The “Softer Side” of Leadership

Tough times require “softer” leaders.  Having strong emotional intelligence is critical for leadership success.

In an interview with Tom Field of Information Security Media Group, I talk about how today’s senior leaders need to focus more on emotional intelligence and other “soft” qualities to be able to better recruit and retain quality employees.

Questions specifically addressed are:

Which “soft” skills are most important?

How can managers and employees alike can change a culture to embrace these skills?

Where to start to develop and nurture “softer” leaders?

A few ideas and tips are shared in the transcript of the interview below.

TOM FIELD: Hi, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We are talking today with Heidi Kraft, a leadership and career coach and founder of Kraft Your Success Coaching and Consulting. Heidi, thanks so much for joining me to talk about this today.

HEIDI KRAFT: Thank you, Tom, for having me. It is great to be here.

FIELD: So I have read your blog, I have looked at your site; you talk a lot about the softer side of leadership. Help define this for us, what are the soft skills in leadership?

KRAFT: Well, the softer skills ironically are the ones that are a little bit more difficult to define. So when you think about hard skills, it is easy to say that some one is great in math or they are a really great project manager, or they are increasing sales by “x.” The softer skills are the things like sympathy, could be confidence even. You know, you hear this term “being a people person,” so they are not necessarily things that people can measure as easily, but they are things that are really, really critical for leadership.

FIELD: So Heidi, particularly in financial services where we spend a lot of time, it has been a hard year and hard skills really have been talked about. Tell us why the softer skills are so important now of all times?

KRAFT: Wow, perfect question. I actually think about this in a couple of ways. In what you are pointing to in terms of what is happening now is a leadership challenge, right? So I think about this as how leadership has changed and the need that is necessary in order to have a new kind of leadership. If you think in the past about what it has been like, which is really the sort of hierarchal approach telling people what to do as opposed to working with people. I really believe that there is a shift that is happening right now, and that people need to be more collaborative, they need to be more innovative, and they really need to be focused on developing that rapport. Let’s face it, we all love working with people that like us and we like, right? So there is something that is really important about it. Even if you think of President Obama, which whether or not you agree with his politics, people are describing him as calm and open and empathetic and yet commanding. So if you think about that kind of energy, and those are things that are usually not easy to measure, but you sure know it when you feel it. That is one reason. And the other piece I think about is just how we are so pressed for time, sort of this information overload with instant message and email and twitter and facebook and all of those things that are going on, we are working 24/7. What tends to be happening is that that human connection is missing more, and so I think there is a real opportunity for leaders, in any discipline, to really take that as an opportunity to do some things differently. When I think about some of the ways that I work with my clients, I would challenge them. For example, five times a day when you are typically going to send an instant message or an email, do something as simple as picking up the phone or have that communication face to face. .

FIELD: So Heidi, I want to ask you a question from a couple of different perspectives here. First, from management’s perspective, how do you make these softer skills valued in an organization that maybe had valued the harder skills predominately?

KRAFT: Well you know that is a great question, too, because part of this, like I said, is that softer skills are harder to quantify. I am not sure, are you familiar with the term emotional intelligence?

FIELD: Sure.

KRAFT: Okay great. So that is a term that a lot of times is used synonymously with interpersonal skills. What we know is that typically top performers, 90 percent of the top performers, are usually high in emotional intelligence versus just 20 percent of low performers. So just from that standpoint, from a management standpoint, who wouldn’t want the person with emotional intelligence because they are going to be climbing up the ranks much more quickly and being more successful for that organization?

And another thing to quantify for an organization is retention. Obviously this is an important measurement, and we also know the implications of organizations that are constantly losing people and the cost to rehire and to retrain and a lot of times — again this is from the same study I was looking at today interestingly enough — that has to do with the leadership and interpersonal skills. There was just a study that said, 68 percent indicated that it’s the lack of interpersonal skills and leadership skills that are actually having people quit their job; that they are reporting to individuals that just don’t know how to develop that rapport.

So it has a huge impact on an organization, and I would imagine if you asked somebody to actually do an assessment of what the cost for that retention is, that that would be a pretty impactful reason to take a look at that and employ these sorts of programs.

FIELD: Let’s flip this around now Heidi. Let’s say that I am an emotionally intelligent person, which of course I am. I am in a company where the management doesn’t embrace these skills. How does someone from the staff’s perspective try to steer management in this direction, toward the softer side of leadership?

