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The evolution of leadership: Why soft skills have become crucial for career success

by Kim Walker

September 22, 2022

While lauded as the ideal way to do business in the 80s, abrasive, bull-in-a-china-shop behavior is not the sought-after trait it used to be. Here, Kim Walker (founder and chairman, Aprais) reflects on the evolution of leadership across his 30-year career, and explains how soft skills have now become crucial for career success.

My first leadership position came at the ripe old age of 27. When I reflect on my behavior in those days it’s a wonder that I escaped intact.

As managing director of an ad agency employing 170 people, I took my cues from the prevailing wisdom. In those days - the late 80’s - tough-minded leaders like Jack Welch, for two decades the chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) and the since discredited American corporate turnaround specialist, Al (Chainsaw) Dunlap were our business heroes.

Such stereotypes were also reflected on the silver screen through characters like Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street. They led from the front like military generals. Don’t listen, just yell. They showed us how business was done, and academia heralded their style as the path to success.

When at the helm of GE, Jack Welch famously argued that leaders should fire the bottom 10 percent of their workforce each year, as part of an orderly continuous improvement process. Honestly.

Al Dunlap played to the image of a bull in a corporate china shop, accepting nicknames like “Rambo in Pinstripes” and “The Shredder.” His motto was: “You’re not in business to be liked. If you want a friend, get a dog”.

I followed this advice and did quite well in spite of my abrasive behavior.

But my life and management style pivoted abruptly when my first daughter was born. This gave me a new understanding of what’s important in life. I changed completely.

I’ve often wondered was this just me and life-stage, or was the criteria for business leadership slowly, but fundamentally, changing to embrace ‘softer’ skills?

This article in Harvard Business Review suggests the latter. Landing a job as a CEO today is no longer all about industry expertise and financial savvy. What companies are really seeking are leaders with strong social skills. The soft stuff.

That’s what the authors discovered after analyzing nearly 5,000 job descriptions from Russell Reynolds Associates for c-suite roles.

Their explanation for this trend? Business operations are becoming more complex and tech-centered; workforce diversity is growing; and firms face greater public scrutiny than ever before. Those conditions call for leaders who are adept communicators, relationship builders, and people-oriented problem solvers.

What are 'social skills'?

I interpret social skills to mean ‘being human’. While remaining conscious of KPIs and business imperatives, we must recognize that in a people business, people matters, matter most.

The authors of the HBR research define ‘social skills’ to include:

· High level of self-awareness

· The ability to listen and communicate well

· A facility for working with different types of people and groups

· The capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling. I would call this empathy but psychologists call it “theory of mind”

What relevance to the marketing industry?

The research revealed that social skills are particularly important in settings where productivity hinges on effective communication such as in marketing, advertising and media.

Even when related to financials, soft skills matter. Analysis of the 25,000 evaluations in our database revealed that clients who adopt a fair approach to agency remuneration perceive better value from the relationship with their agency.

In such organizations, CEOs and other senior leaders can’t limit themselves to performing routine operational tasks. They also have to spend a significant amount of time interacting with others and enabling coordination—by communicating information, facilitating the exchange of ideas, building and overseeing teams, and identifying and solving problems.

Sound familiar?

Intriguingly, the evolution of skills requirements in the c-suite parallels developments in the workforce as a whole. At all employment levels today, more and more jobs require highly developed social skills. Harvard’s David Deming, among others, has demonstrated that such jobs have grown at a faster rate than the labor market as a whole—and that compensation for them is growing faster than average.

To succeed in the future, the authors argue, companies will need to focus on those skills when they evaluate CEO candidates and develop in-house talent.

Behavior matters

When we started evaluating team relationships over 20 years ago, we focused on monitoring functional skills. Basically, the ability to do the job you’re paid to do.

But recently we have also started to examine how team behaviours can influence relationships, both positively and negatively.

Analysis of our extensive database identified seven key behaviors. These behaviors help define what sets the best teams apart from the rest.

As these seven behaviors are identical for all job functions, we can directly compare teams in a single relationship or against our broader benchmarks.

Through our analysis we concluded that the ability to bounce back from adversity (resilience) and the courage to challenge the status quo both present opportunities for clients and agencies to distinguish themselves. Arguably these aren’t such ‘soft’ softer skills after all.


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