Feeling the pain: Employers respond to the soft skills deficit

The soft skills deficit

Five years ago, while teaching full-time as an English instructor at a community college, I became painfully aware of my students’ lack of soft skills. When I walked into class, I greeted my students. Many times, only a few would respond. The rest stared blankly at their smartphones. When I passed students on campus, I noticed similar behavior. Lots of heads in phones. Lots of headphones on. Lots of blank, sad faces. When students chose to engage in conversation, they often seemed awkward and unsure about what to say and how to interact.

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At first, I assumed they simply lacked strong communication skills. Since I taught English Comp and Oral Communication, I made it my mission to educate and re-mediate. I tried. But I couldn’t help students who didn’t register for my courses. And I also couldn’t force feed unwilling mouths (or brains).

That was 2014. There was something in the air… it was a real turning point in the way I viewed my students. Why?

The role of technology

At first I assumed my own perception had simply changed, or I’d just gained new awareness. But statistics prove it wasn’t my perception after all. Pew Research data from 2014-15 cites that Gen Z respondents claimed to use their smartphones “several times a day,” while VisionCritical research shows that Gen Z respondents in 2015 spent an average of 15.4 hours per week on their smartphones and another 10.6 hours on their laptops. And if you want to really dig into learning about the soft skills gap, pick up a copy of Bruce Tulgan’s fantastic book on this topic (I’m a huge fan).

As employers and educators, we are starting to feel the effects of Gen Z’s addiction to digital devices and internet access. In the end, digital natives grow up and become candidates for employment. And guess who’s left to deal with the great chasm between the ideal candidate profile, which features strong soft skills (which we all need to work well with others), and the reality of today’s average candidate? The employer. YOU.

What are you going to do about it?

I hope you’re feeling the pain as you read this. I’m not trying to be mean. But I know this to be true–most of us simply won’t take action and make changes until we feel pain or desperation. And most of us won’t spend money on training until we notice negative effects in the workplace.

For years, researchers (ahem… like me) have shared statistics, information, and tips about soft skills training, the soft skills gap, and the need for awareness about this upcoming epidemic. Unfortunately, most employers and educators didn’t take action. Developing training programs takes time, costs money, and can feel incredibly frustrating. Why should you have to pay for training? Isn’t it the university’s problem or failure? Maybe. Why should the university have to deal with it? Isn’t it the high school’s fault or failure? Maybe. Why should the high school have to handle it? Shouldn’t the parents do a better job? Probably.

Choices and actions

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When we stop pointing fingers, we’ll ultimately realize we’re left with two choices:

1. Continue ignoring the problem. This will get us into a greater bind, lead to organizational chaos, and cause our businesses to lose more money and become less productive.

2. Accept reality. We’re stuck with the problem, so let’s search for solutions.

Implement mentoring programs. Reevaluate your recruiting and hiring process. Take a hard look at your onboarding process. Train your trainers to teach soft skills, and if you have no full-time trainers, hire me to train your hiring managers to teach soft skills or to directly train entry-level employees or coach selected struggling employees.

There are solutions. And as with most situations in life, we become ready to take action when the fear of moving forward becomes less intimidating than the misery of our current situation.

I am here when you’re ready to move.

Contact me to discuss soft skills training, executive coaching, and other solutions.

 

Truth-telling in the workplace

It’s the age of truth-telling in the workplace. #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport are shaking things up; many people who have kept quiet for years are becoming brave enough to find voices.

What does this mean for human resources professionals? Awareness, training, and  attention to detail in reporting, as well as policies and procedures. And how does this affect other employees?

pexels-photo-622135While many victims of sexual harassment and assault feel emboldened to share their stories, others remain quiet for fear of losing their jobs or other forms of retaliation. Some employees may learn of situations involving harassment or assault in the workplace, yet fail to report these incidents for the same reasons.

Often, reporting sexual harassment or assault is difficult. Becoming a truth teller isn’t always the wide, easy path.

Let me tell you about two of my own experiences.

In my early 20s, while working in a middle management role, I was sexually harassed by a man in his 50s. He tried to convince me that I’d behaved in a way that gave him the impression that I wanted physical contact with him. He left my office angrily. He was in upper management and played a prominent role in the organization’s financial welfare.

I never reported the incident. Years later, I felt guilty for failing to report. I’m nearly certain I wasn’t the only woman he harassed. Yet at the time, I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. Because I’d seen how similar reports were handled within the organization, I felt certain my report would either be brushed off, or that somehow, I would be the one to suffer (asked to leave or retaliated against), not him. I loved my job, and I didn’t want that to happen. So I kept quiet.

