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The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Two women looking at a computer screen.

SHRM has partnered with Security Management magazine to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. 

"Hard skills will get you the interview—soft skills will get you the job." David Lammert, a 17-year veteran of security industry recruiting and current president of Pinnacle Placements in San Francisco, is a big believer in this adage. And he's not the only one.

"We have all seen situations where the decision to hire—when two or more candidates present the same level of hard skills' strength—is made with soft skills as the differentiator," says recruiter Rebecca Bayne, the president of Bayne Consulting & Search in Broomfield, Colo. "It triggers the gut-level instinct of the hiring manager and determines who will get the offer." 

"And soft skills," Lammert adds, "will also determine how well you perform in the job, and how long you do it." 

Other recruiters are on the same wavelength as Lammert and Bayne on the importance of soft skills. Although hard skills like specialized knowledge and technical expertise in an industry subsector are still essential, a successful leader needs a broad soft skill set to navigate different managing situations, recruiters say. 

Given the importance of soft skills, five industry recruiters were asked to share which skills they believed to be most crucial in today's hiring market. In these discussions, two broad soft skill sets—communication ability and emotional intelligence—came up time and again. Recruiters explained how these skills apply to specific managerial situations, and they discussed the soft skills of the future. 


For many recruiters, communication ability reigns supreme when it comes to soft skills. 

"The most important soft skill is communication. It's the foundation of every other soft skill," says Jane Snipes, managing partner at NorthStar Recruiting in Florence, S.C.

 "In my experience, communication skills are paramount to one's capability to execute and deliver the day-to-day requirements of leadership and having oversight for a team, small or large," Bayne says. 

In Lammert's view, communication skills are an umbrella that covers several individual talents that have many applications, both inside and outside the firm. 

"It's such an important skill set—there's so much interaction internally [in a company]," he says. "It covers speaking, active listening skills, presentation skills and more." 

For example, a manager's speaking and conversation skills will be a huge asset in working with vendors and external business partners outside the company, as well as technical staffers, C-suite executives and the CEO. 

"In this fast-paced business environment, the ability to communicate clear and concise messages is crucially important," Lammert explains. 

Another key asset under the communications umbrella is the ability to be an effective storyteller. For an aspiring manager, the value of this skill begins in the interview—the ability to communicate and frame one's career progression as a purpose-driven narrative that is gaining momentum is "critically important for a successful candidate," Lammert says. 

After the manager lands the job, storytelling continues to be an asset. "It also helps you become an influencer wherever you are in the organization," he adds. 

Communication skills are also crucial for a manager in working with direct reports, recruiters say. Successful managers have a desire to coach, facilitate and develop talent, and this takes continual—and sometimes nuanced and sensitive—communication. 

"In general, those who achieve the greatest success in their careers have a genuine interest in those around them and are skilled in communicating," Snipes says. 

For years, employee surveys have found versions of "I don't like working for my boss" as the most common reason for people leaving a job. 

Although there may be various reasons why a manager is disliked, a common one stems from the manager's failure to adequately communicate how valuable an employee's contributions are. The employee winds up feeling undervalued and unappreciated, Snipes says.   

"People don't leave companies, they leave managers, and the common factor lacking in those managers who chase away great talent is the ability to genuinely appreciate the value an individual has to the company and to consistently communicate that value," she explains. 

For managers, the lesson here is not only that communication skills are vital, but that they need to be consistently used. Sometimes, otherwise articulate managers will fail to communicate due to being too self-absorbed—they are occupied with their own career advancement and impressing the organization's senior leaders, rather than attentive to their direct reports. "Many managers focus on themselves instead of serving those they lead," Snipes says. 

Finally, there's another communication-related skill that's a key asset for managers—the ability to establish a safe space for honest two-way communication, says Kevin Spagone, vice president of Reitman Personnel Branford, Conn. 

This type of communication needs to be embedded in the company's culture, so that employees feel comfortable in offering honest views without fear of reprisal or relationship damage, he explains. Not only will this help employee retention, it will also help the firm's reputation among potential employees, which will help recruitment efforts. 

"Leaders who foster a culture where open, honest two-way feedback is the norm," he explains, "are savvy enough to realize that this gives them a competitive advantage in the marketplace."

Emotional Intelligence

Besides communication skills, emotional intel­ligence has become an important attribute for candidates in the current job market, says recruiter Stephanie Campbell of Security and Investigative Placement in Bethesda, Md. "I am finding more and more interest in that skill set," she says.  

Emotional intelligence (often abbreviated as EQ) is the ability to perceive another's emotions, reactions and perspective, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. In the world of management, it has many applications, recruiters say.  

Campbell illustrates by relating a question she asks clients when trying to go beyond the job description to get a strong handle on what type of candidate would be a good fit. 

"When we're working with a client, we will sometimes ask, 'What is it that's not in the description that you are looking for?'" she says. "What's that extra bit, that's sort of between the lines?"

The answer is often "a lot of EQ skills." These include working well as a teammate, empathetic listening, building consensus and an ability to be persuasive and to motivate. 

Professionals are rarely required to answer the question, "Why are we doing this?" she says. Emotional intelligence is a huge asset for a manager who is trying to explain this in such a way that will motivate teams to embrace initiatives, she continues. 

EQ is also an asset in the interview itself, because it helps candidates demonstrate their value, Snipes adds. 

"The high EQ ones are fine-tuned to how they are perceived," she says. "They're not just leaning on their laurels. They have actively done the research on the company, and so they can give examples of potential contributions that are directly relevant…. They are making really good impressions."

Lammert is also convinced of the value of emotional intelligence, and says it bolsters a manager's communication skill set. 

