Erik P.M. Vermeulen


Why Your “Soft Skills” Matter in Building a Culture of Success

Communication & Collaboration in a “Digital Mindset”

I am in Almaty in Kazakhstan.

The mission? To help a company build an open and transparent culture appropriate for a digital age.

The problem? To ensure that company values, such as honesty, excellence, and innovation/entrepreneurship are embedded in the DNA of a company and are lived and experienced by employees at all levels.

The answer? The answer is by no means obvious or easy, but I believe that “soft skills” — the capacity to communicate, collaborate and innovate with others — have a crucial role to play.

And, in a digital age, these skills become more (not less) important. For this reason, everyone stands to gain from devoting more attention to thinking about and improving their “soft skills.”

Let me explain why.

The “Why” and the “What”

The rationale behind my mission is straightforward. In the context of the digital transformation, all companies need to become more entrepreneurial. Companies cannot afford to stand still.

It really is a case of “innovate or die.”

But, at the same time, there are enormous pressures (political and regulatory) on companies to become more environmentally and socially responsible. Putting in place measures that reduce a company’s environmental “footprint, treat employees more fairly or eradicate corruption are prominent examples.

And, on the surface, most companies appear to know “what” to do. They expand their compliance department, establish an innovation lab or launch a corporate venture capital fund. They incorporate great sounding “missions” and “visions” and introduce multiple “policies,” “guidelines,” and “procedures.”

“Fake News”

But do these measures have a real impact?

When discussing this question with companies (at least, in public), you will often hear that these measures are successful. “Objective” evidence is gathered to validate and support such claims. For instance, references are made to customer and employee satisfaction surveys.

But, many times, this is just “corporate theatre.”

And digital technologies seem to feed such “theatre.” In a digital age, it’s relatively simple to see and copy what other companies are doing. There is an enormous amount of stuff out there (on websites and social media). For instance, many blogs give recommendations about building corporate cultures that thrive.

Projecting a “fake” image of excellence, integrity, and entrepreneurship is made much easier by new technologies.

Privately, many executives and managers are willing to admit this. A few weeks ago, for example, I was at an event where a former head of a renowned corporate venture capital fund stated that even though the financial performance of the fund was satisfactory, it made no significant contribution to the innovation capacities of his company.

It is well-known that nice-sounding values do not make a company more trustworthy. Most of it is just “window-dressing” designed to appease regulators and other observers.

So, what can be done to improve the situation? What can be done to instil the right kind of values in a company or other organization?

The “How”?

Focus on “Process”

It seems to me that one of the problems with this whole discussion is that too much emphasis is put on the goal and not enough on the process.

We don’t focus enough on how to incorporate these nice-sounding principles into company operations and practices. When the content of the principles is so vague, this makes little sense. If we don’t know where we are going, how do we ever expect to get there?

Instead, we might be much better off thinking about the processes that allow a company to develop its values “organically” from the “bottom-up.”

In this way, the vague terms that currently dominate this discussion — think “freedom”, “responsibility”, “excellence”, and “integrity” can be given their own distinctive meaning in the context of a specific company.

An often-used example of a company that gets it is Netflix. Their 2009 “manifesto” (in the form of a 120 pages-plus PowerPoint slideshow) has been viewed over 16 million times and was recently updated:

I have used Netflix before as an example of how to do it. Actually, the “roadmap” is clearly stated on their website:

  • Encourage independent decision-making by all employees
  • Share information openly, broadly and deliberately
  • Be extraordinarily candid with each other
  • Retain only the most effective people
  • Avoid rules.

But we must realize that this cannot be easily replicated.

Even Netflix admits that they have a unique employee culture that took time to develop. The corporate culture was the result of experimentation, feedback, and learning. As a result, all employees now take ownership of the culture and become invested in that culture. “Failures” in performance are not tolerated and everyone takes responsibility for “policing” the values that everyone has helped to create.

Of course, thinking about the “how” in this way is difficult. But, it has to be better than the fake world of theatre and window-dressing.

So, let me give one example of how we might build a more genuine and authentic corporate culture:

Recognize the power of “soft skills.”

The Power of “Soft Skills”

Whenever I mention the importance of “soft skills”, people look at me like, “Oh yes, sure!” We have heard this “nonsense” before. Or, they think it is about how to make a better PowerPoint presentation.

Here, I use the term “soft skills” in a very general sense to refer to the personal attributes and capacities that enable someone to interact effectively with other people. Whereas hard skills are job-specific knowledge, soft skills are transferable and involve:

  • The ability to communicate honestly and openly
  • To listen and engage
  • To have empathy with and concern for others
  • To be able to work in a highly diverse environment.
Ensuring that these kinds of skills are embedded in every relationship within an organization is vital.

Then, everyone invests in the kind of honest, open and inclusive relationships that seem crucial for an effective, engaged and innovative organizational culture.

Of course, there will always be conflicts and disputes. There will always be honest disagreements about strategy and there will always be people who simply cannot get along. But, a focus on soft skills can create an organizational culture that ensures that such disagreements do not drag a company down.

And in a digital age, where much communication increasingly relies on new technologies, such skills become even more important.

We need to think much more about how each of the above-listed soft skills are affected by the digital transformation. We need to leverage technology to create a culture of transparency and openness that maximizes opportunities for constant innovation.

And, There is More . . .

Crucially, I believe that soft skills can be taught.

It is possible to teach:

  • the power of personalized communication
  • how to create a buzz through social media
  • how to become a better listener
  • how to become more engaged as a leader.

Everyone in an organization can learn to encourage information sharing, build on each other’s experience and expertise, and experiment together.

The key to building a culture of success within any organization is to embed an on-going process of teaching and learning in that organization. It is about utilizing the “digital mindset” to create an open, transparent and entrepreneurial company culture.

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