Leadership & Talent Developers: Stop Avoiding Hard Skills and Instead, Embrace Them

It’s simple!!!

If you want that much-desired but seldom-achieved top management support for your programs, you have to incorporate hard skills into them!!!

Did you ever wonder why, decade after decade, many CEOs and top-line executives have such a low opinion of your leadership and talent development programs?  It is because they do not feel that your current programs directly help executives to operate the business which requires the use of hard skills to achieve the company’s financial, operating, and strategic business objectives every fiscal year.  For the most part, they consider your programs as nice-to-have while being designed for the soft skills utilized by lower management.


Soft skills generally include interpersonal skills and attributes (communicating, listening, motivating, creative thinking, counselling, etc.), leadership behaviors (servant, morality, trust, authenticity, humility, compassion, integrity, etc.), leadership styles (autocratic, democratic, etc.), and supervisory skills (delegating, problem-solving, reviewing performance, interviewing, etc.).  Conversely, hard skills cover the job-related technical and business skills needed to achieve job success which evolves from the primary function and the four or five key responsibilities listed in the job description.  At the senior and upper management levels, they also include the following hard skills.

A.  Functional Acumen – understanding particular 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 planning, controlling, and leading major multi-functional and/or multi-divisional team efforts to achieve critical business results.

B.  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 performance.

C.  Fiscal Year Business Objectives – for the company, divisions, and key executives.

D.  Business Strategy – understanding the company and divisional strategic plans and objectives, major product/market development plans, financial plans, and contingency plans.

E.  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 results and strategic growth, establishing a highly effective workplace culture, etc.

F.  Management Skills – knowing how to plan (and set objectives), organize, control, and lead important multi-functional projects, and consistently leading.

So, the task here is to understand the particular business objectives of the leaders in your program and, with their line management superiors, agree upon what specific hard and soft skills are needed to facilitate the achievement of those business objectives.


Today, the vast majority of leadership and talent management programs concentrate almost exclusively on soft skills development, especially for first-level supervisors.  To meet the developmental needs of top-line executives, leadership development programs need an appropriate mix of soft and hard skills (25% soft/75% hard skills) as outlined in the following table.

Lower                                   Middle                                                 Senior/Upper

75%-25%                              50%-50%                                              25%-75%

So, the task here is to reflect the appropriate percentage of soft and hard skills in your program’s content.


Regarding leadership and talent management programs, it is critically important to acknowledge that the ultimate customer for all your programs is the CEO and top-line executives.  To that end, there are three highly-reputable articles that highlight the need for the inclusion of hard skills in their eyes.

The first one is by Jack and Patti Phillips in their August 19, 2020 article in the Chief Learning Officer magazine which indicates that the estimated $200 billion spent globally each year on leadership development receives little return on investment from the business leaders who are their customers.  They point out the following: “According to a recent Fortune survey, only 7 percent of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders, and just 10 percent said that their leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact.”  They also note that these viewpoints are consistently reinforced in the negative press it receives in worldwide professional journals and from the business press.

The second one is by Jeff Pfeffer in his January 2016 article In the McKinsey & Company Quarterly entitled “Getting Beyond the BS of Leadership Literature”, who concludes that there are several problems inherent in the majority of LD programs.  First, leadership is framed almost solely within the context of morality, such as authenticity, telling the truth, integrity, agreeableness, and so on.  Second, framing leadership in that way “substantially oversimplifies the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices leaders confront”.  Third, he states that “placing leaders and their actions into good and bad seriously oversimplifies a much more complex reality and continues to reinforce a problematic, trait-based and personality-centric view of human behavior.”  In other words, such programs overemphasize the soft skills of leadership while minimizing or avoiding the hard skills that are needed to achieve the required business outcomes.  In doing so, they provide little practical business value.

The third one is by Ron Carucci in his January 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review 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 executive 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, these four patterns reinforce the above 75% to 25% hard/soft skills mix for senior and upper management, and the overall need to incorporate hard skills into most leadership and talent development programs.

When viewed together, these three classic articles clearly and powerfully emphasize the need to include the appropriate hard skills into certain leadership and talent development programs will greatly improve their return on investment in the eyes of the CEO and line executives.