Fast forward 10 years.

I worked for a different organization. I learned that a colleague was enduring sexual harassment, and the perpetrator was in upper management. Without giving it much thought, I reported the incident. What happened afterward is the reason I kept quiet a decade earlier. I ultimately felt compelled to file retaliation charges with a government agency against the organization.

Here’s the real question I know you want to ask me: Do I regret reporting the incident on behalf of my colleague? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Were there repercussions due to reporting the incident? Yes. Would I still report the incident today? You better believe it.

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There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. 

For me, reporting the second incident felt like the right thing to do–I had no doubts about that. There will never be a time when I will withhold the truth again in my life about my own suffering or the suffering of others. As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, and adult sexual harassment, and after keeping silent too many times, I no longer have the ability to remain quiet. It is my responsibility, and thankfully, it is my right.

 

 

 

 

Higher ed: Branding your campus

Recently, my family and I traveled across two states to the Gulf Coast to visit the beach. My daughter is still at that wonderful age of resisting the notion of “potty breaks.” Half an hour after a pit stop, she insisted on stopping again–immediately. We passed two exits, no buildings or signs indicating businesses in sight. As we neared the third exit near Goodman, Mississippi, I encouraged my husband to take the exit. We were in luck. Three miles after exiting, we came across Holmes Community College. We’d hit the jackpot.

I’ve worked at four colleges/universities as a director of career services, academic advisor, and English faculty member. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about institutions of higher education–or any educational institution, for that matter–it’s this: you can form a pretty accurate first impression within five minutes of walking on campus. How? By paying attention to the way people treat you. Let’s extend this to any place of business. How many times have you walked into a restaurant, physician’s office, or boutique and been almost immediately turned off by the lack of warmth? How many times have you walked in for a job interview and felt immediately welcomed and at ease because of the way people treated you in the parking lot, the lobby, and hallways? If this isn’t proof that interpersonal skills–soft skills–make or break an organization’s ability to earn business, I don’t know what is.

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Immediately after driving onto campus at Holmes Community College, people–faculty, staff, and students–waved, nodded, and verbally greeted us. When we entered the student center to find a restroom, the security guard smiled and asked if we needed help, a student opened the door for me and greeted me, and a woman walked out of an office to ask if we needed assistance all within a matter of 30 seconds. The women who worked in the bookstore were equally as friendly and helpful (and I insisted on purchasing a Holmes Bulldogs t-shirt to represent their excellent soft skills and campus brand).

Losing sight of people

Too often in higher education, we’re obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses. Bigger state-of-the-art buildings. Rad new programming ideas. Next, newer, tech. More students. I get it. It’s a business, right? We’re obsessed with the bottom line. We’re bean counting, as one of my former VP’s used to say as he shook his head sadly. We’re counting beans–and I understand why–but we ought to be careful that we don’t become obsessed with numbers. If we lose sight of people, our ability to attract and retain quality employees and students wains. If we sacrifice the quality of our human resources in order to boost the quantity of our student population, our students will ultimately suffer, too. 

And remember that first impression I was talking about, the one you feel when you walk on campus, the reflection of your campus brand? That’s not something you can fake. Students are smart. If your employees are content thanks to a positive workplace culture, your students (and potential students, their family members, potential donors, and alumni) will sense it. That becomes part of your brand. The opposite is true. If your employees are disgruntled, frustrated, and showing up simply out of obligation (or worse, to continue earning a paycheck), that is your brand.

The solution

The bottom line is this: the soft skills your employees possess translate into the vibe they emanate. That vibe becomes your campus brand.

If you want to improve your campus brand, improve your workplace culture. If you want to improve your culture, take a look at your employees’ soft skills. If you’re a higher education administrator, and you want to improve your employees’ soft skills, start by taking a look at your own. 

Ready and willing to take action to improve your campus brand by seeking soft skills solutions? Reach out to me for help.

 

 

The bravest thing a leader can do

What is the bravest thing any small business owner, leader, or manager can do? What is the boldest question a leader can ask? I propose that it’s this: “What’s my part of the problem?”


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Recently, a lifelong friend and small business owner contacted me for help with executive coaching, particularly in the area of soft skills training. He confessed that he felt overwhelmed by conflicts within his company related to internal communication, lack of collaboration, and systemic problems with corporate culture. What surprised me about our conversation is that he did not rant about his employees. He didn’t whine about their performance or attitudes. He did cite a few specific instances as examples of poor communication and difficulties in the workplace, but he primarily focused on his part of the problems.

