How to Get Top Line Management to Buy into Soft Skills Training

How often have we heard HR and Leadership Development leaders comment about the lack of line support for their soft skills leadership training programs? There is a way to gain that much-desired support. But, before discussing how to do it, some background is in order.

First, you have to clear both soft and hard skills. Soft skills generally include interpersonal skills and attributes (communicating, listening, motivating, creative thinking, counselling, etc.), leadership behaviors (servant, morality, trust, authenticity, humility, compassion, integrity, etc.), leadership styles (autocratic, democratic, etc.), and management skills (planning, delegating, problem-solving, reviewing performance, interviewing, etc.).

Conversely, hard skills cover the job-related technical, financial, and business skills needed to achieve job success, which evolve from the primary function and the four or five key responsibilities listed in the job description. At the senior- and upper-management levels, they typically include the skills needed to achieve specific financial, operating, and financial business objectives for the department, division, or company.

Rethinking Corporate Learning

Business Realities of Top Line Management
To achieve much greater support from top line management, HR, and LD leaders must fully accept and embrace the following business realities under which they operate:

Investors and the market hold the top line management of any company accountable for achieving certain financial, operating and strategic business objectives over the short and long term. Therefore, meeting or exceeding these business objectives every fiscal year is the top priority of the CEO and line executives. It should be the HR and LD function’s top priority too.
Senior and top line management believe most LD programs, especially those intended for middle management and higher, have failed because they (a) concentrated almost exclusively on soft skills development, (b) excluded any hard skills development which they feel are critical to job success, (c) provided little or no practical business value in relation to the amount of executive time expended on them and (d) refrained from directly dealing with the leader’s real world business objectives and plans for which they are accountable to top management, the CEO, and the board of directors.
Line management executives currently value hard skills much more than soft skills because, in their eyes, they are far more predictive of job success.
Line management executives believe that the hard/soft skills mix for lower management is 25%/75%, for middle management is 50%/50% and for senior and upper management is 75%/25%. Therefore, the subject content for LD programs should reflect those mixes.
The current belief of line management is that even with the proper application of soft skills, such LD programs do not have a material impact on the achievement of their financial, operating, or strategic business objectives for which they are accountable to top management and the board of directors.
Recent surveys from Fortune and McKinsey support this viewpoint. In the former survey, only 10% of CEOs believed their leadership development initiatives had a clear business impact. In the latter survey, only 11% of more than 500 executives agreed that their LD programs achieved the desired business results.
Line management believes that soft skill LD programs are fine for lower management because their problems and solutions are one-dimensional, simple, and relatively easy to solve. However, such programs at the middle or upper management levels are not implemented because the problems are far more multi-dimensional and complex, while their solutions are seldom easy to implement simultaneously with achieving their business objectives.
Most soft skills LD programs are not directly relevant or important in relation to the achievement of a line management business objective.
Unless LD leaders take the above business realities into consideration when designing and writing the subject content of their soft skills LD programs, top line management will likely continue to provide little support for them. Conversely, if such realities are taken into account and used in designing the subject content, top line management support will be greatly improved. Below is an outline of exactly how to do just that.

How to Design an Effective LD Program
In such a program, you must teach the relevant soft and hard skills together within the practical context of the leader’s current business objectives, plans, strategies, challenges, and risks. By doing so, your LD program will provide practical business value to top line management and the HR and LD functions will gain their respect as an equal business partner. Here are the key steps involved:

Uncover the line management’s financial, operating and strategic business objectives for the current fiscal year. It is best to do so just before or right after the start of the fiscal year.
With line management, determine which business objective or two that will require new or improved skills to implement, and therefore new or enhanced learning.
With line management, identify the new hard skills that require new or enhanced learning.
With line management, identify only the relevant soft skills that apply to the implementation of the learning like achieving the business objective.
Design and implement the training program subject content that teaches and intertwines both skills in relation only to the appropriate business objective.
It is important to emphasize that these LD programs should teach leaders how to intertwine the hard and soft skills together, the way they exist in the leader’s real business world. The key point here is that you cannot effectively teach soft leadership skills in a vacuum, devoid of their associated hard skills.

An example would seem appropriate here for a group of general managers who are operating businesses ranging from $50 to $150 million per year. Each one has a business objective to increase sales by 10%, which requires that a new product with enhanced functionality get to market two months ahead of schedule. The relevant hard skills for this program might be to learn the features of the new product’s functionality, to train sales personnel how best to sell those features into the existing or new customer base, to achieve the desired delivery performance through improved project management and to enhance customer service on the new product’s typical service issues. The relevant soft skills for this program might be to build trust among employees in the new product, to achieve better teamwork and coordination between field sales and customer service employees, and to improve remote working effectiveness.

Advantages of Teaching Hard and Soft Skills Together
The company and division’s ability to achieve some of its important business objectives and strategies will be greatly enhanced.
The practical business value of appropriate leadership development programs will be recognized by line management executives as a practical way to help achieve some of their important business objectives to which they are held accountable by the CEO and the board of directors.
By providing practical business value in the appropriate leadership development programs, HR and LD functions will clearly demonstrate their ability to be an equal business partner to their line management peers.
Line management attendees are taught how to implement the relevant soft skills in a practical, real world business setting by applying the relevant soft and hard skills together in an effort to achieve one or more of their important business objectives.
With the improved reputation of some LD programs to appropriately cover the relevant hard skills as they relate to the practical business objectives of the leader’s actual job, line management support for these programs and those that deal solely with soft skills will be greatly enhanced.
By dealing with the appropriate hard skills in relation to the line management leader’s business objectives, the leaders and their superiors will value their time and effort spent on the program as being much more worthwhile than previously existed.
The Case for Improved Training
Though estimates vary somewhat, more than $200 billion annually is spent globally on leadership development. Yet, CEOs and line executives agree that their LD efforts have not been successful in helping them operate their businesses. Since the vast majority of LD programs deal with soft skills improvement, it is fair to conclude that in their eyes they have been unsuccessful, too. Teaching soft skills separately from the associated hard skills, simply hasn’t worked, especially for LD programs designed for middle and upper management. What greater proof is needed to demonstrate that there is a critical need to change the way the subject content for such soft skill LD programs is designed and implemented?

If subject content of these soft skill LD programs is not changed, this historical pattern of top line management seeing little or no practical business value in them is likely to continue and the LD community is doomed to repeat its failed program subject content over and over again.

It is my view that CEOs and line executives will gain a much more favorable view of the company’s HR and LD functions when, and only when, they see that their LD programs for middle to upper management directly helps them to achieve certain specific business objectives that help the company to achieve its improved profitability and strategic success – practical business value. When this happens, their support for similar and other LD programs will improve dramatically. The only meaningful way to do that is to teach the appropriate mix of hard and soft skills together in a workshop setting that pragmatically helps the attendees to achieve some of their actual business objectives within the practical context of their associated real-world plans, challenges, and risks.


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