There are many reasons that help explain why developers have evolved into primarily using soft skills; some of which are industry-related while others are developer-related.

Industry-related Reasons

  1. There are a multitude of sources of leadership information that successfully inundate leadership and talent developers with programs and program content, as illustrated by the previously-mentioned estimate of $200 billion spent per year. These sources include seminars, conferences, websites, books, consultants, blogs, videos, podcasts, articles, and research reports, among many others.
  2. Most of these sources heavily market their information directly to HR executives and Leadership/Talent Developers.
  3. The vast majority of the above sources deal almost exclusively with soft skills information that is readily available to all developers for quick and easy access in comparison to any information on hard skills which is much more time-consuming and harder to uncover, develop and use.
  4. Most of the purveyors of these sources, like any other business, are interested in selling you their soft skill products and/or services with only a tangential concern whether it is a REAL solution for your developmental need or problem.
  5. Most interactions between the source purveyor’s staff and leadership or talent developers concentrate on soft skills because neither party has the career background and experience to deal with any hard skill information. Therefore, it creates a vicious cycle of dealing only with soft skills that recurs over and over and over again.
  6. No source purveyor management will change its business model of selling soft skills material until their leadership and talent development customers require that relevant hard skills be included.

Leadership and Talent Developer-related Reasons

  1. The vast majority of developers have little or no practical business background in the major functional areas of a business (Finance, Sales, Marketing, Manufacturing, Operations, Product Development, etc.) and therefore shy away from their use.
  2. Most developers are people-oriented and not numbers-oriented, while numbers are emphasized in all functional areas to measure legitimate business results and progress.
  3. Developers have spent most of their careers developing a detailed knowledge base of soft skills and now simply want to teach what they know, without having to learn and apply new and more complex hard skills.
  4. Some developers have become complacent in their world of soft skills and do not want to take the risk of trying to learn and apply new, and more complex hard skills.
  5. Many leadership development programs involving hard skills will likely have to be designed from scratch which is obviously more costly, time-consuming, and difficult to do. However, there are many generic programs covering various hard skills that could be purchased, amended, and reused to teach the appropriate hard skills.
  6. It is much easier to access and use an existing program content, rather than writing a new one.
  7. While purchasing a purveyor’s off-the-shelf program that is well researched and developed, easy to implement, and cost-effective is very tempting; most often it would be like having a solution in search of a problem.
  8. The current emphasis on soft skill programs strongly suggests that the 25%-75% soft-hard skill mix is the same at all levels of management which is the opposite of top management’s viewpoint that more likely reflects the real business world.
  9. Most developers do not recognize that relevant soft skills are best taught when combined with the relevant hard skills.
  10. Most developers do not recognize the fact that when relevant hard and soft skills are tied directly to the achievement of one of the company’s critical business objectives, top management takes notice and begins to recognize the practical business value that such training can provide.
  11. HR and Leadership Development management does not accept the fact that top management does not value their soft skills programs in any meaningful way that directly helps them to effectively operate the business.
  12. Some HR and Leadership Development management personnel do not even try to understand the company’s annual business objectives so that they can uncover what specific hard and soft skills are necessary to achieve them.
  13. HR and Leadership Development management does not accept the fact that, in general, most CEOs and top-line management value hard skills much more than soft skills because they feel hard skills are far more predictive of job success. If appropriate, your programs should reflect that fact.


Jack Bucalo
Jack Bucalo
JACK has led the Global HR function for a Fortune 500 and 1000 international company and several other large international companies. With four years of line experience complementing his HR experience, he believes that the CHRO or HR Leader should play a more direct role in helping the CEO to achieve the company's business objectives and strategic goals, while effectively implementing its administrative duties. In doing so successfully, the CHRO or HR Leader can become an equal business partner with his/her line management peers while becoming more directly involved in the company's operational mainstream, rather than being just an administrative afterthought. As a pragmatic practitioner, Jack publishes detailed and actionable articles on a wide variety on critically-important HR issues on BIZCATALYST 360°. He is also on the advisory board for other web sites. Jack's over 20 years of executive-level HR experience for which he was responsible for company, executive and Board-related matters, form the basis for most of viewpoints.

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