Hard facts about soft skills

Kim Godwin is a CIPS Past President and former CPO of Barclays Bank, who now runs a consulting firm specialising in soft skills assessment
posted by Kim Godwin
11 February 2016

The importance of behavioural ‘soft’ skills to procurement is now starting to be widely recognised.

For example, the topic was a key theme at last year’s CIPS Annual Conference, while a recent survey identified an absence of soft skills as one of the biggest constraints to fully exploiting category management.

Often, the ability to influence stakeholders is cited as the most important factor, but this underplays the scope and scale of impact that soft skills have on all aspects of procurement, and in particular with regard to services and indirects. At its heart, procurement is about commercial change management – how to get people to behave in different ways or do commercial things differently. So influencing people is of course important. But so too is strategic awareness and dealing with ambiguity. Consider the importance of broad and well-developed soft skills to the effectiveness of multicultural or cross-functional teams. Building relationships within the context of a commercial environment is a nuance that again demands top-notch behavioural skills. Another perspective is supplier behaviours that are either encouraged or suppressed by the commercial models sitting behind the deal. Soft skills, and understanding the impact that both individual and organisational behaviour can have, is far-reaching across the many facets of procurement.

What is interesting is that this surge in interest is not being matched by practical help for individuals to improve their skills and expertise. There is a range of development solutions available, such as emotional intelligence, NLP, training courses and, for larger organisations, in-house programmes, but these often form just a small part of the overall solution. And all too often they’re not available to all or they don’t fit individual learning styles, and so are limited in their scope and effectiveness. The key thing to recognise is that the way we engage with others, such as influencing or building relationships, is driven by what feels natural and comfortable to us. So someone who has a direct, logical, fact-based style of communicating will often struggle to adopt a more conversational approach, as they’ll see this as small-talk and not getting to the point. And therein lies the problem with most course-based or ‘point’ solutions – when you’re back in the workplace it’s all too easy to revert to your usual style, which feels so easy and natural.  Our behaviours and soft skills evolve over our lifetime – there is no quick and easy solution to changing and developing them.

The assumption is that you can change someone’s soft skills, but is this really true? Can you actually take someone who dislikes confrontation and make them a more assertive individual? You can certainly train coping mechanisms or assertive communication styles, but will this be enough to overcome the natural tendency of the individual to avoid conflict? Experience shows that people can and do change if they have the right motivations and support. It takes courage, effort and time, but for most there is a bridgeable gap. There are going to be times when this behavioural gap is just too great for an individual and they’re never going to make it, so it’s best that this type of issue is addressed early on. It’s interesting to see how companies are increasingly recruiting staff with strong behavioural skills and training them in procurement – it’s easier to teach the knowledge than to develop the soft skills.

So what can be done to improve the behavioural soft skills? There are some things that can be taught, such as influencing types, but most development comes down to just four areas: a reason to change; self awareness; feedback; and coaching.

Why change?
If individual behaviours have been built up over an individual’s lifetime, then for them to change there’s got to be a good reason. That motivation could be job satisfaction, pay, or career progression, but whatever it is has to be compelling and believable enough for the individual to make that change. And it’s that believable element that’s the problem for most procurement organisations: pay really does need to be fairly balanced on how things are achieved rather than just what the outcome is. Promotions need to reflect that balance of how and what, so that high achievers have strong behavioural skills and demonstrate day-in day-out the importance of continually improving them. Leaders need to have strong soft skills and walk the talk – but sadly it’s not unusual to find that an individual’s promotion to their first management role is based on the size and complexity of the deals they do, rather than their leadership and behavioural skills. The behaviours to be encouraged and rewarded also need to be relevant and to come alive to individuals at all levels in the organisation – they need to be translated into specific actions and responses so that people can relate to them.

Know yourself
Self-awareness is about knowing the need to change. If there is just one foundation to soft skills development it must be this – to recognise the impact that your words, actions and behaviours are having on others. How often have you heard someone complain that the other person just didn’t get and it and wouldn’t agree? Or how surprised they were that the discussion turned sour and bad-tempered? The natural human approach is to blame the other person, and not consider that the way you’ve approached the interaction, the words or tone that you’ve used, the pace or energy you’ve shown, or what their communication needs are. And how often have you seen a colleague fail to pick up on small cues – the shifting in the chair, loss of eye contact, verbal prompts and so on – and continue on blindly to a poor or embarrassing outcome? Good behavioural soft skills start with a genuine interest in how others think and behave, and how one’s own behaviours influence how others respond and act.

Getting feedback
Few are blessed with total self-awareness. Most people need some feedback so they can see the impact their behaviour is having on others. This sounds simple enough, but everything in the procurement world is a negotiation – even personal development planning! Feedback is often a ritual conducted at the end-of-year pay and performance review, when the individual collects as much positive feedback as they can in the hope they can secure a positive outcome, while the line manager focuses on recent poor performance as a way to moderate the outcome. To be a useful element to the development of soft skills, feedback needs to be given in the moment, in a considered and effective way, and with the right motivations. This is a huge cultural challenge that starts from the top. It’s also a vitally important topic that deserves an article in its own right.

Coaching for success
Once there is self-awareness and feedback, there is a basis for coaching. Individuals need help with how to improve their soft skills. They need support when they don’t get it quite right – otherwise individuals often overcompensate and the pendulum swings too far. Plus they need encouragement to stick at it. But most of all they need people who can coach, who have the time and interest to do it, and who themselves have strong behavioural skills that enable them to challenge and to guide the right way to do things. Developing great soft skills has everything to do with leadership.

Given the importance of these behavioural skills to procurement, it’s vital that we now move more swiftly from acknowledging how important they are, to making far more progress in improving them.

 Kim Godwin is a CIPS Past President and former CPO of Barclays, who now runs a consulting firm specialising in soft skills assessment

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