Are soft skills the new hard skills?

Ask the person sat next to you whether they consider the following to be hard or soft skills:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • People management
  • Negotiating and influencing
  • Problem-solving

Chances are, they’ll class most of them as soft skills. And, let's be honest, soft skills have a bit of an image problem. Certainly when compared to hard skills, which tend to be technical, and rely on a number of years training, as well as a certain level of intellect. Without hard skills, the business wouldn’t exist so, quite rightly, they’re held in high esteem.

Now ask the same person which of the following they consider to be essential to business success:

  • Pitching to prospective clients
  • Managing multiple projects or client matters
  • Negotiating with clients over fees
  • Consistently completing work to a high standard and on time
  • Supervising and developing junior members of the team

Most people would view all of these things as critical to business success. And yet, when we consider the skills they rely on, they tend to be the ones from our list of soft skills – things like communication, influencing, negotiation, planning, project management and people management. That’s right, the ones with the bad rep.

Another way of looking at the importance of soft skills is to consider the root causes of internal failings and client complaints. In our experience, these things tend to stem from poor communication, bad planning or a lack of management (i.e. a lack of soft skills), rather than a lack of technical skills.

The lack of soft skills also seems to be holding businesses back. In 2015, IoD members said a lack of soft skills was the number 1 barrier to future growth. Similarly, a recent British Gas survey revealed that more than half of employers have turned down candidates because they lacked the soft skills (and personality) needed to perform the role.

If we look to the future, we might also say that these skills will become even more important. With the growth in automation and flexible delivery models, clients might find it even harder to differentiate between competitor's technical offerings. This will mean that they will focus more on skills like relationship management, collaboration and creative problem-solving as measures of value.

So, with this all in mind, is it time to change our attitude to soft skills and accept that they are the new hard skills?

A new era for business development?

A growing perception that the interests of business and society are misaligned means many business leaders are rethinking how they lead and manage their organization’s strategy and initiatives. Some have decided to grant sustainability a position at a senior level, with the creation of new roles such as chief sustainability officer and CSR Manager. Others, however, have pursued a decentralized approach and allocated various sustainability responsibilities throughout departments and levels of management.

There’s no one size fits all approach, but I do wonder if we are perhaps missing an opportunity to make the much needed shift in operating models and regain trust in business. Rather than new roles or new responsibilities might we make more progress by redefining existing roles? In particular a role crucial for sustainable growth – business development.

I think business development has a vital role to play in this next phase of business life – but in a very different way to how business development was previously pigeon-holed as “schmoozing”, sales and the engine for growing profit only. In a nutshell. here’s how and why:

1. Business Development is an external demonstration of your values in action.

People buy from people and companies they trust. Trust is earned through consistent values-led behaviours across your business. Business Development professionals often hold relationships with new and existing clients. Increasingly clients identify themselves as “being socially responsible”, require suppliers to mirror their ethical approach (private and public sector e.g. Wellbeing and Future Generations Act in Wales, Social Value Act in England) and such credentials are a major factor influencing brand loyalty (Goldman Sachs GS Sustain 2007).  This presents an opportunity to drive new sales, win new work and opens up new markets - all whilst being true to you and your values!

How does your Business Development strategy/team reflect you and your values? How does your approach differentiate you in the marketplace? How do you build and retain relationships with clients and targets? How would clients and targets describe your company, and their experience of your company? How do you drive and reward business development activity?

2. Business Development will deliver sustainable growth

In a world where unethical practices are increasingly exposed and society is growing intolerant of “uncaring” behaviour, corporate and brand reputations can be ruined in seconds. The precedent to take the long term view over short term gains is growing. Business Development needs to focus on strategic sales that build value for stakeholders, not just shareholders.

How do you measure the performance of your business development team? What behaviours do your metrics drive in your Business Development activity? How is success defined?  

Business Development is one of those terms that means different things to different people. For us, it means sustainable growth underpinned by a clear purpose, authentic values and strong relationships.

Is business development adding real value to your business?