STEM Alone Won’t Be Enough

May 21, 2017

In education today there is a focus to deliver qualified graduates to take on careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Not only is this where the opportunities are today and likely in the future, but there is a tremendous shortage of qualified Americans to fill the number of STEM jobs currently available.

But a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a STEM field alone may not be enough. That’s because the ability to thrive in the workplace is more often dependent on interpersonal skills that have nothing to do with STEM. These soft skills may include things like cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy.

“Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be what I would call stempathy jobs,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in a World of Accelerations. “These are jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills—to blend calculus with human (or animal) psychology, to hold a conversation with Watson to make a cancer diagnosis and hold the hand of a patient to deliver it, to have a robot milk your cows but also to properly care for those cows in need of extra care with a gentle touch.”

These social skills may have been taught or modeled at home, yet are sorely missing in many workers with STEM careers. Whether people have forgotten these skills or simply choose to no longer demonstrate them in the workplace, it is a problem.

As a consultant and coach working with a variety of people in STEM organizations, I can attest that it is not technical competency or business aptitude that is often missing in many workers. In fact, it is the interpersonal skills that are often frustrating directs, coworkers and supervisors, and hampering the careers of these professionals.

According to a 2013 research study by Oxford’s Martin School, 47 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.

“Nobody cares what you know, because the Google machine knows everything,” Friedman said. The future, he argues, is about what we can do with what we know. It is our humanity and our empathy that make us uniquely different from computers.

This humanity is something we should embrace and use to our advantage rather than downplay as insignificant. It is also the very best way to protect your livelihood from being shortcut by a computer taking over your job.

Showing up in the workplace not only with our technical expertise, but also with compassion for one another is important in order to thrive individually and collectively. This means actively demonstrating cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy. Only in this way can STEM professionals truly reach their full potential.

Working for the Best Companies

January 25, 2012

Fortune magazine’s recent “100 Best Companies to Work For” list made me curious as to how they determine such a list. I also wanted to know what traits these companies look for in potential employees.

The 100 Best Companies list was compiled through a partnership with the Great Places to Work institute, and they determine ranking based on the results from survey questions sent to a random sample of 260,000 employees from the 280 companies that participated.

To be eligible for the list, a company had to be at least seven years old and have more than 1,000 U.S. employees.

Two-thirds of the questions from the institute’s Trust Index Asseessment & Employee Survey were related to attitudes about management credibility, job satisfaction and camaraderie. The other third were based on responses to the institute’s Culture Audit, which includes detailed questions about pay and benefit programs and a series of open-ended questions about hiring practices, methods of internal communication, training, recognition programs and diversity efforts.

This is obviously not a list compiled based on popularity, exceptional salaries or who has the most celebrated CEO at a given time.

The goal of the list is to help “tie Trust Index metrics to your organization’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) so that you can understand the relationship between your organization’s business goals and your employees’ workplace experiences.”

This sounds like a worthy goal, especially in light of recent news about the deplorable working conditions in the Foxconn factory in China.

Companies are are broken down into groups such as the number of employees and include sub-groups such as job growth, low turnover, no layoffs, percentage of women, percentage of minorities, and all stars—companies that have been on the list every year since its inception in 1998. This includes 13 companies like SAS Institute (3), Wegman’s Food Markets (4), REI (8), Goldman Sachs (33), Microsoft (76) and Nordstroms (61).

Best perks can include things like health care (14 of the companies pay 100% of their employee health-care premiums), child care, work-life balance, telecommuting, sabbaticals, and unusual perks (Google has nap pods and in-house eyebrow shaping).

In this economy perhaps most important is the category of who is hiring and most of these companies are now looking for talent. In fact, there are more than 56,000 openings currently available in these 100 companies.

Human resource and recruiting personnel at these companies say they are looking for candidates with traits like passion, attitude, communication skills, collaboration, an interest in learning and values that align with our organization.