KRAFT: Well, it is tricky, there is no doubt. I loved what you said that when you are coming from a place of being emotionally intelligent, and you already have that skills, and emotional intelligence starts with self awareness, that is the first step, self awareness. And the next step is what do you do with that, which is self management. And then there is this other piece, which is about social awareness and then relationship management.

But if we come back to that first critical step, if you are not aware, then you are not necessarily going to be making a change. So you, as someone who is aware, you have to have the ability to influence the organization because you know how to be emotionally intelligent. So again, one of the greatest things you can do is just model it. People, again, start to notice when people are doing something different. They can’t quite put their finger on it, but they can feel that they are doing something different.

So one way is to model it, and the other thing is to point out great skills. A lot of times when you are in a meeting and you can really see someone successful in a conversation, maybe it is a sales pitch, and you might just pull them off to the side afterwards and say ‘How are you actually able to do that?’ Do that around someone who might be a peer or a manager who could have influence. Part of it again is pointing out really, really great examples so that they can see it. Another idea is to just find allies. Management “as a group” is a pretty broad term. There has got to be somebody on a management team that really gets this and that would embrace it and be willing to bring in, whether it be a program or coaching or speakers here and there or a mentoring program, whatever it could be to bring that into an organization. It just takes one person as a key influencer to make something like that happen.

FIELD: Now Heidi, particularly in information security organizations, which we deal with, you have got people who are focused on their academic education, or professional technical training. For these folks, what do they need to do to start focusing on developing these softer skills?

KRAFT: Well, again, this can apply to any industry, and I mentioned this piece of self-awareness and I really, really strongly believe that it is the starting point. I mean, part of it is to start with assessing your own skills. So there actually are some different online resources that can be used. There is a website called, I believe, they actually do a quick test there you can take, and there is a book that you can buy, and I think it’s like $20 bucks or something. You can get a sense of how strong you are in this area.

But the biggest piece I notice in getting started is you have got to have the reason and the motivation to change, right? So a lot of times we have got to be in some sort of, I hate to use the word pain, but it’s reality. Something happens in order for you to say ‘I really have got to make a change.’ So whether you are being bypassed for a promotion, or you are being told you need to develop more rapport, you are getting feedback in your reviews, something has got you to this point. So having that motivation is really critical.

And then one of the things that I really suggest is to find ways to try out different behaviors and practice it in a way that is safe. So this can sound of funny, right? Because we are trying different behaviors, and that can make us feel really awkward and vulnerable, but it might just be to find someone that does what you want to be doing well, and learn from them. Ask them what they are doing that is helping them be so successful. And then ask them if they would actually help you and give you feedback after you try that. So, as a coach I am just a big believer in numbers and having commitments, and so some of the things I do with clients, for example, is just ask for three positive and three areas of encouragement after every meeting, and be transparent about the things that you are learning because I believe that people really are willing to support you if they know what you are working on.

FIELD: So Heidi, if we could boil this all down to a piece of advice, let me ask you this. If you have got someone who wants to start developing their own, or their organization’s, softer leadership skills, what should they do? Where should they start?

KRAFT: So I think again that goes back to the point of 1), start by assessing your own skills. It is a great starting point and, the other is to get — I am repeating a little bit of what I just said a moment ago — but really it is to get feedback from others and find a way to find some allies or people who are going to support you in this. And then just practice.

One of the things that I think helps a lot in terms of that self-awareness piece is to just notice what your tendencies typically are and, again, since this is about change and learning, it is to try to take the time to learn something different.

So just to give a quick example again, if you are meeting and you are the kind of person who when things get really heated your instinct is to jump in and be abrupt or get louder and yell — we all know people like that right? It might be something where the next time you feel that urge, and again that could be that you might feel tense or you might feel sort of shaky or sweaty or whatever that physical reaction is, it is a clue so try something different. Sit back and see what happens if you don’t speak, or just pause and reflect, and that is part of that, again taking that change and starting to develop those kinds of skills. So I like to think of it as: It is baby steps.

FIELD: Heidi, that is great insight. I appreciate your time and your thoughts today.

KRAFT: Thank you very much. Glad to be here, Tom; appreciate it.

FIELD: We have been talking about the softer side of leadership, and we have been talking with Heidi Kraft, Leadership and Career Coach and Founder of Kraft Your Success Coaching and Consulting. For Information Security Media Group I’m Tom Field. Thank you very much.

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