Balancing Hard and Soft Skills in Learning & Development
Boeing Corporation’s former senior vice-president of HR, Rick Stephens, once said, “We hire for hard skills. We fire for soft skills.” And while establishing a balance between hard and soft skills in L&D can be challenging, it’s essential if you want an effective, adaptable workforce.
According to a recent LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report, 93% of organizations are concerned about employee retention. Providing learning opportunities is one of the best ways to keep good talent. But many learning professionals struggle to decide how to allocate resources between hard and soft skills development.
So what’s the best way to balance the ever-changing technical expertise required to perform today’s work with the soft skills needed to operate in collaborative teams to drive organizational success? Here’s how to incorporate both into your L&D strategy.
Hard vs. Soft Skills: What They Are, Why They’re Important
Skills are the currency in today's uncertain labor market, said Tiffany Poeppelman, director of career development at LinkedIn.
“It's never been more important for companies to empower not only their employees but leaders to be the best career coaches building the right skills,” she said. “You do that by striking a balance between hard and soft skills.”
First, understand the difference between them. Hard skills give employees the job-specific knowledge required to do their work.
“Hard skills have an outcome at the end of what you're actually going to do: how you answer a call, write a business report, or build a strategy,” said Michelle Braden, vice-president of global talent development at Wex.
Hard skills include data analytics, languages, computer programming, engineering, machine operations and accounting. Providing training for these skillsets keeps employees current and compliant with best practices.
Soft skills relate to how people interact and work together — think empathy, leadership, patience, problem-solving and communication. Even the most technically adept employees need strong soft skills to thrive within a team or organization.
“I actually think the term ‘soft skills’ is inadequate; I see them more as business critical and power skills, because they're essential for everybody in their career and they're just as important as technical skills because they’re so transferable across industries and roles,” said Poeppelman.
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Sharpening Skills to Build Better Teams
LinkedIn’s Most In-Demand Skills report for 2023 featured both hard and soft skills, said Poeppelman.
“Communication, leadership, management, customer service — these are sought after year over year, especially with hybrid work,” she explained.
Incorporating soft skills into L&D programs has increased in recent years as leaders discovered it helps build innovative, productive teams. Employees that are adaptable, organized problem-solvers able to build positive relationships with colleagues and clients can also manage challenging situations.
Time management and learning to understand your emotions are included in Wex’s basic training programs, noted Braden.
“We launched a new program called Safe to Engage that’s around psychological safety, decision making, and critical thinking — one of the most important soft skills we teach,” she said. “We also teach people-focused leadership skills — being empathetic, active listening, asking questions, being courageous — that get into what's important for people you're influencing and impacting.”
Not Either/Or but Both/And
Identifying organizational goals and mapping out your team’s current abilities can help identify which skills can be improved upon. This process can start by zeroing in on the employee experience, said Braden.
“If we're doing leadership development, we might focus on how to lead a team and also apply your knowledge around the experience the employee is having with you as a leader,” she said.
“We separate development from training: training is more around the hard piece of it, the process you go through. The leadership piece gets into how to handle the situation within the team, teaching how you communicate through that and focus on the impact you're having on others — that's the soft part of it.”
L&D has to establish intentionality between both hard and soft skills depending on corporate goals, said Poeppelman. Some organizations seeking to strengthen teamwork or develop leadership qualities may choose to prioritize soft skills training, while companies eager to get up to speed with new technology may concentrate on hard skills. Most, however, should do both, she added.
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“If we swing the pendulum too far and focus on one, we'll miss the needs on the other, so we've been encouraging our leaders and managers to think about how to create a culture of learning for every employee from senior leadership down,” she said. "For example, we're building out leadership academies at LinkedIn to help leaders inspire their employees and help them grow their careers. We need to balance both hard and soft skills because our jobs are changing all the time."
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Incorporating Both Types of Skills in Your Training Strategy
Formal and informal approaches to L&D programs can include everything from self-paced learning and on-the-job practice to certifications and peer-to-peer mentoring. When adding soft skills training to the mix, consider layering in experiential learning and interactive elements such as hands-on workshops, group learning and cross-training designed to upskill while also building relationships with co-workers, said Braden.
“It's never a one-off. I'm working on an executive program that has an education on-the-job portion, informal peer coaching and an assessment of where the gaps are — where they need help — with one-on-one coaching around your mindset and your approach to addressing those challenges,” she said, noting that this approach creates a holistic program instead of just a standalone training class.
Because learning happens in different ways within an organization, experience, exposure and education are the best ways to teach specific skills, said Poeppelman.
“We know that 70% of what people learn is on the job, so we help by finding mentors or taking on stretch assignments that allow people to complete their core job, but also flex and learn another skill,” she explained.
“Twenty percent of what we learn is through other people, so we connect them through mentoring programs. The other 10% is through formal training — sitting down to learn the tips and tricks. I'm seeing those evolve through community-based learning, especially in the hybrid world.”
You Found the Right Balance. Now What?
It’s not enough to simply teach employees about critical thinking, time management and communication. People need to practice and apply those skills before refining them.
“We have reflection, feedback and coaching, simulations, and application labs built into most of our programs so it’s a robust, comprehensive experience,” said Braden. "Our leadership program ranges from six weeks to six months, depending on your level. If you're a director and up, you're paired with people to do peer coaching, but you have reflection periods, discussion periods, and group coaching. Learn something, do something, and then apply it.”
To retain talent, organizations must continue providing learning opportunities, added Poeppelman.
“We need to continue investing in employees because some skills are changing faster than they can keep up. We see in our studies that giving opportunities to grow is the number one way to improve retention,” she said.
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Tailor Training to the Future
Designing learning programs to make your workforce efficient, engaged and confident will help teams reach their potential. And when they succeed, so will your company.
“So much of L&D, especially soft skills, are paramount for anyone's career; they unlock internal mobility in a greater way than we've ever seen,” said Poeppelman. “Having a focus on skills enables us to also unlock more hiring opportunities to diversify our workforce.”
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