June 17, 2014

What are soft skills anyway?

“Soft skills get little respect, but will make or break your career.”  - Peggy Klaus, “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Many, if not most, professionals are smart. Countless people have the education, experience and brainpower to identify and find solutions to today’s pressing business problems. And yet, they don’t all move up the corporate ladder. We all know, at some level, that it’s not solely about being smart or performing well technically that opens up executive office doors. It is the elusive “soft skills” which play a critical part.

Soft skills are hard to name and define; and thus difficult to develop.  You need to have a clear sense of what the skills are, and then you can more easily ask for feedback and measure progress. A Harvard Business Review blog cited the Center for Talent Innovation’s study that says the most important soft skill is executive presence.

3 key elements within executive presence
Executive presence connotes that others, especially existing leaders in the organization, perceive you as “leadership material”. Some young women I have mentored have heard “you lack executive presence” as a key reason why they did not get the desired promotion or growth opportunity, but they don’t get precise feedback. Here are the top 3 elements from the study:

67% of the executives surveyed agreed this was a core characteristic. Gravitas comes from the Roman virtues, and connotes dignity, importance with a certain substance or depth of personality. To me, it’s about confidence and credibility; it answers the question, will people feel “safe” following you.

Your verbal communications are how you demonstrate your gravitas. It is your ability to “command a room”. It is not only in formal presentations, but even in meetings with your peers. Do you listen actively? Do you ask the right questions? Are you able to relevantly add to discussions in areas outside your sphere of responsibility?

While not the top factor, it is clear to see how appearance could negatively impact both communications and gravitas. It’s the reason why the tried and true advice is to “dress for the job you want”. Yes, it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But it’s also true that, like it or not, your appearance will contribute to others’ perception of your gravitas and to your ability to command a room.

How to develop executive presence in your team
Personally, I never had the “executive presence” discussion with any one of my managers. It was just not talked about or named. Coming up, it seems you either had “it” or you learned “it” through osmosis. And, well, that’s just not scalable.

I’ve found that the most important thing you can do to increase your team’s executive presence is to talk about it with them. Underwhelming advice? Maybe, but truly it is that easy. Just begin talking about executive presence as a factor in how individual performance will be evaluated relative to earning promotions.

I endeavor to talk about it with every person I am fortunate to have on my team. I don’t make it a single discussion or like the awkward “talk” you have with your mom or dad at 13. I just work it into day-to-day work, 1:1’s and quarterly goal setting and performance reviews. Just talking about it increases each person’s self-awareness around how they present themselves and are perceived by others. And it provides a common vocabulary for asking for and providing feedback for improvement in this area. And it requires nothing more innovative than a conversation.

How do you think about executive presence? How are you developing your team?