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Hard Skills are Awesome, but Soft Skills are Everything

by John Zettler

October 6, 2015

Last week, I was at a Saint Mary’s University Alumni event and was delighted to hear a very Senior Leader (someone I think we can all agree has been successful in business) – Stuart MacDonald, Founder and President of Expedia.ca and Executive Management Consultant. Stuart, when asked, “What is the biggest missing skill of people in today’s workforce?” responded with this:

“Hard skills are awesome, but soft skills are everything.” – Stuart MacDonald

He went on to discuss the importance of technical skills as a foundation of success. I mean let’s face it, I don’t want a Dentist working on my teeth if they don’t know how to fill a cavity. I don’t want my Optometrist guessing at what prescription I need to see well. So yes, we can all agree technical skills are required. The difference though, as Stuart discussed, is people’s abilities to effectively communicate and build relationships. Let’s put this in context. If you’re like me you go to the Dentist and Optometrist that you have the best rapport with. The one you trust the most and the one you want to spend your time with. With or without knowing it, you’ve picked the Dentist/Optometrist with the best “soft skills”.

Unfortunately, my experience until recent, is that we do not put an emphasis on these soft skills right from our post-secondary education system through to how we determine who our Leaders should be and how we develop People. I say “until recently” because in the past several months we’ve had an unprecedented amount of Professional Services firms reach out to us and ask us to help them develop their people – particularly in the area of communication and relationship building.

What does a “soft skills” gap look like?

  • If there is a significant turnover in any department within an organization
  • If you have Managers of People and not Leaders of People
  • If you’re successful in getting clients, but not so good at retaining them
  • If productivity on a team doesn’t seem to match the skills, experience and knowledge of the team members

Happy multi-ethnic business team with thumbs up in






What are the “soft skills” we should look to develop?

• Clarity of Communications
• Personal Accountability
• Positive Attitude
• Collaboration with Colleagues, Customers, etc.
• Conflict Resolution Skills
• Coaching and Mentoring
• Openness – Adaptability and Flexibility
• Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

How do we change our approach if we were to place a focus on soft skills development?

1. College and University Curriculums would Add Soft-Skills Training – Yes, I get that this is largely out of the organizations control, but let’s start the dialogue with Post-Secondary Institutions as to what we need from them. There is such a focus on the “academics”, and I get that, but given the importance that soft skills play in business and in general, why are there such limited opportunities to grow and develop these skills? With the amount of money already being contributed to tuition, why not add a nominal amount and provide some great soft skills training?

2. Companies Would Recruit Differently – My experience, largely in Professional Services but also Engineering and Skilled Trades, suggests that we still focus significantly on the “hard skills” and only ask “soft skills” question as an afterthought. In fact, within Professional Services, the entry gate often still focuses on grade point averages, rather than forward thinking about the skills necessary to be a strong business developer and relationship builder – keys to long-term success in Professional Services. Ideally we would seek to better understand what our “star performers” look like and recruit to that.

3. Create a Culture where Soft Skills are Appreciated and Recognized – This is likely a big change in how your organization has operated, so start slow. Introduce the change slowly and engage your people in creating what the program looks like. This will reduce skepticism. Once you’ve developed what the program should look like, hire experts to implement the strategy. In addition to ensuring the integrity of the program, you’ll also increase trust and credibility of the program within the organization.

4. We would Develop People Differently – How many of your development plans, assuming you have one, include a focus on “soft skills”? Too often we focus on what people “need to know” instead of “who they are” and “how they relate” to others. If you had an employee that related well to teammates and customers, showed empathy, was optimistic about the future, could communicate effectively with people, genuinely cared about others, and was self-aware of how they show up, how great would that be?

5. We would take a Different Perspective on Engagement – I’ve written previously that we’re looking at Engagement all wrong. Yes, there are some foundational systems/programs we need to have in our organization – transparent communication, competitive pay and benefits, training and development programs, performance management, effective Leaders, etc. – but this alone doesn’t guarantee an Engaged Employee. Having Emotionally Intelligent employees who exhibit the “soft-skills” I discussed in point #4, developing people differently, would enhance your Engagement efforts beyond where they’re at today.

Business is changing around us every day. Customers are demanding more from our product/service and they want to pay less for it. Customers are also savvier than ever and leverage that when they’re speaking with us.

Our employees are also demanding more from the employment relationship than ever. They want a company who cares about employees, clients, the community and the environment. They want work/life balance, competitive pay/benefits, challenging work, and they want development, development, development.

One of my favourite quotes/discussions of all times is the following:
Question – “What if we develop our employees and they leave?”
Response – “What if we don’t and they stay?”

We simply can’t survive in business today without a workforce that has the “soft skills” we’ve talked about in this article. I get it, it’s a difficult prospect to think about how much it might cost to develop all our employees. But what’s the cost of doing nothing at all and are we willing to accept that?

I encourage everyone to make soft skills development a priority today. Call us and we’ll help you determine what’s needed and how best to accomplish it. Don’t delay, I doubt your competitors are!

Best Success!

John Zettler, Director, Talent Strategy
& Development, Dale Carnegie Training®
Contact me at 905-826-7300 x 235 or jzettler@dalecarnegie.ca


Take a look at our previous Accelerated Talent Development Newsletters!

10 Engagement White PapersA recent research study by Dale Carnegie Training, identified the specific behaviors you need to employ to create an engaged workforce. Our Employee Engagement White Papers explore business issues and tips critical to for an organization’s success.Employee Engagement White Paper - Dale Carnegie
About the Author“John’s commitment and passion to the growth and development of individuals, teams and organizations is evident,” says Kevin Crone, President and Managing Partner, Dale Carnegie Business Group. “His engaging and collaborative approach along with his strong business acumen and focus on results make him a great fit for our team. We are thrilled he has decided to join us.”Read more.

John Zettler brings almost 20 years of human resource experience to the challenge of better leadership we all share. He has invested his skills and energies and debated leadership with some of our country’s best leaders. Through this, he has refined a style of management that focuses on leadership conviction, authenticity and caring as the cornerstones of a more nuanced set of management skills we can all benefit from.

Instead of balance in our life, he challenges us to a new style of work life blending that both gives us:

  1. The rush of seeing our people grow and prosper in a company that truly cares about them and their dreams.
  2. The time and focus to also contribute the same level of passion to the needs of our families.

To hear more of his insights, click here.


Best practices in talent development are rapidly evolving and becoming increasingly critical to bottom line performance. If you would like to benchmark your performance in this area, and learn the tools and insights of Canada’s top talent development practitioners, please sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter on Accelerating Talent Development.

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