Here are some examples:

At Google (1)“. . . in addition to looking for strong cognitive ability and meaningful work experience,” says Yolanda Mangolini, director, global diversity, talent & inclusion. “We also want people with interesting and unique accomplishments—sports, music, starting a business, or writing a book, for example. Cultural fit and diversity are very important to us.”

Whole Foods Market (32) say they hire for attitude and train for skill. “If we can find applicants who have strong customer service skills and high energy, and are enthusiastic about the organic and natural foods industry (and who love food), then they are a fit for us,” according to Janet Lapaire, CHRP team member service coordinator.

Adobe’s (41) VP of global talent acquisition Jeff Vijungco says, “We want candidates to share some of the biggest failures that have shaped who they are as a leader because we celebrate failures as defining moments in an employee’s professional development.”

Intel’s (46) greater Americas staffing manager Cindi Harper, says they look for candidates “with behavioral characteristics that extend beyond their specific educational training.”

Brent Bultema, director of recruitment strategies at Mayo Clinic (71) says “strong candidates are people whose personal values align with those of Mayo Clinic. Individuals who are collaborative, collegial, professional, respectful and passionate will be a good fit.”

“Cisco (90) looks for people who are strong collaborators and communicators,” says Bronwyn White, director of human resources. “We look for people with a track record of continuous learning and who are prepared to question the status quo within their discipline. We value flexibility and promote work-life integration while making sure that we focus on results.”

“I have the great fortune to work with people everyday that love what they do and where they work” says Jack McCarthy, a recruiter at CarMax (91). “We want to see that same passion from candidates throughout our entire interview process. My advice to candidates is along the same lines; figure out what you do really well and enjoy, and find a company that has the right culture fit.”

In addition to general technical competency for the specified job, all of these Top 100 Companies are looking for candidates who have behavioral competencies also known as emotional intelligence or EQ.

The EQ traits they look for can include things like interpersonal communication, collaboration, empathy, creative problem solving, and conflict negotiation and resolution. And these companies want people who fit in with their organization’s values and culture because that is what keeps them on this best companies list.

EQ traits are not easily conveyed via a resume and therefore it is vital that they be demonstrated throughout the interviewing process. If you are serious about joining one of these companies, keep this in mind as you navigate the opportunity.

Redefined Leadership through Greater Gender Diversity

December 9, 2011

Women have made great strides succeeding in every profession, yet still find little opportunity in the executive office and corporate boardrooms.

By 2009 women made up more than half of America’s labor force, however, only 12 women were CEOs or presidents of Fortune 500 companies and just 25 of Fortune 1000 companies.

Recently, former Ebay leader Meg Whitman was appointed CEO of HP and Virginia Rometty will soon take over as the first woman CEO of IBM. But these are anomalies as only 3.2% of CEOs in the 3,049 publicly traded companies analyzed by GMI were women.

According to a 2010 study, men hold 82% of seats in Fortune 100 corporate boardrooms and an even higher percentage in Fortune 500 companies. Women and minorities have actually been losing boardseats in large corporations since 2004.

A case could be made for increasing gender diversity not only to provide greater opportunities for women in business, but also to improve overall business.  This is not to say women necessarily make better leaders than men. I only suggest that the yardstick we use to identify successful business leaders may need to be recalibrated.

Leadership qualities in business include such personal behaviors as decisiveness, goal-directedness, and performance-orientation, and we should complement those with social behaviors like relational awareness, emotional intelligence, inclusion, empathy and intuition. These social behaviors are more often associated with women than men, but they can be learned by anyone.

Do the personal and social pressures women face make it harder for them to succeed as leaders in a corporate environment? Countless factors may come into play for women including, maternal and domestic priorities, greater societal pressures, double-standard for behaviors in the office, and the burden of maintaining physical appearances.

The fact is that standards in the business world are still made and enforced by men, and this makes it difficult for women to reach the top in any corporation.