Do you know how refreshing it is to offer executive career coaching and soft skills training to companies whose owners accept responsibility for their part of the problem? I think it’s incredibly brave when leaders step up to accept ownership of their  deficiencies. It’s even more powerful when they’re willing to do something to amend the situation by seeking help. “What can I do to make this right? How can I be a better boss?”

Brave questions lead to business solutions

These are the right questions! These are questions leading to solutions. These are questions generating return on investment, greater productivity, retention of excellent employees, improved morale, and better company culture.

This friend and business owner is willing to work on his part of the problem, and he will. But keep in mind that problems in the workplace typically involve multiple people. And when people are involved, things get messy. Each person usually contributes to the problems which exist in the workplace; you can’t pin a problem on one person most of the time. So each person, at some point, may need coaching or training (individually or as a group). For example, if a leader recognizes problems with communication within the company, it’s unlikely that there is only one team member responsible for the breakdown in communication. It takes at least two people to communicate.

Problem-solving is a collaborative process

While it’s great for a leader to take responsibility for his own actions, a leader cannot shoulder full responsibility for every single defect in the workplace, just as he can’t claim full responsibility for every single accomplishment. Teams fail and succeed collaboratively. Should the leader take initiative, step out bravely, and begin the process of coaching himself first? Certainly, if he desires to go that route. But he should not neglect to offer training/coaching to his team members either.

After the leader begins to see the results of coaching himself, it’s a good idea to pull the team in for training. I’ve always told people I manage, teach, coach, and mentor that I won’t expect them to do anything I haven’t done or am not willing to do myself. I think good leaders can operate by the same principle.

Undergoing executive coaching first—and then implementing team training for soft skills—works incredibly well. When the leader address his part of the problem first, seeks a solution, and takes actions to make changes, the team members see results. Why wouldn’t they want to follow the leader after they’ve seen him model problem-solving and solution-finding so well?

Can I help you identify your part of the problems within your team or small business? Contact me to discuss executive career coaching or soft skills training.

Why you need to prepare an elevator pitch

It’s virtually impossible to separate networking and branding. We work our whole lives to build a reputation (our brand), and we spend our whole lives building and maintaining relationships with others (our network). We do these things simultaneously. We can’t build a reputation without an audience—our network—and we can’t build relationships without proving to those people who we are—our brand.

Somewhere along the way, as we connect with new people who will come to know who we are, we’ll need to introduce ourselves. Most of us, if we’re unprepared, will stumble over our words when introducing ourselves and fail to mention more than our names and where we live. If we’re lucky, we might remember to mention our career field, course of study, or current job role. If we meet someone we consider impressive or important, we’ll probably feel even more nervous than usual.

I once met Alanis Morissette while traveling with other college students in China. What are the odds? I felt incredibly lucky. Since the internet wasn’t a big deal then, and social media didn’t exist, none of the Chinese citizens in the area recognized her. I introduced myself, stumbling over my words. She was gracious and asked me several questions about our cultural exchange team and experiences traveling. Looking back on that encounter years later, I realize I simply didn’t have the communication skills to pull myself together to deliver anything remotely like an elevator pitch. I’m sure if I’d attended a workshop about personal branding, branding statements, or elevator pitches I might have felt slightly less tongue-tied and more confident.

Nothing really would have ever come of meeting a celebrity, I’m sure, but it was fun and exciting. But there are often serious outcomes when we meet new employers, recruiters, colleagues, supervisors, friends of friends, and others who can connect us to great job leads and want to hire qualified employees. This is why we all need a smooth elevator pitch ready and waiting to roll off our tongues. An elevator pitch is simply a brief persuasive speech (20-30 seconds long—it takes this long to ride an elevator from the top to bottom floor without lots of stops) to introduce ourselves. In the context of your job search, your elevator pitch will “pitch” you to potential employers, colleagues, and others who may consider connecting you to great job leads. Your elevator pitch should provide basic introductory information. It should briefly explain to your new contact who you are, where you’re been, and where you’re going. But it should also explain why.

I recently led a one-hour workshop about the first steps of branding, including elevator pitches, for seniors at Southside High School in Batesville, Arkansas. I was grateful for the opportunity to visit with students and learn about their “Future Stories.” A charter school, Southside High School teachers and administration work closely with students to provide various vocational, career coaching, and higher education opportunities to students to make their future stories a reality.

During the workshop, I helped students understand how to craft an elevator pitch.

