The Missing Executive Skill Set That's Hurting American Business

For the past few years, just about every senior executive has had the words “skills gap” on their lips. In fact, a report released last year by Adecco Staffing US found a whopping 92% of executives felt that there was a skills gap in their worker pool. And so thousands of jobs go unfilled every month because companies can’t find the right people with the right skills to fill those positions.

So there’s no point in harping on the need (still) for technical and job skills. What we want to ask is: what skills are missing from those executives?

The answer is “different ones, but the same.” No, we’re not trying to be cryptic: like any other employees, senior executives are often found to be lacking in the very skills needed for their job on a day-to-day basis. But whereas a programmer would need programming languages, or a sales rep would need selling skills, managers and senior executives need soft skills.

Soft skills are not considered “soft” because they are easy to acquire or of dubious use. They are called “soft” simply because they are difficult to define, harder to test for, and highly dependent on circumstances. Indeed, “flexible and adaptable” skills might be a better label than “soft.”

Still, some companies have gone to great lengths to define and measure such skills. For example, a recently released report from Psychological Associates found four “soft skills” areas that executives being groomed for promotion consistently rate low on:

  • Coaching and providing feedback
  • Knowing the business/industry
  • Inspiring others
  • Showing vision

And an internal training study commissioned by DuPont’s Learning & Development department listed these soft skills as ones up-and-coming leaders need, but that were often lacking in recent promotions:

  • Communication Skills
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Coaching
  • Decision Making
  • Meeting Effectiveness

Already, with just two reports, we can begin to see some similarities. Both mention coaching/feedback as necessary, but lacking, for example. (In fact, if we had to pick one specific skill that executives are lacking, it’s that.) Both signal crucial elements of critical thinking: gathering information (knowing the business), showing vision, and decision making. And both list people skills: inspiring others, communication skills, and again, coaching.

Why are these skills so lacking in executives? As TalentSmart co-founder Travis Bradberry says in a recent Forbes piece, “Companies …[tend to] promote leaders for their knowledge and tenure, rather than their skill in inspiring others to excel.” At the same time, executives are neither getting the training or experience to rectify the situation; Bradberry continues, “Once leaders get promoted, they enter an environment that tends to erode their emotional intelligence. They spend less time in meaningful interactions with their staff and lose sight of how their emotional states impact those around them.”

It’s a sad state of affairs. But it also one that organizations can do something about. As opposed to popular wisdom, which holds that people skills are a matter of innate talent, research has shown—and our experience has borne out—that soft skills, like any other sorts of skills, can be learned.

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