For example, managers with high EQ are aware of their audience; they know that different employees have different learning styles and interests, and they can tailor messages and delivery to fit each employee. 

"One case may call for more of a visual message, another case more of a technical type of message," he says.

Skill Gaps

While there is a near-uniform consensus on the importance of communication ability and emotional intelligence, these skills are hard to find in some candidates, recruiters say. Some observe that an overreliance on technology is eroding person-to-person communication.

"Communication skills are becoming seriously lacking," Snipes says. "We've become a society, a world, so focused on communicating electronically that the ability to strike up a conversation in person with another human being is becoming a lost art, particularly with the younger generations."

"The more the younger generations communicate electronically," she adds, "the less practice they'll have communicating in person and the more often that lack of skill will be noticed." 

Bayne voices a similar view. "I believe that some of the technology we use on a daily basis has changed our approach to communication and made some of us a bit lazy," she says. "This has most clearly affected younger generations who have learned to communicate more frequently with those tools, instead of using traditional verbal or written communication."

And Snipes sees another communication-related issue that is becoming more common with younger professionals. As the use of LinkedIn becomes ubiquitous in the business world, some younger candidates are using it as a social network instead of a professional network. 

"These users are using profile pictures from social situations, with nary a thought as to how the picture might be perceived by a prospective employer," Snipes says. 

Her advice is simple: keep professional photos professional. "I suggest avoiding the 4 Bs in profile pictures—no beer, boats, baseball caps or other people's body parts (that is, no one else's chin, arm, hair or shoulder)."   

Communication gaps are not the only deficiency, recruiters say. In the area of emotional intelligence, self-awareness can be a subtle yet important attribute for a manager to have, but some lack it, Lammert says. 

"It's that seeking of feedback, the willingness to admit mistakes and take responsibility for actions," he says. 

One possible reason is that, unlike other skills that can be linked to performance metrics, "self-awareness is not as easy to measure," and not as frequently talked about, he adds. Still, it is a great quality to have, and self-aware managers often realize the importance of continuous growth. 

"It can also drive a desire for development, and a desire to take on leadership roles," he explains. 

Another subtle-yet-valuable soft skill that seems to be lacking in many managers these days is the ability to question assumptions, says Spagone. With technology and analytics developing at lightning speed, a successful manager can't hold on to traditional ways of solving problems.  

"There is a key subtle difference in the ability to identify a challenge without assuming that it can be solved the same way it was a year or two ago," Spagone explains.  

Take for example a manager who has found that one component of the firm's security program has fallen out of compliance. That manager should not assume that the traditional methods of addressing that problem are still valid. 

"They must consistently question how decisions are reached, while still adhering to consistent standards, such as regulatory requirements," he says. 

Skill Sets

But while some managers may need to fill skill gaps, others pull together several soft skills to build a skill set that is especially effective in today's industry.

For example, Bayne cites the common industry reality that companies continue to try to do more with less, even though the pace of business continues to speed up. 

"Anyone in our industry who is good at what they do has more on their plate than ever, and is busier than they have ever been before," she says. "Because of that, the job needs to be done right the first time, for efficiency in productivity and to maintain the highest level of customer retention." 

Managers who can survive, and even thrive, in this environment usually combine communication skills with the ability to work under pressure, a knack for troubleshooting, and an insistence on maintaining integrity and a code of ethics so no corners are cut, Bayne says.

Spagone mentions another persistent reality in the industry—the view held by some company leaders that some departments are cost centers that distract (albeit a necessary one) from the overall business goals and financial targets of the firm.   

In this environment, certain managers have the right combination of business understanding, executive presence and a focus on vision, goals and transparency, and this skill set helps top executives think of their departments in a less limited way. 

"It's about breaking the mold," Spagone says. 

Bayne agrees, and adds that some of the soft skills in a desired skill set evolve over time. She offers the example of executive presence. 

"The executive presence which now seems to garner the highest level of respect is very different than it was in previous decades," she explains. "More than ever, leaders are expected to be transparent, approachable and in the trenches with their teams, rather than delivering orders from above."

Furthermore, Bayne cites another relevant trend in the industry: an organizational focus on developing a strong and distinctive culture. In that environment, managers who have combined the soft skills of coaching, team building and teaching are often sought after. 

"Coaching, team building and teaching often tie back to specific areas of corporate culture, and because they are being demanded from the most recent additions to the talent pool, they are in the spotlight more than ever," she explains. "They are now considered critical by both candidates and companies."

Finally, Spagone says it is important to keep in mind that the combination of soft skills needed will also depend on the circumstances surrounding the position being filled. 

"Companies and cultures are unique. And all new hires are about addressing an organizational challenge of some kind," he says.

Skills of the Future 

"We used to struggle with candidates that were heavily institutionalized–leaders who had been successful inside of their own insular corporate cultures, but who were unable to adapt in a different environment," Spagone explains. "They were not agile enough to be effective in a new or different organization."

But this is becoming less common, as businesses are more interconnected than ever. To compete, companies must be increasingly agile. 

Team building will still be crucial, but in a more strategic and fluid way, so that interdependent teams are staffed with members possessing portable skills. They may trade members, interlock if necessary and work at an increasingly rapid pace, and managers must be able to make strategic decisions on the fly and nimbly rearrange all the pieces.  

"Leaders must continue to understand where they need to add to their roster," Spagone says, "and what skills can be groomed, what can be replaced or outsourced, or shared among their team—and themselves."  

Mark Tarallo is senior editor of Security Management magazine.

This article is adapted from Security Management magazine with permission from ASIS © 2019. All rights reserved.


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