It is fair to say that current Leadership Development executives have developed the content of their programs primarily on soft skills. It is also fair to say that line executives are much more concerned with hard skills. Therein is the dilemma!
Before proceeding, we need to define and illustrate the two terms. Soft skills generally include interpersonal skills and attributes (communications, listening, motivation, creative thinking, compassion, counseling, etc.), leadership behaviors (servant, morality, trust, authenticity, humility, integrity, etc.), leadership styles (democratic, autocratic, etc.), and key management skills (writing objectives, planning, delegating, problem-solving, reviewing performance, interviewing, etc.).
Hard skills generally cover those job-related, technical, finance and business skills needed to achieve success in the position. At the lower and middle levels of management, these skills tend to come from the position’s job description – the primary function and the four or five key responsibilities. At the senior and upper levels of management, these skills tend to be more directly related to the particular job’s role in achieving specific business results in the department, division or company while being more broadly business-oriented.
HARD SKILL EXAMPLES FOR SENIOR AND UPPER MANAGEMENT
|1. Functional Acumen – understanding various business functions (sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing, etc.) and sub-functions (for manufacturing, they are production, quality control, manufacturing engineering, inventory control, etc.), along with leading major multi-functional and/or multi-divisional team efforts to achieve critical business results.|
2. Financial Acumen – understanding the company and division Income and Cash Flow Statements and Balance Sheet, sales volume and gross profit margins for major products, budget/profit planning and financial analyses.
3. Fiscal Year Business Objectives – for the company, divisions, and key executives.
4. Business Strategy – understanding the company and divisional strategic plans, major product/market development plans, financial plans and contingency plans.
5. Executive Skills – Board and top management interaction on key business issues, stock market analysis and analyst interaction, championing innovation and continuous improvement, consistently achieving profitable financial and strategic results, creating an effective workplace culture, leadership, and so on.
Since leadership development programs that cover hard skills are not commonplace, a real-life example from a $4 billion company is appropriate. A business needs analysis was conducted for a group of 80 division and business unit presidents who were running businesses ranging from $25 to $400 million per annum. It revealed that the key subjects for the program were Financial Management, Strategic Product/Market Planning, Customer Executive Management Relations, and Leadership.
A highly successful 30-hour program was developed to meet those needs which taught leadership in response to the practical business needs to improve Income and Cash Flow performance, determine the next version of the products/services and find new markets for them (along with the current ones), and examine how to better interact with your customer’s top management to more fully understand their strategic goals and how our products and services could better help them do that. In doing so, hard and soft skills were TAUGHT TOGETHER, within the practical context of the leader’s current business objectives and plans as they currently existed.
SOFT-HARD SKILLS/MANAGEMENT LEVEL MIX
In the CEO and line executive’s eyes, who are the ultimate customers of all leadership development programs, the proportional amount of soft and hard skills varies significantly based on management level. My experience with CEOs and top-line executives in several large companies across four major industries showed that they value the following skills mix in their leaders.
Lower Middle Senior/Upper
75%-25% 50%-50% 25%-75%
Two highly reputable studies support the above skills mix. The first one is Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his January 2016 book entitled “Getting Beyond the BS of Leadership Literature”, who concludes that there are several problems inherent in the majority of LD programs. Such programs that are framed almost solely within the context of soft skills grossly oversimplify a much more complex reality and reinforce a problematic, trait-based and personality-centric view of human behavior.
The second one is the study by Ron Carucci in his January 2016 Harvard Business Review article entitled “A 10-year Study Reveals What Great Executives Know and Do”. After interviewing over 2,700 executives, he concludes there are four recurring patterns of executives skills that distinguish the performance of exceptional executives – knowing the financial and market/product realities of your industry competitors; knowing your company’s functional strengths and weaknesses, and how best to coordinate them in any companywide effort; providing great decision-making based on the use of analytical and quantitative tools and measures for all aspects of the business; and forming deep-trusting business relationships.
In sum, Pfeffer is telling us what subject content should NOT be emphasized, while Carucci is telling us what subject content SHOULD be emphasized, in the leadership development programs for middle, senior and upper management.
THE ANSWER TO THE DILEMMA
The answer to the dilemma is to develop leadership development programs that are reflective of the Soft-Hard Skills/Management Level mix in your company. In doing so, you would better satisfy the business needs (which are typically far different than training needs) of your line executives, who are the ultimate customer. Moreover, the content of these programs should practically apply the appropriate skills to the leader’s actual business objectives, plans, challenges, risks, and problems.