Books: The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

A few weeks ago, I attended a required meeting for all supervisors. I’ve never been a supervisor before, and had no idea what to expect. Mostly, the meeting was an update on various policies and other matters that supervisors should know about. (They hold these meetings quarterly.) But it also included a list of new books in the college library on leadership.

I only have one person to supervise, and she’s been doing my job since my predecessor left in June, so right now she’s telling me what I need to do more than the other way around. But I figured it would be helpful to read at least one of the books on the list, to get some idea what kinds of things I needed to know or do.

The one I picked out was The Hard Truth about Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner. I’ve had a number of supervisors who had been promoted because of their technical skills, but who were lacking in people skills. I had never looked for a supervisory position myself because I didn’t want to be a difficult-to-work-for supervisor. But my first day on this job, I learned I was a supervisor. So now I want to learn how to do it right.

Actually, I want better people skills in general, not just as a supervisor. In previous jobs I’ve been told I seem unfriendly because I walk around with such a serious look on my face, or because I don’t stop to chitchat with people. I tried to improve (and I think succeeded to a fair extent), though I didn’t really understand how I had been perceived until – in my last job – I had a supervisor who was like that herself.

Perhaps because I don’t participate in a lot of the office chitchat, I’ve discovered that I’m often the last one to hear about things. I’ll never forget how upset a co-worker was when I asked her a question, and she asked how could I care about it “at a time like this!” I had to find out from someone else that a long-time employee in the factory had dropped dead of a heart attack in front of the co-worker who had been upset with me.

Most incidents are far less serious, but I often seem to be one of the last to learn about upcoming weddings, births, operations, etc. I was somewhat relieved, in my last job, to occasionally be able to share news that someone else didn’t already know. If I wasn’t the last to learn it, perhaps I was finally learning to be an active part of the “social network” in the office. Of course, now I’m in a new job, and have to get to know a whole new set of people.

Most of what Peggy Klaus teaches in this book is not even about leadership, but the various skills that will get you ahead at work – without which you’re not likely to end up in a position of leadership to begin with. Some of the principles I already knew – as principles anyway; practicing them is another matter. I’ve been told that for being as smart as I am, I’m seriously lacking in common sense. I appear to be good at listening because I do a lot more listening than talking, but I don’t know whether I do any better than most at what’s called “active listening.”

Other skills I have only developed fairly recently. A lot of the skills have to do with taking responsibility for your own career future. As a young person, I had no idea that my personality and skills would make IT a good career choice for me – my previous post described my various missteps along the way to finding this out. Since it was other people who saw the potential in me and encouraged me in that direction, for a long time I relied on other people to continue to help me find where I fit best.

After all, wasn’t that part of a manager’s job, to recognize the abilities of the people under him, and put them where their effectiveness was maximized? Perhaps so, but in practice few managers focus on that aspect of their role. In most companies, getting the work done today takes precedence over long-range planning, and managers’ primary concern is meeting (often unrealistic) deadlines.

Besides, how many manager are hired for their ability to size up employees’ potential, outside of human resources departments? Most managers I’ve known started out in non-supervisory positions, got promoted to supervisor because they knew the work well (the “hard” skills), and eventually to manager because they were reasonably good at getting people to get the work done.

So it’s up to people to figure out for themselves what they do well, where they would like to be, and how to get there. It took me several years to figure out that the company I had been working for since 2004 was not a good fit for me, because of the level of specialization in IT.

I figured out some of the things I did well and enjoyed (noticing details other people miss, doing a mix of routine and non-routine work, working on my own but in support of a small group of people, documenting systems and processes, finding information that was hard to find), but I had no idea where I could find a job that was like that. Only finding out that my job was being eliminated pushed me to go looking for that kind of job and actually find one – which I now enjoy doing.

I still have a problem with some of the other skills Klaus says are necessary for keeping one’s career on track. I’ve never liked having to “sell” myself, but Klaus says it is essential, not just for getting a job but having the right opportunities within the company you already work for. There’s a wrong way of “tooting your own horn” but also a right way, and you have to think of yourself as a brand (like a breakfast cereal) and promote it.

She recommends writing down some “brag bites” – brief, entertaining, conversational stories that tell about your accomplishments in a way that is attractive rather than obnoxious. And then the collection of brag bites has to be kept up-to-date so you are talking about current accomplishments, not the same ones you’ve been telling about for weeks, months, or years.

I did this in preparation for my job interview in August, but I haven’t given much thought to it lately. After I wrote my first useful SQL script, in mid-September, I was eager to let people know about it. But now, when I’m asked in the hallway how things are going, I have little to say. “Fine.” Or, “still learning a lot.” Perhaps I need to make that a regular weekly task – maybe for Friday afternoons when I’m tired and it’s hard to think deeply about how the computer system works. (I read somewhere else recently that people do their best creative work in the afternoon when they’re tired.)

Two chapters that deal with areas people want to shy away from are dealing with criticism, and with office politics. I’ve heard over and over about the importance of first impressions, and I work at making a good impression in situations such as interviews and presentations. But Klaus points out that we’re constantly making – and receiving – impressions on co-workers, and we never know when the next encounter is going to be an important one.

One particularly uncomfortable thing she stresses the importance of is asking for feedback. It’s one thing to learn to deal with constructive criticism from one’s supervisor, whether during a performance review or on an informal basis in the course of daily work. But to actively solicit feedback, not only from one’s supervisor but from colleagues and direct reports? I find that difficult.

Another section is titled “You don’t need to be everyone’s best friend – that’s what dogs are for.” I don’t think I’ve ever tried to be everyone‘s friend, but where I do get to know someone, I want it to be a positive relationship. My mother used to accuse my father of wanting “peace at any price,” and I know I have the same conflict-avoidance tendencies as he did. (I’m sure that’s a major part of why I failed as a classroom teacher.)

The chapter on office politics is even more challenging. “Learn the unspoken rules of your workplace.” How? She doesn’t really say, other than “observe, listen, and ask questions” in the early days of employment in a new environment. Fortunately in my current situation, my direct report has been generous in sharing all sorts of information like that, along with the more technical aspects of our shared work.

What about finding a mentor? I’ve occasionally had one, when circumstances turned out that way, but never even considered going looking for one in the workplace. According to Klaus,

A good mentor can champion your ideas, help you meet the right people,” and help you lay the foundation for building a network of support and influence so that you can more easily navigate the shadow organization.

(The “shadow organization” refers to the unofficial company culture, those unspoken rules referred to above, of how things get done and who really decides things.) I suppose I’ve always expected my supervisor to play that role, but of course that often doesn’t happen. As Klaus points out, a supervisor is usually primarily concerned with his own future, not yours.

Only the last chapter deals directly with being a leader. Ironically, considering why I checked out this book, this chapter had relatively little for me. A lot of it has to do with communication – listening to people, and remember that what they “hear” me say is not necessarily the same as what I think I said. I’m not inclined to micromanagement, and I know I will still have a lot to learn no matter how far I get. Someday I may have to work on the “treat everyone equally,” but with only one direct report, I think I’ve got that one covered for now.

But there are lots of other leadership books in the library. Tomorrow I can pick out another one.

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