Soft skills key to successful managers
By Vlad Vaiman
Executives often promote outstanding employees to supervisory or managerial positions as part of their strategy to retain the best ones. There is nothing wrong with promoting the best people to management ranks, but the problem is that most of them lack managerial skills. A promotion can start out well but turn into a disaster, both for the company and the new manager. These people may be brilliant engineers, accomplished biologists or cutting-edge computer scientists but, if they lack managerial skills, promoting them is a risky venture.
There are two types of managerial competencies – hard and soft. The hard competencies include technical skills, knowledge of professional standards, understanding of technology involved and ability to focus on specific details. These competencies are usually learned through formal education and professional development.
Soft skills, on the other hand, refer to those character traits that each of us possesses. These personal characteristics determine who we are as human beings, reflect our values, and encompass our habits, attitudes and behaviors, including the way we interact with others. Among the most important soft competencies are emotional intelligence, communication, leadership and conflict management skills. These are not as tangible as hard competencies and they are more difficult to measure. However, when people say someone has no managerial skills it is the soft type they have in mind.
Soft skills are not easily learned in the classroom environment, mostly because they are impalpable and innate to many people. People can acquire and develop these skills, however, through educational and everyday work and life experiences, interaction with other people and learning on-the-go. For instance, you may feel that you are not relating well to your subordinates, which often results in misunderstandings and sometimes conflicts. What you can do to improve yourself is to attend a class that talks about emotional intelligence, read up on its applications, seek advice from a more experienced fellow manager and then try to implement what you have learned in the work environment. Such a combination of different experiences has proven to help managers and others become better at not only what they do on the job but also in their day-to-day life, since these soft skills are helpful in personal life as well.
Soft skills are so important that they are one of the main emphases of the California Lutheran University School of Management’s new MBA for Experienced Professionals (MBA-EP) program. The program is aimed at those mid-career professionals who are ready to either go into a managerial position or take the next step in their managerial career. Students will explore a variety of subjects, but unlike those in the regular MBA program, they will forego industry specializations to focus on leadership, modern management techniques and personal and professional development.
The soft competencies that MBA-EP students will learn about are self-confidence, emotional resilience, stress management, emotional sensitivity, self-awareness, social flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, conflict-resolution skills and many others that in combination define a true leader and a great manager. However, as mentioned above, classroom training on those competencies is not enough.
That is why students — who will be studying within the same cohort throughout the 18-month program — will be encouraged to take advantage of the expertise, knowledge and experience of their professors and classmates who come from very diverse ethnic, social and professional backgrounds. Students will also be able to witness the evolution of their soft competencies as they go through the program. A comprehensive testing will be conducted at the beginning, mid-point, and end of the program, all in order to measure students’ progress.
The best managers are not those who simply excelled at their jobs before they were promoted. They are the outstanding employees who have the soft skills required to lead well. And these skills can most certainly be learned.
• Vlad Vaiman is the associate dean of the California Lutheran University School of Management.