This is especially unfortunate as studies from McKinsey and Catalyst continually find that companies in the US and Europe with a high number of women executives and board members perform better organizationally and financially.

According to Catalyst research, the 25 Fortune 500 companies with the best records for promoting women to senior positions have 69 percent higher returns than the Fortune 500 median for their industry.

The results of a 2010 McKinsey Global Survey found 72 percent of executives say they “believe there is a direct connection between a company’s gender diversity and its financial success.” According to the study, companies with the highest levels of gender diversity also had higher returns on equity, operating results, and growth in market valuation than the averages in their respective sectors.

Research on collective intelligence by Christopher Chabris at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence and Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University found that the one predictor that a specific group will have high collective intelligence requires that at least half the chairs around the table are occupied by women.

According to Chabris and Woolley it is this superior social sensitivity in reading non-verbal cues and other people’s emotions, and fairness in taking turns that make the difference. Superior social sensitivity includes things like emotional intelligence, a holistic perspective, empathy and intuition.

These traits or “soft skills” are often marginalized or dismissed altogether in the business world. And though they are regularly associated as more feminine characteristics, effective soft skills have proven to be a powerful predictor of career success for both men and women.

Leslie Pratch is a clinical psychologist who headed research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business investigating the longer-term personality predictors of leadership. She found that gender-based expectations for behavior very much influence the styles and evaluations of leaders.

According to Pratch’s research, women are expected to display high levels of social qualities, including the need for affiliation, a tendency to be self-sacrificing, a concern for others, spontaneity, and emotional expressiveness. Men, on the other hand, are expected to show high levels of qualities associated with acting or exerting power, independence, assertiveness, self-confidence, and instrumental competence.

When applied to leadership, female-stereotypical forms of leadership are interpersonally oriented and collaborative, whereas male-stereotypical forms of leadership are task oriented and dominating.

At a time when strong leadership is so desperately needed, it may be necessary to redefine what it means to lead.

To be a successful company and thrive in a global economy, leaders need to lessen their grip on independence and domination, and embrace the distribution of power by engaging others in a collaborative manner to encourage diverse opinions that can bring about successful solutions.

This means hiring and promoting people who have both a task- and collaborative-orientation. In the near term, they may need to promote those people who primarily demonstrate relational intelligence, empathy and intuition to complement those who already demonstrate decisiveness, goal-directedness, and performance-orientation.

And this, more than likely, means hiring and promoting more women into leadership positions.

Statistically Significant: Effective Managers use Soft Skills

March 15, 2011

In 2009 Google began an internal initiative called Project Oxygen in order to better understand what makes an effective Google manager.

They analyzed more than 10,000 observations about managers, including 100 variables on things like performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.

This data-driven method for improving managers was based on the premise that Google workers are different from other workers.

In the end, Project Oxygen’s statisticians came up with eight directives that separate good managers from bad managers. These include such common sense things like:

“Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.”

“Help your employees with career development.”

“Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.”

What Google found in its research is that employees most valued managers with people skills, not technical ones. Rather than being told what to do, employees want to be helped through figuring out problems for themselves.

“Although people are always looking for the next new thing in leadership,” says D. Scott DeRue, a management professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “Google’s data suggest that not much has changed in terms of what makes for an effective leader.”

According to a recent article in the The New York Times, Google’s “people operations” group, led by Laszlo Bock, “found that technical expertise—the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep—ranked dead last” among the list of Google’s eight main habits of effective managers.

Bock admitted they had assumed managers needed to have deep technical knowledge in order to effectively manage other engineers. Turns out this is the least important of the top eight qualities.

Project Oxygen discovered that two of the most important things managers can do is make time for their people and be consistent. It turns out these two things are more important than doing all of the other things.

This is not unique to Google, of course. Today’s workers need to connect with their teams and especially their immediate supervisors. It’s not that we are especially insecure and need constant feedback on what we do, but we are often isolated from the end product or bigger picture and it’s hard to know whether or not we’re doing a good job and whether we matter.

