Making a case for soft skills

Magazine excerpt: Andy Lothian looks at the pounds, pence and sense behind self-awareness.

HR and training teams are tasked with the role of identifying, cultivating and developing their organisation’s talent. For these seasoned professionals, the business value of developing people is clear. Unfortunately, a large portion of these talented professionals’ time is spent helping to make that same connection clear to key stakeholders within their own organisations.

During budget reviews, development programmes and the promise of ‘soft skills’ can often lose funding to functions that have a stronger perceived contribution to ‘hard results’ and essential business operations.

The intensity by which HR functions are scrutinised does not appear to be easing up, either. Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report reveals that “60% of executives in this year believe they are holding HR accountable for talent and business results – both a higher proportion than a year ago.”

While HR functions are challenged to connect people initiatives to business performance, executive leaders are faced with a different set of challenges. In addition to their individual leadership responsibilities, every C-suite is charged with making choices about what company assets to invest in and what projects to prioritise.

Heavily anecdotal arguments just don’t hold up anymore – executive leaders simply have too many other deserving investments.

In his 2012 book The Advantage, author Patrick Lencioni says, “An organisation’s strategy is nothing more than the collection of intentional decisions a company makes to give itself the best chance to thrive and differentiate from competitors.”

Holding the future success of the business in their hands, every C-suite has to fund what they believe will yield the greatest return. In a 2013 article entitled Soft Skills in the C-Suite1 Marie Holmstrom, says “Organisations really have two things to work with. They have money and they have people. Leaders have to manage the financial side, but that’s only half the equation.”

As a person who holds dual roles as chief executive and head of people, I’m acutely aware of the intricacies of this complex dynamic. I’ve never seen a boardroom make a decision not to invest in professional development because they don’t care about their people.

What can happen, rather, is that people initiatives lose funding to other business investments because the case for people just isn’t as compelling and clear as other business cases.

While this can surely be deflating for HR functions, the solution lies within their control. Heavily anecdotal arguments just don’t hold up anymore – executive leaders simply have too many other deserving investments.

A survey respondent in the Workforce 2020 report published by Oxford Economics and SAP summarised the ongoing challenge HR functions have in providing clear support for people investment: “It’s always tough to motivate for HR money in any business. The board will not provide us with funds for something that’s not clear.”

So how can we make the case for investing in people clearer and more compelling? How can we collectively toughen up the definition of ‘soft’ skills to show its worth to the most discerning stakeholder groups? It won’t be solved overnight, but there are areas where HR and L&D leaders can move the needle.  

To read the full article go to pages 14-17.

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