04/12/2014 07:33 GMT | Updated 03/02/2015 05:59 GMT

Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

Education and training are often seen as being about knowing how, but this shouldn't come at the expense of knowing when, what, who and, most importantly, why. In days gone by, the route to a successful working life was often seen as getting either 'a trade' or 'an ology'. In a legendary 1980s TV advert for BT, Maureen Lipman was seen counselling an unseen son that "You get an 'ology and you're a scientist!" But times have changed.

Getting on the ladder

A 2014 survey by education providers, Kaplan, showed that 'technical knowledge' ranked only 24th out of 30 possible competencies sought by graduate recruiters, as organisations seek candidates who are confident team players with communication skills. (Note that, at this stage, leadership ranks even lower.) Necessary technical skills can be trained later, but they are no longer seen as the whole foundation and subjects studied are only part of the story. Endorsing the report, the CBI commented, "89% of British employers consider work attitude and character as the most significant element in the recruitment process." Although Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for graduate destinations in 2013 don't entirely bear this out, theologists and music graduates are more likely to be employed than their Business Management counterparts.

A few rungs higher

If this rising - or perhaps increasingly acknowledged - need for candidates with soft skills attracts employers at graduate recruitment level, it is also being confirmed in terms of the talent needs of organisations on a global level. Oxford Economics' report Global Talent 2021 showed that, apart from a pervasive need for understanding of all things digital, the talents most required and sought were largely in the 'soft' arena, including; agile thinking skills, dealing with complexity and ambiguity, relationship building, collaboration, and cultural sensitivity. Nor is digital knowledge an outlier in this picture. In an age of networking, online collaboration and sharing, it is not just software mastery that is key, it is the ability to work effectively with others through a whole range of media.

The gap isn't stationary

If leadership remains the most urgent priority for organisations across the world, this does not reflect a lack of leadership development in the past as tomorrow's organisations require tomorrow's leaders, not yesterday's. Demographics, technology, geo-politics and global competitiveness all impact on the kinds of leadership we require: mentally agile, cross-functional, innovative and inclusive. These are also consequences of the decline of 'command and control' mind-sets. CEOs must collaborate with business partners, as well as working collaboratively with those leading at lower levels within their organisations and ensure that their leadership skills are also enhanced and developed.

Deloitte University Press' report, Global Human Capital Trends 2014, summed it up in four words: "21st-century leadership is different." It emphasises the ability to innovate and inspire others, developing multiple generations of 'leaders-to-be', as well as resilience, adaptability, intellectual agility.

Building the bridge

Although it may increasing happen at many levels within an organisation, a key aspect of truly great leadership has arguably not changed since those BT adverts and while hard skills will be necessary - and will vary considerably from role to role - it is by developing leaders' soft skills that organisations will close the skills gap.

Now, more than ever, leadership is not; a job description, a set of duties or a checklist of tasks, nor is it a set of theories or processes that individuals can simply implement. Leadership may incorporate these things, but it is also a set of behaviours - including: encouraging, challenging, inspiring and communicating (both in the sense of speaking and of listening).

If organisations are seeking communicative collaborators who think and act flexibly among their graduate recruits, it's not that these skills are necessarily innate. A more important difference is that hard skills (financial management, technical knowledge and so on) are relatively quick and easy to develop. Behavioural change - which is perhaps the single biggest difference between a mediocre leader and a great one (and also between a manager, geared to controlling, and a leader, geared to inspiring) - takes commitment, persistence, support and time.

The Kaplan report's conclusions include the observation that "Employers are recruiting for attitude and training for competence", which is borne out by the very different emphasis placed on technical knowledge two years after recruitment (when it is ranked 2nd in importance, rather than 24th). Given the critical difference that soft skills can make to a developing leader's impact and performance, could it be that employers are happy to invest post-recruitment in technical skills but are operating in the expectation that some critical behaviours - those that we might lump together as 'people skills' - are innate? It's an assumption that could potentially do their recruits, and their organisations, a crucial disservice.