Connecting with the people who work for you and giving feedback more often than an annual performance review can be a powerful motivator.

Research suggests that employees join a company due to its reputation and they leave a company primarily due to their manager. Google’s data confirmed that managers have a much greater impact on employees’ performance and how they feel about their job than any other factor.

Soft skills, the very things that are so difficult to quantify and aren’t easily recognizable on resumes, really do make a difference in how people manage others.

As I wrote in a previous post with regard to what employees say they want from their managers, the first three are all in the category of soft skills. These are:

1. Full appreciation for work done
2. Feeling ‘part’ of things
3. Sympathetic help on personal issues

Many managers reading this may find these are not at all consistent with their own employees who surely want more tangible things like good wages, job security and promotions. But these results have been consistent over the last thirty years.

Google has grown incredibly fast since its founding in 1998. They expertly navigated this growth by hiring smart technical people and let them figure out how best to get things done. Now they need to shift the focus on replicating the people skills of their most effective managers so they can continue this growth.

The Pain Relief of Soft Skills

July 14, 2010

There’s a saying in business that you are either selling aspirin (making a customer’s pain go away) or vitamins (by making the customer’s existing situation better).

My work involves helping individuals and organizations with so-called “soft skills,” or things like interpersonal communication, self-awareness, conflict negotiation, collaboration and leadership. These soft skills are typically considered vitamins more than aspirin. But should they?

In my experience, many organizations suffer a great deal of pain because employees lack proficiency in many of these interpersonal areas. This is because most organizations are challenged more by the relationships between people than by technical problems or business issues. The pain may not be as obvious or easy to measure, but that doesn’t lessen its impact on the bottom line.

The downturn in the economy resulted in slashed budgets of training and development departments, and many departments jettisoned altogether. But what is the cost of not focusing on these people skills both now and in the near future?

According to a study by Indiana Business Research Center, they found that while credentials in the form of degrees and certificates are important, development of soft skills (skills that are more social than technical) are a crucial part of a dynamic workforce. The skills projected to be in highest demand for all Indiana occupations through 2014 include active listening, critical thinking, speaking, active learning, writing, time management, and social perceptiveness.

Research conducted by DePaul University concluded that recruiters want business schools to put more attention on people-oriented skills like leadership and communication. However, students complain that those soft skills won’t get them hired, and they pressure business schools to focus more on functional or technical content.

So which is more important: technical skills or soft skills? It seems to me that you need technical skills to get hired, but soft skills are what help you succeed once you are hired. Both are ultimately important, but technical skills get a lot more attention, especially in a poor economy where securing a job is paramount.

This may be changing. According to a 2007 survey by OfficeTeam, and the International Association of Administrative Professionals, two-thirds of HR managers say they would hire an applicant with strong soft skills whose technical abilities are lacking. Only nine percent of those surveyed said they would hire someone who had strong technical expertise but weak interpersonal skills.

“While office technology skills are very important, excellent interpersonal skills are invaluable and usually more difficult to teach,” said Sandra P. Chandler, president of IAAP.

A 2007 Computerworld survey of hiring and skills reported that IT executives are increasingly looking for people with a broad range of soft skills in addition to their technical abilities. The survey respondents said writing and public speaking are two of the most important soft skills they look for when hiring new employees. Additionally, they want candidates who understand business process, work well with a team, know how to get their points across, are inquisitive, use initiative and are willing to take risks.

Further, a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that although recent MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas employers find equally attractive. These areas include strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.

Peggy Klaus, in research for her book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills—Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner, continually encountered people who were not getting where they wanted to go in their careers. “Their problems rarely stemmed from a shortfall in technical or professional expertise, but rather from a shortcoming in the soft skills arena with their personal, social, communication and self-management behaviors.”

Soft skills are important in entry level or unskilled positions too. In a 2008 Job Outlook survey by the National Association of Colleges & Employers, the top characteristics looked for in new hires by 276 employer respondents (mostly from the service sector) were all soft skills: communication ability, a strong work ethic, initiative, interpersonal skills, and teamwork.

