easier to be curious when I slow down. When I am able to hold a mindset of curiosity, I am less judgmental and more accepting – both of myself and others.
What does curiosity look like for leaders inside your organisation? How do they want to invite curiosity into how they lead their teams and themselves?
Being present, listening and practicing the art of being curious all lead to more empathetic leaders. These soft skills enable them to promote deeper trust in a way that builds thriving cultures and teams.
People look to leaders to determine what is valued in the organisation. Leaders set the culture and tone of the organization. When they are present and can fully tap into their soft skills, they are better able to show genuine concern for employees, to communicate authentically, and to build accountability. These, in turn, promote positivity among employees and in the work environment, leading to higher levels of employee engagement and better business results.