Should 'Soft Skills' Be Key Executive Traits?

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 6:01 PM EST

Should Soft Skills Be Key Executive TraitsLarge tech firms are seeking executives with a different type of skill set these days. In addition to traditional business and technical skills, companies are looking for execs that are more emotionally mature: who can communicate, persuade, and get along well with others.

The trend suggests that "warm and fuzzy" is in and "command and control" is out. While most will applaud the transition and consider it long overdue, I don't entirely agree. We'll get to that in a minute.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch, the soft trend is being driven by the diversification of companies like Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle that are increasingly competing with each other in new markets. Hardware companies are moving into software and services and vice versa.

Because of this broadening market scope, organizations are becoming more complex and of the "matrix" type. That means leaders have to be able to influence others that don't work for them directly in order to get things done. And that translates to a need for execs who can communicate and persuade.

According to Kelly Kay, a partner with executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, "It's a different type of skill set than the traditional command-and-control personality. They're looking for a more subtle, sophisticated type, someone who is an influencer."

Recruiting firms are applying complex personality profiling and psychometric testing to measure soft skills like emotional intelligence, thinking style, and personal values. But, according to Steve Winings, a partner at Korn/Ferry, that's not so easy: "Measuring the intangible skill set is the harder part of the equation."

So, before all you hard-line leadership types start jumping out of windows and all the "soft skill" proponents say I told you so, let me offer a few words of caution and a big fat dose of reality:

  • Trends are called trends for a reason. The one thing that's consistent about management trends is that they're always changing. Today's hot new trend can end up as nothing more than an over-hyped fad.
  • People are diverse and that, of course, includes managers and executives. We have our strengths and weaknesses. Successful organizations are made up of leaders with diverse skill sets that complement each other.
  • One size executive does not fit all organizational needs. According to Winings: "I ask clients whether they are planning an evolution or a revolution. You need a strong leader to pull off a revolution." That said, "You can't have an entire company of revolutionaries."
  • Most companies, especially smaller ones, don't require complex and expensive matrix management structures and therefore don't necessarily need as much of an emphasis on persuasion and influence.
Bottom line. Of course it would be great if every executive was empathetic, a great communicator, and better suited to leading by example and persuasion than command and control. But that's no more realistic than the idea of a whole company of over-performing, highly-productive employees.

So, when it comes to hiring execs, CEOs, boards, and HR VPs should primarily:

  1. Develop a reasonable and accurate spec for the needs of that particular job function
  2. Look for a fit in terms of the company's culture or DNA
  3. Seek a skill set that complements the rest of the management team
And give the trends a rest.

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