Are We Thinking About “Soft Skills” All Wrong?

Are We Thinking About “Soft Skills” All Wrong?

By calling them “soft skills,” are we shortchanging competencies that are critical for supply chain and procurement professionals to succeed?

This guest post comes to us from Argentus Supply Chain Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm specializing in Supply Chain Management and Procurement.

One of the biggest stories in the world of Supply Chain and Procurement talent over the past few years has been the emerging importance of Soft Skills. Time was, the business world saw Supply Chain and Procurement as highly analytical fields, where the ability to organize and interpret data was paramount. Analytical skills are still important, of course. But as the field has become more strategic — with a greater impact on wider areas of business — professionals in the field have had to become stronger at advocating for it. No senior Procurement professional is going to get very far into a Procurement transformation without being able to advocate for their Procurement method and what it can deliver. No one is going to transform their organization’s Supply Chain without being able to explain whatever insights they’ve gleaned from data to senior management.

When we say “Soft Skills,” we generally mean:

  • Verbal communications
  • Written communications
  • Relationship-building skills
  • Presentation ability
  • The ever-elusive and hard-to-define-but-you-know-it-when-you-see-it “polish”

There’s no doubt they’re important, especially when it comes to moving into the senior ranks of leadership. But by calling them “soft skills,” are we really shortchanging them and treating them as ancillary to the “main,” “vocational” skills we ask for? Maybe it’s time to put them front and center.

They may be skills, but they’re not soft

Marketing guru and entrepreneur Seth Godin had an interesting post about the concept of “Soft Skills” and whether the way we think about them needs a revamp: “Let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills.’ They might be skills, but they’re not soft,” he says.

Godin’s basic point is that soft skills build a great workplace culture. And workplace culture isn’t an ancillary bonus to a business’s core function. It is a business’s core function. Godin doesn’t discount the importance of vocational skills. You can’t make a Supply Chain run without data. But for all the talk about strategy, a truly successful company succeeds not because of its strategy, but its culture — just like a truly successful career in business is often driven by soft skills rather than vocational skills.

His point is also that we don’t put as much effort into training soft skills as we do vocational skills, which might be because vocational skills are easier to measure. For example your typing speed (or for a Supply Chain role, your facility with SAP or JAD software) is much easier to measure than the kind of empathic awareness that makes a team sing. The result?

“Organizations hire and fire based on vocational skill output all the time, but practically need an act of the board to get rid of a negative thinker, a bully or a sloth (if he/she is good at something measurable).”

Rebranding soft skills as real skills

Godin’s suggestion is to rename soft skills “real skills” and break them down into new categories by which we might assess them:

  • Self Control
  • Productivity
  • Wisdom
  • Perception
  • Influence

He breaks these categories down into an exhaustive list of skills (“diplomacy in difficult situations,” “etiquette”) that’s definitely worth checking out, and worth assessing in new hires. It gets a little abstract, but we couldn’t agree more with Godin’s core point: It’s time to put “soft skills” front and center.

In Supply Chain and Procurement, which are the areas we recruit for, soft skills are taking on more relevance as automation begins to handle the nuts and bolts of how products come to market, and how companies work with suppliers. The function is becoming more nimble and more strategic, and the future belongs to those who are able to be strategic advocates — and the companies that prize this in their hires.

Yet in a field that is, by its very nature, obsessed with efficiency, measurement, and data, soft skills sometimes take a back seat.

We think it’s time to change that.

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