If soft skills are so important to employers, why is there so little focus on fostering them in employees? I would argue that during this time of record layoffs and fewer employees being asked to do more of the work, it is vitally important to make each of them more efficient and productive. Soft skills training can be especially helpful in this effort.

Soft skills should not be considered “touchy-feely stuff that’s nice to have, but can’t afford it right now.” Proficiency in these skills separate organizations who may survive yet another year versus those who grow, adapt and are able to compete in a global economy.

Employees proficient in soft skills demonstrate higher employee engagement, greater productivity, and help make an entire organization more competitive in the marketplace.

Though the benefits of soft skills training may be hard to measure in the short term, organizations need to look beyond simple pain relief from a symptom of a much bigger problem and toward a long term, system-wide wellness approach. Soft skills training is key to a healthy organization.

Mark Craemer

Soft Skills of Leadership

November 11, 2009

Corporate leaders need to know their business, know their customers, and have the ability to execute a strategy successfully. And leaders need to be especially agile to stay current with their business as the pace of change has accelerated so dramatically. Great leadership also requires not only understanding customers’ current needs, but accurately predicting future needs as well. This knowledge of business and customers becomes relevant only when leaders also have the ability to execute a strategy that drives growth.

In a recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity in partnership with the American Management Association, some 600 employees working at the manager level or above in a wide range of industries were asked to pick from a list of 14 leadership competencies. Not surprisingly, the three items mentioned above were at the top of the list. The three that followed, however, may surprise you:

• Building good relationships
• Having good communication skills
• Creating an environment of trust and respect

These three competencies were cited more frequently than the ability to develop a strategy or knowing how to align the organization well. The technical skills of business are as important as ever, but unless they are coupled with these other competencies, leaders cannot be nearly as effective. So what does this tell us about the nature of these so-called soft skills?

The context for leadership has changed dramatically in the last five years. Customers are harder to find and harder to keep, profit margins are slimmer, and many employees live with anxiety, stressed by overwork and job insecurity. As a result, corporations require leaders who know how to handle themselves in this complex environment. This means demonstrating empathy to others. It means actively listening so that they really hear what is being said even when it conflicts with what they want to hear. It means having extreme self-awareness. These soft skill competencies often fall under the heading of Emotional Intelligence and are important to any progressive organization.

Building good relationships is especially important because people are obviously the most important element in any business. An ability to really know and relate to others enables leaders to get things done. Strong relationships with employees, suppliers and customers can often be the difference success and failure. In the same way our personal relationships need care and constant attention, so too do our professional relationships.

Communication skills are one of those things most of us believe we have a talent for. But do we really? Communicating well means more than the ability to write well and feel comfortable with public speaking. The ability to really listen and let others know that you have heard them is important. Leaders also need to share difficult information and explain why decisions were made. This is because unpopular decisions that are fully explained will be perceived more favorably than those that come down without full disclosure. Good communication skills require being a good listener and being articulate and authentic in words and deeds.

To create an environment of trust and respect means many things. First and foremost, it means being approachable and friendly because people trust and respect leaders they like. Balance the need for results with being considerate of other’s feelings. Work hard to win people over without misusing your position of power. Make sure that your words match your actions. Use paraphrase to ensure you understand what is being said. And demonstrate support for your people, especially when they make mistakes.

Leadership soft skills will continue to play an increasingly important role as leaders need to do more with less and effectively manage accelerated change while nurturing themselves and their people. A leader’s ability to speak clearly and honestly will result in employees who understand and want to step up to the challenge. Authentic transparency is what employees want in their leaders. Creating an environment of trust and respect means a leader actively demonstrates his trust and respect in every interaction with employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders. Soft skills such as these enable leaders to walk their talk and this is fundamental to great leadership.

Mark Craemer