Thursday, November 14, 2013

Balancing Hard Skills and Soft Skills

Today I'm pleased to present another guest post by Sarah Simon.

This post marks another installment in Sarah's series on lessons from the high country.

Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there. -John Wooden

What the Mountain Teaches
My friend John was recently lamenting several missed climbing objectives this summer due to flakey, unreliable partners.  During our chat, it became clear to me that when searching for partners to meet a goal (attain a summit or complete a route), climbers have a tendency to overemphasize the importance of “hard skills” (in this case, technical skills like rock, ice, and snow climbing) while undervaluing “soft skills” (such as reliability, sense of humor, and the ability to stay cool under pressure).

A post for a climbing partner may look something like this:

I need a partner for an attempt on Coxcomb Peak in the San Juans of Colorado in mid-September. Must be able to:
•    Handle exposed scrambling up to 4th class / low 5th class
•    Follow up to YDS 5.6 rock
•    Ascend at a rate of 1,000 – 1,500 feet per hour
•    Execute solid route finding in complex terrain
•    Own a high-clearance 4x4


Despite the fact that this fictitious poster would spend 5-6 hours (one way!) in a vehicle with this stranger and most of the day on-mountain with him or her, nowhere is it mentioned that this person should also:
•    Be able to laugh at her own mistakes
•    Keep his chin up in adverse weather conditions
•    Have solid decision-making skills in the face of an emergency
•    Want to enjoy beer and burgers after the climb
•    Be prepared to discuss The Meaning of Life in a downpour or a whiteout

To be certain, in the alpine element, hard skills matter – a lot!  Heck, they can mean the difference between life and death when the margins of safety are slim.  Many of us have choked back some level of distaste and invited some unlikeable hotshot on the trip by rationalizing: You know, I can’t stand that guy – but he can lead the crux pitch without flinching, so let’s invite him. We must seek balance between hard skills and soft skills in the climbing world. After all, a good sense of humor alone won’t get a person to the summit. The same is quite true for VoC and CX – hard skills need to be carefully balanced with soft skills in a sort of uncertain alchemy.

What This Means for VoC / CX
As our discipline matures and gains greater power in the organization, we must be very careful what we ask for in our team members in terms of soft skills.  The VoC / CX industry is still relatively young, and many hiring managers may be uncertain what to look for in a new hire.  Often the hard skills needed to succeed are obvious (e.g., Six Sigma, SPSS, PMA, etc), but the soft skills required for a VoC / CX practitioner are still rather vague.  Here are some verbatim skills requirements I pulled together from a search of strategic VoC / CX opportunities on LinkedIn:
  • Track record for successfully working on cross-functional teams; ability to gain buy-in and collaborate with team members.
  • Ability and willingness to work in a fast-paced, results oriented environment; ability to change directions quickly.
  • Excellent communication skills, both oral and written, and display confidence when presenting ideas and/or responding to questions when consulted by internal stakeholders.
  • Strong understanding of the strategic marketing function and the role of consumer insights to meet business objectives.
  • Ability to leverage existing learnings, synthesize insights from multiple sources, as well as conduct new research.
  • Strong sense of accountability; able to follow projects and activities through to conclusion, meet deadlines and exceed expectations of others. 
  • Acting as a liaison between product management and the customer.
  • Developing programs focused on enhancing the customer’s life.
  • Proven ability to align across corporate functions.
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills, including the ability to chair meetings or host webinars.
  • Comfortable with ambiguity, creative thinking, and leading change.
  • Resilient and decisive yet maintain a style of openness, responsiveness and willingness to learn.
  • Demonstrated ability to appropriately challenge current practices, thought patterns, and business models.
  • Strong interpersonal skills capable of communicating with and influencing top leaders through logic & persistence.
  • Comfortable with innovation and challenging the status quo in the interest of driving the business to the next level.
  • Comfortable with informed debate and collaborative discussion.
  • Ability to thrive in a highly-matrixed environment.
  • Highly collaborative orientation and strong team player who places the best interests of the organization above personal objectives.
This list is hardly comprehensive, and each organization needs to fine-tune the soft skills needed for their team’s success.  Yet this list illustrates the evolution of our industry toward being able to better define the soft skills of a successful VoC / CX practitioner as our roles become increasingly high-profile.  (See Getting Used to Being in High Places for more on this topic.)

My Challenge

I challenge you first and foremost to place “Focused on the customer experience” or a related, customer-focused goal statement at the very top of your forthcoming job descriptions. Don’t just talk about putting the customer first; embed this reality in your corporate culture by hiring for customer-centric orientation.

Next, ensure your job descriptions accurately reflect the balanced candidate you seek.  That means including soft skill requirements right alongside hard skill requirements.  It’s great to seek an “analytical story-teller with 5+ years of SPSS or SAS and expert program management skills,” but what else will be required of this person?  Innovative solutions creation?  High level of comfort presenting to and interacting with the C-suite?  What about their ability to handle political maneuvering and to be diplomatically persuasive?

What good is having the industry’s best statistician or a recruit with the highest prestige MBA if this individual doesn’t “get” customer experience?  What if our hired hotshot is difficult to get along with in the office or has poor social skills during client on-sites?  What happens if this person is unable to navigate the political waters of the organization?

Hire the right person – the right fit for your team and your strategic objectives (corporate and team level).  Let the competition deal with the highly-qualified “insufferable jerk” or the brilliant savant with zero social skills.  Soft skills are far too important to the success of your program to leave them to chance.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation "big data mining" operation and is happy to live to tell about it.  

4 comments:

  1. Sarah, maybe if John had chosen some climbing partners who were simply reliable he'd have had more fun. I think that just reinforces your point.

    James

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sarah,
      Being a climber myself, I can only echo what James says. In my experience, it's so important to get along with each other as well as 'getting' each other too if you want to get the best out of each other.

      Adrian

      Delete
    2. Hi James,

      Indeed, John's plight this summer prompted me to ask myself: What do I look for in a climbing partner, and are there ways I shortchange myself by overemphasizing hard skills and minimizing the importance of soft skills?

      Then it occurred to me: Wow, this mistake happens all the time in our line of business. Hiring managers are awed by the resume glitter of a fancy-school MBA or the name of a previous employer, only to find out later they've hired someone difficult to get along with or completely lacking in "business social skills."

      I hope this post I've presented here helps CX / VOC hiring teams to resist the temptation to get to know someone before pushing the "hire" button, and to make sure the soft skills are in place to compliment the coveted "how to" credentials.

      Delete
    3. Adrian,

      Indeed, you and I may be the ones most likely to look past he "bright shiny objects" (hard skills, credentials) on a resume to see the person underneath and make sure we can work with them and they can function within our organization before recommending them for employment.

      Many hiring managers in the VoC / CX field are still struggling to define what skills are needed on their team. I want to encourage our cohorts to carefully balance hard skill prerequisites with soft skills to ensure they find the right team mate, not just the candidate with the most boxes checked.

      Delete