Soft skills revisited - with a leadership perspective

This article “Soft skills revisited – with a leadership perspective” has just been published on Lexology.

Back in July 2020 I shared some research insights from my book “Essential Soft Skills for Lawyerswhich generated significant interest – not least from the associated nine-minute video explaining “soft” skills featuring the Worry Monster. So, it seemed appropriate to revisit the topic in the light of recent developments – the return to office working, the accelerating digital revolution, the escalating war for talent and the myriad other challenges facing the profession – all of which place huge demands on leaders.

New soft skills for remote working

The shift to remote working during lockdown drove the need to develop several new soft skills. An article in October 2022 in Training Magazine argued that the four most important soft skills to prioritise for remote work – to bridge the distance gap – were emotional intelligence (I devoted an entire chapter to this topic in my book), next-level communication (ie over-communication), active listening and conflict resolution.

From my perspective, first and foremost of the new soft skills – with the reduction in non-verbal cues and the reduced influence of big personality and high status in the digital world – was the ability to create a powerful online presence. Presenting yourself as personable, confident and authoritative on the small screen became de rigueur.

I observed that in the brave new digital world where silence felt uncomfortably like a technology glitch, it was as if our listening skills evaporated. Maybe the anxiety of communicating across the ether led people back into push communications and output rather than input mode. This lack of listening caused a plethora of problems for those trying to build empathy and trust in order to create client relationships and sell legal services.

Listening is now the new superpower. Whether digitally or in person.

Revive conversation and networking skills

The lockdown meant that a generation of new professionals were restricted in their ability to get out and start building their networks. Relearning to socialise became the big new thing.

I had firms of lawyers and accountants contacting me for training on various interaction skills – from confident to commercial conversations, through telephone skills and then onto effective sales communications and meetings. There were even requests for networking refresher courses as people had been cooped up alone for so long.

Here I have to give a shout out to a great book written by a young Russian-born corporate lawyer in the City of London. “Great Networking – The art and practice of building authentic professional relationships” by Alisa Grafton appeared earlier in 2022 and does a fantastic job of persuading young lawyers to get out there and start connecting.

Her candid stories of networking mistakes as well as triumphs showed the importance of bravery and resilience. Her words echo the sentiments of the University of Houston’s research Professor Brene Brown on topics like courage, vulnerability, empathy and shame.

Digital body language

For those who remain predominantly in remote working mode, there was another great book released with a bang in 2021: Erica Dhawan’s “Digital Body Language – How to build trust and connection no matter the distance”.

As well as exploring a host of communication differences across genders, cultures and generations, she helped us understand the huge impact of even the smallest written communication details. Such as the way we start or end our emails and how we message by text and on WhatsApp.

Whilst I have long stressed the importance of skills to read and interpret non-verbal communication to support relationship development, this book blew my mind in terms of how to build remote teams and avoid inadvertently causing digital anxiety and stress. Her work on the trust and power matrix – and the appropriate speed of response across different channels – is formidable: “the disconnect between intention and interpretation is exacerbated by the online disinhibition effect”.

Soft skills in the news

Business schools, leading practitioners and the media have continued to write about the growing importance of soft skills.

In a June 2021 article on “Reboot your human skills” for the Association of MBAs, Debra Stevens (author of Stand Out: 5 key skills to advance your career) highlighted:

  1. Engage: your social skills and the ability to connect authentically
  2. Listen: slow down and ask questions from a place of curiosity
  3. Empathise: a genuine desire to understand someone else’s experience
  4. Collaborate: build, manage and collaborate in the teams of the future
  5. Inspire: storytelling, influencing, persuading and articulating your ideas

The following month, McKinsey research (“Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work”) into 18,000 people in 15 countries identified 56 foundation skills that will help citizens thrive in the future of work. Its four categories were cognitive, digital, self-leadership and interpersonal.

Within the interpersonal category were mobilising systems (role modelling, win-win negotiation, crafting an inspiring vision and organisational awareness), developing relationships (empathy, inspiring trust, humility and sociability) and teamwork effectiveness (fostering inclusiveness, motivating different personalities, resolving conflicts, collaboration, coaching and empowering). Adaptability was seen as a top requirement – closely followed by coping with uncertainty, synthesising messages and achievement orientation.

In September 2022, LinkedIn reported “45% of all LinkedIn Premium jobs posted within the past 3 months mention the importance of communication skills. From your colleagues’ perspective, more than 3 in 5 (61%) of professionals say soft skills in the workplace are just as important as hard skills”. LinkedIn’s analysis of the top soft skills to future-proof your career showed: leadership, communication, problem solving, people management, time management and strategy.

In summer 2022, the Law Society Gazette carried an article which started “But has there been a quieter, but no less profound, transformation in the law’s human side? Empathy, emotional intelligence, collaboration, communication, commerciality, active listening and wellbeing are among the topics receiving closer attention than ever. In fact, these ‘soft skills’ have come to the fore in part because of law’s technological revolution. If robots are handling more of the chores, practitioners need to get better at being lawyers”.  It highlights the following soft skills: how you present yourself, health and welfare, empathy, networking, supervision, communication and commerciality.

Soft skills for current and future leaders

Since the Spring, I have been working with the Managing Partners’ Forum – a membership group of leaders from legal, accountancy and property firms – to investigate the training needs of professional service firm leaders – whether firm-wide, divisional, functional or aspiring.

As you would expect, strategy, business transformation and change management feature high on the list. But soft skills for leaders and the ability to develop consensus through collaboration were also top of the agenda.

The research tapped into the expertise of its extensive advisory board, its partners at the Institute of Directors and Chartered Management Institute and many learning and development leaders.

The main insight was the need for training interventions and learning transfer in the areas of self-awareness (one of the core components of emotional intelligence), adaptability and building engagement, internal relationships and consensus to support better collaboration. Rising up above those silos appears to be a pressing need.

Soft skills in the future?

The learning skills of the 21st century are frequently referred to as “4 C’s,” which include critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating and collaborating. Many comment on the need for contextualised intelligence (CI) and cognitive flexibility (CF).

In September 2022, Forbes magazine ran an article that identified 16 soft skills for the fourth industrial revolution: critical thinking, judgement and complex decision-making, emotional intelligence, creativity, collaboration and teamwork, interpersonal communication, working in gigs, adaptability and flexibility, cultural intelligence, ethical awareness, leadership, managing your personal brand and networking, time management, curiosity and continuous learning, embracing and celebrating change and looking after yourself. I am relieved that these were all things I mentioned in the 2020 book.

The mental health revolution and our ability to face ever more uncertainty puts resilience high on the list. Along with self-care, self-management and compassion and our ability to empower and motivate those around us.

As technology continues its relentless advance, those skills that are “soft” or uniquely human will gain in importance. I can’t say it any better than Greg Orme in his book The Human Edge – How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy” which also focuses on consciousness and collaboration.

Having qualified as an interpersonal mediator towards the end of 2021, I can attest to the fact that our ability to manage emotions (a core element of emotional intelligence), negotiate and manage conflict are valuable but difficult and increasingly important soft skills to master – regardless of your role or seniority.

I also reflected recently on my training as a psychotherapist and the work of Carl Rogers (father of the Humanistic Person-Centred school of therapy) for a talk to firm leaders. He suggested that the universal skills of interpersonal relationships were empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. They are easy to say but can take a lifetime to master.

Kim Tasso is a psychologist and management consultant specialising in the professions. One of her seven books is “Essential Soft Skills for Lawyers” published by Globe Law and Business. Her original article on soft skills is at Essential soft skills for lawyers – author Kim Tasso’s research findings – Lexology.