SHRM recently published an article by a staffing company executive entitled “Rethinking Soft Skills in HR.” The title is interesting because the rap on HR historically has been that some in HR can be too soft… or just the opposite, too hard-nosed, demanding adherence to HR policies. It’s a conversation worth having. The author lists soft skills to include: Leadership, Teamwork, Communication, Strong Listener, Detail Oriented, Collaborative, Conflict Resolver, Good Humored, and Kind. All of these seem fine as competencies, but the list is missing something: the necessity that HR and, frankly, all leaders should ideally have (and use) both soft and hard people skills.
I agree with the suggestion to substitute “core cultural contribution skills” for “soft skills.” Sounds more important – “harder life skills,” she says. I’d hope someone would come up with a shorter phrase or term conveying toughness with warm human skills – Tough People Skills? I’m thinking of a beloved CEO who holds people accountable for high performance standards, nudges people to leave after they have gotten the hard feedback (“You missed your target goals by 30% again, and you know what that means”) and have received extensive training and coaching. “Nudging” is accurate – knowing that they will not be able to stay, almost all find another job and resign – they aren’t “fired.” Those rare mis-hires sincerely thank the CEO and many send Christmas cards. My point: the best executives I know exude business toughness but also deep, sincere human warmth.
I believe tough business goals and real accountability to achieve them can and should be combined with empathy and warmth.
In over 40 years of working with HR departments, mostly in large companies, I’ve met with the CHROs of the largest 100 companies in the world, assessed candidates for CHRO for Fortune 50 companies, and worked with hundreds of HR professionals who do the “heavy lifting” in rolling out Topgrading. I’ve seen the most successful HR managers who are friendly, empathetic, caring, and also:
- Tough Minded – face and resolve difficult personnel situations (like whom to furlough in a pandemic, what benefits to pay, when to terminate someone) combining business necessity with human concern.
- Highly Persuasive – hold everyone to high performance standards (without the CEO or other senior executive having to tell someone, “You’ve fallen significantly short of your performance goals this year”).
- High Integrity – are willing and able to push back (often in private) on senior management when sure a decision will turn out to be a bad decision. Does not just “go along with” policies or decisions for fear of irritating superiors.
- Business Savvy – have the education (MBA, online course, reading habits) to be “at the table,” welcomed into meetings regarding acquisitions, investments, strategy.
- Change Leader – can combine the above skills to initiate and implement significantly different approaches (working at home, changing the hiring process, making diversity “real”).
What are your thoughts? You can connect with our LinkedIn group to share your ideas on the topic, and discuss other topics related to hiring HR professionals, soft skills vs hard skills and hiring successful leaders.
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