With research showing that 3 in 10 business leaders still aren’t prioritising skill development, it’s time for HR to lead the charge.
We’ve needed a new word to describe what have long been referred to as ‘soft skills’ for some time now – because there’s nothing ‘soft’ about them.
These human-centric skills – relationship-building, adaptability, resilience – are fast becoming the most sought-after skills in employees and leaders alike. In fact, recent research from Russell Reynolds Associates and Harvard Business Review found that when companies go in search of a new CEO, they place less importance on traditional skills such as financial and operational acumen (although these are still important), and instead look for leaders who have “good social skills”.
The Project Management Institute (PMI)’s ‘Pulse of the Profession 2023 report’, which interviewed 3500 global project professionals, urges employers and HR leaders to embed these important human skills in their workforce – referring to them as ‘power skills’.
“These are non-technical skills. We’ve been calling them power skills because of the significance they bring to people and organisations,” says Ben Breen, Global Director of Construction and Vice President, Asia Pacific at Project Management Institute.
The top rated power skills in PMI’s report were communication, problem-solving, collaborative leadership and strategic thinking – all ingredients that make for a successful contributor or an effective leader.
“These are all massively important in delivering business outcomes. But there are lots more to consider. Things like empathy, which I think has been underrated for a really long time.”
This rebrand of soft skills is important. It signals that we’re moving forward in the professional development space.
Gone are the days of the hardened, command-and-control leader who is focussed on results at all costs. We’ve now entered the era of people-focused policies, processes and outcomes. And that’s how businesses of the future will thrive.
Power skills are lagging
Despite PMI’s report finding that nine in 10 employees agree that power skills are critical to helping them to work smarter, around 30 per cent of businesses aren’t prioritising development in this space.
The main reasons cited for this inaction were costs and a lack of perceived value.
“It’s very hard to determine the direct impact of power skills,” says Breen. “It’s hard to measure and report on, but I think reports like ours start to quantify the benefits.
“I also think that people and organisations are creatures of habit. They tend not to want to change quickly – or at all.”
These skills also don’t receive the attention or budget they deserve, with PMI finding that 46 per cent of professional development hours are carved out for technical skills compared to 29 per cent for power skills. Technical skills also received 51 per cent of the training budget, compared to just 25 per cent for power skills.
Breen says this tendency to choose technical skills over power skills is “a bit of a legacy”.
“Technical skills have just become par for the course. But if you’re putting all your emphasis on that and then stopping, you’ll fall behind,” he says.
These skills will be your secret weapon
PMI’s research presents a compelling case for taking the development of power skills off the backburner by demonstrating the immense value they can have on a company’s bottom line.
Of the organisations who did prioritise power skills, 72 per cent successfully met their business goals, compared to 65 per cent of laggard organisations. Moreover, only 28 per cent experienced scope creep, compared to 40 per cent of laggards.
Power skill organisations were also:
- Twice as likely to report high project management maturity compared to laggard organisations (64 per cent versus 32 per cent).
- Likely to see high benefits realisation maturity management – i.e. the measurement of the value of a project to the business (51 per cent compared to 18 per cent).
- More agile – 51 per cent of power skill organisations experienced high levels of agility versus 16 per cent of laggards.
With the increasing automation of the workforce, these power skills – the things that will differentiate the humans from the robots – will only become more important.
“McKinsey estimates in the next 10 years around 800 million people will be displaced from their job. Yes, that’s a scary number, but it’s not something to fret about.
“Technical skills have just become par for the course. But if you’re putting all your emphasis on that and then stopping, you’ll fall behind.” – Ben Breen, Global Director of Construction and Vice President, Asia Pacific, PMI.
“I often have this conversation with people who say, ‘Am I going to be out of my job?’,” says Breen.
“It’s just a matter of determining the things that are easy to automate. How can I personally upskill myself to make sure I’m not sitting in that category of being replaced? And what are the human things I can do that AI can’t? Be smart about the changes that are inevitably coming.”
How to get power skills on the agenda
It might be that leaders do not need convincing of the importance of these skills, but do need guidance on embedding them into your learning culture.
Based on the PMI report, Breen suggests the following:
- It starts at the job interview stage.
“The majority of interview questions are around people’s technical capabilities or what degrees they have,” says Breen.
To find people’s power skills, it’s about not just asking, ‘What did you achieve?’ but ‘How did you achieve it?’
He says that will elicit a much more insightful response and help you to see which of their power skills could be value adding to your business and where they might need some extra training.
- Connect power skills to performance management
Tie people’s performance metrics to human-centric outcomes. For example, how many people did you develop in the last 12 months? How many new connections did you make? How did you help to build resilience and trust in your team?
- Allocate more funding and time to power skills, to match technical capability uplift.
And finally, Breen suggests that HR takes on the role of chief advocate for these skills, as they will no doubt become the most critical to hire and train for in the near future.
“I think the interaction between HR and the rest of the organisation is so crucial. But it’s often just seen as, ‘Okay, we need more people and skills, let’s talk to the talent department,’ instead of working collaboratively and asking questions like, ‘How is the team performing?’, identifying red flags before issues come along, and having regular touchpoints to make sure we’re keeping on top of talent as a whole.
“You need to continually upskill your team before you even know that you need to do it. Don’t just fill a hole when it comes along because it takes too long to catch up from there.”