  • Keep your target audience in mind (for job seekers, it’s employers and new connections who may help them find jobs).
  • Stick to 30 seconds in length. This may require lots of practice. I have taught hundreds of college students in Oral Communications, and trust me–it just takes time to practice and perfect something which seems as simple as a 30-second spiel. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a long time to shorten your elevator pitch.
  • Avoid overused words, clichés, and jargon. Use terms you’re totally familiar with to ensure smooth delivery. Include keywords important to your industry, but don’t use so many keywords that an average person has difficulty weeding through unfamiliar terminology.
  • Remember the “why.” It’s great to state that you just graduated with a bachelor’s degree and are seeking employment in Rhode Island. But why? Many students mention that they’re pursuing a degree in a certain field. Why? What do you plan to do with that degree later in life? The WHY grabs your listener’s interest.

Two graduating seniors from Southside High School agreed to record their elevator pitches and share them with my readers/viewers. Thank you, Brooke and Natalie, and congratulations on graduating. I look forward to keeping in touch with you as you continue to pursue your goals.

Brooke Talley’s elevator pitch:


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Natalie Humphrey’s elevator pitch:


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Need help creating and delivering your own elevator pitch? Contact me for help.

Preparing for life after teaching

About 1/3 of my clients work in the field of education (K-12 or higher education); it’s a natural fit since I have 10 years of experience in higher education and have also worked with K-12 students.  Some of my clients want to transition out of teaching; others are determined to stick with education.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Teaching is a career field most people feel passionate about–at least initially. Many educators feel exhausted after several years of managing a classroom full of students, though, and some opt to pursue a whole new career path. Some teachers retire early to pursue new careers. Other teachers transition out of teaching after only a few years of teaching; they discover that teaching wasn’t quite what they’d hoped it’d be.

 

If you’re a teacher, and you’re unsure whether you want to continue teaching, you should begin training and preparing yourself for what lies ahead… even if you’re not certain what lies ahead. Whether you renew your teaching contract this year or not, taking these three action steps will strengthen your resume, boost your confidence, and provide you with networking leverage if you search for jobs in the future.

  1. Develop one technical/hard skill in an area of interest unrelated to education.

Even if you’re sure you want to continue teaching right now, developing a technical skill unrelated to teaching will benefit you. Putting your mind to work on a topic unrelated to your students can actually help you relieve mental stress and anxiety. Taking an online course in photo editing or SEO can stretch your mind; you’ll become a well-rounded teacher, and who knows? Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to incorporate what you learn into the classroom.

If you have an inkling you may want to search for jobs outside of teaching, brainstorm about which career fields interest you. Are you considering looking for jobs in curriculum design, training, or sales? Enroll in a local public speaking course or reach out to a career coach for communication skills development assistance. Many community colleges and libraries also offer free workshops. You don’t have to invest much of your income to learn a new skill.

  1. Identify three soft skills you’d like to improve and focus on improving one at a time.

Which soft skills matter most to you personally? Which soft skills matter most within your chosen career field (education or your future field)? A little research, coupled with self-assessment to determine which soft skills you currently possess and which soft skills you currently lack, should help you determine which soft skills to focus on developing.

Create an action plan to develop one soft skill at a time. Don’t even think about working on more than one thing at a time—you’ll feel overwhelmed, and you’ll give up.

If you prefer working alone and roll your eyes when your principal mentions breaking into groups during in-service training, working on teamwork and collaboration skills might be a good idea. Collaboration is hot in the workplace now; you’ll need to convince employers—with actions, not words—that you are very comfortable working well with others. Develop your teamwork skills now, and when you begin interviewing for jobs in a few years, you won’t be grasping at straws when asked for an example of a time when you collaborated with your coworkers to solve a problem.

  1. Spend 30 minutes networking twice weekly with people outside of teaching.

In education, we often work in silos. We work in separate classrooms, teaching our own students, and sometimes—without meaning to—we don’t share information or stories or successes with one another.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Break out of your silo, whether you’re going to transition out of teaching or not, and spend 30 minutes twice weekly networking with people outside of teaching. If you already have professional contacts online or offline, reach out to them. Schedule visits after work. Meet for coffee or iced tea and chat about summer vacation plans.

 

Do you know someone who works in a career field which has always interested you, but you don’t know every detail? Break down and call that person and ask for an informational interview. Most people love to talk about themselves and their careers. If meeting face-to-face intimidates you, start by networking online. Develop your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Both offer plenty of opportunities to connect with real people via professional groups and chats.

Ultimately, the worst thing you can do is teach for 5, 10, or 30 years without considering that someday you might want to transition out of teaching. We’re only human; even if we expect to work in the classroom our whole lives, sometimes a career is only for a season. And that’s okay.

Be smart and teach yourself to prepare for life beyond the classroom. Someday you’ll thank yourself.

If you need assistance finding a new teaching job or transitioning out of teaching, I’m happy to help.

How to improve your soft skills

Whether you just graduated from college—congratulations!—or have accumulated years of work experience, you are just like the rest of us—you can always improve your soft skills. While soft skills are certainly a combination of talent and ability, you can always improve upon the ability portion of the soft skills you possess—that’s the good news.

In his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, training expert Bruce Tulgan defines soft skills as “a wide range of non-technical skills ranging from ‘self-awareness’ to ‘people-skills’ to ‘problem-solving’ to ‘teamwork” (8). Tulgan, author and founder/CEO of RainMakerThinking Inc., reminds us that “soft skills are all about the regulation of the self. They must be fully embraced in order to be learned” (Tulgan 29). Tulgan’s book provides a road map for employers and organizations interested in training and developing employees’ soft skills.


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  • Identify which soft skills matter most to you.

Don’t take a shotgun approach to improving soft skills. You can perform a Google search and find countless lists of which soft skills matter most, but what you need to determine is which soft skills matter most to you. How do you determine that?

When you work with a career coach, you’ll be asked multiple questions to help you determine your priorities. Some of these questions might include:

  • “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years in terms of your career?” Understanding your career goals/journey can help you determine which skills you need to add or improve upon.
  • “What feedback have you received during performance reviews and job interviews (or during follow-up conversations with recruiters/hiring managers)?” If you pay attention to feedback about your performance instead of blowing it off, you may pick up clues about which soft skills you lack or need to tweak.
  • “Which soft skills does your company value and emphasize?” If three particular soft skills matter most to your current employer, take note. To succeed at work, earn a salary increase or promotion, or simply feel content with your daily job performance, align your values and mission with your employer’s.
  • Determine where you stand before you begin training/developing your soft skills.

After determining which 3-5 soft skills matter most to you, evaluate yourself in terms of performance/ability of each soft skill. If communication skills matter to you, where do you measure up on a scale of 1-5, 1 being poor performance and 5 being excellent, consistent performance? Are you able to communicate verbally, non-verbally, and in writing clearly, consistently, concisely, comfortably, effectively, and appropriately in almost every situation? If not, this is a soft skill you might want to develop.

How should you evaluate your ability to perform each soft skill? You can do this in a variety of ways. Work with a career coach to use various assessment tools (some tools you must pay to use, and others are free). Search online for free assessment tools; proceed with caution when using free assessment tools because some are more valid than others. As Tulgan mentions in Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, you can informally assess your own soft skills by measuring your soft skills against others’ soft skills. I explain this strategy at length in the video. In his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, Tulgan notes the importance of having an “external objective standard against which to measure one’s reflection” (70).

Take stock of where you stand in each of these soft skill areas one way or another—using one assessment tool or another—but be sure you use some external objective standard. Simply put, we can’t fix the stuff in our heads with the stuff in our heads. That doesn’t work well in life, and it won’t work well when assessing and improving soft skills either.

  • Develop an action plan.

Once you determine where you measure up in each of the 3-5 soft skills you’ve selected to work on, develop an action plan. First, check with your employer/organization to determine if they will provide/fund soft skills training or professional development for employees. Many companies and organizations understand the value of soft skills in the workplace and will help employees in this area.

If your company will not fund soft skills development, you may have to pursue soft skills training/development on your own. Reach out to a career coach for assistance. If you can’t afford to pay for soft skills training, check out the array of blog posts and videos available online. You may not make as much progress on your own as you would with the assistance of a coach, but any attempt at development is better than none. And finally, don’t forget to seek the help of a career mentor if you don’t have one already.

  • Assess your soft skills after you’ve completed the training process to determine if more/different training is needed.

After you’ve put your plan into action and worked to improve your soft skills for a period of time, assess your soft skills again, using the same or similar tool(s) you used at the beginning. Where do you stand now?

Assessing yourself after training is important. You need to determine if training worked. If it didn’t, why would you pay for more training? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. If something isn’t working for you, try something new or different. If you assess your soft skills and find that you’ve grown in 2 of the 3 areas, that’s wonderful! Keep up the hard work. “When you combine the necessary hard skills with the right soft skills, the added value is so much more than the sum of its parts” (Tulgan 58).

If you need help identifying, assessing, or improving your soft skills, reach out to me for a free consultation.