Soft Skills, Hard Results

This is a repost of something I wrote for work.  We often overlook the opportunities to structure follow-up and reconnection with participants after the ‘event’ of learning is done.   This is just a little story about that…

It was pretty early in my day.  I set my coffee maker up the night prior, with an early start of 05:30.   By 6:00, I was in my desk chair, at home, logging in to a webinar hosted from the other side of the world.

These leaders run businesses around the world – from cement factories to retail clothing to telecommunications services.  I sip my coffee and think back to what feels like ages ago – when we were all together in Mumbai, sharing stories, debating issues, gaining insights, and resolving to do something important – to make a difference.

It was actually only 3 months ago, and the time had gone by very quickly.  In today’s world, you blink and things change.  This is the reality that these business leaders face, and what’s fascinating for me is their sense of responsibility for the world around them.   It was this whirlwind of change that fueled much of our discussions together in Mumbai.   They were not only concerned about the performance of their various businesses (the ‘bottom line’), but also the well-being of their workforce, and of the larger communities in which they operate.

It won’t be news to anyone that has spent time working in that part of the world, but for those that haven’t, India is a fascinating, bustling, deeply culturally complex nation.  It is growing, in population and in business operations.   Much of India is still quite rural, with villages scattered around its vast land area.  And of course there are the giant urban areas of key cities.  In the outlying areas, however, the businesses that operate there often are the sole providers of employment.

I had quite a mix in the classroom.  Some had traveled from Canada to be in the room.  Others had come in from rural areas northeast of Mumbai.  Still others had arrived from  Indonesia and North Africa.  All of them were excited to have some time together, as is always the case – time to learn from each other, and learn more about themselves, as leaders.  We spent a good deal of time working on issues pertinent to the overall enterprise, including trends affecting the various businesses, natural resource shortages, environmental impacts, new hire attraction and retention, and local community stewardship.  These are heady issues.  They go beyond what we may think of as basic management skills.  This is really about helping these leaders be ready for what’s next – for them, their businesses, and the communities within which they operate.

It was time to start.  The presentation slides were in place.  Only 5 slides.  Mostly photos from when we were together to spur memories and hopefully a few smiles around the world.  The participating leaders arrived – each greeting the rest with gusto.  The lines were crackly and sometimes there were strange noises that sounded like an echo chamber.  But we got down to it – the last slide simply said “What have you achieved?”.

The program sponsor, a senior executive in the organization, was on the line, and gave a heartfelt message of pleasure to be rejoining this group.  As I opened the floor up to the participants, I saw the hands go up in the webinar.  I started in. It was great.  There were a number of stories told; some were about ongoing progress being made with new projects taken on.  Other stories were about issues that were uncovered, and requests for advice from others in the room.  Hands went up – it was easy to moderate.  Ideas were shared and the network established 3 months prior was put into action.

One particular story stands out.  As part of the design of this developmental  program, each of the leaders went through a 360 process.   Their results were conveyed to them by a qualified expert while we were together in Mumbai.  They had time, individually, to reflect, discuss and plan what steps they would take, given their results.  Notably, a number of participants needed to be more enabling and less authoritarian in their leadership style.

This one man, let’s call him S.P., he was quite affected by his scores and realized that his style in his team meetings was creating the very source of frustration that he’d been struggling with for so long.  His team was silent.  They never brought any ideas to the table.  He was constantly having to tell them what to do.

After receiving his 360 scores, discussing with our educator and with his peers, he decided to do something about it.  Each of the participants were asked to articulate 3 actions they were going to take at the end of the residential program, how they would know those actions were successful, and a general timeline for completing them.  His was really simple:  Open up his team meetings by doing a lot more listening, encouraging his team members to share ideas, and having them lead parts of the meetings.

As he relayed his story, others on the line affirmed that they, too, had similar results.  S.P.s were quite dramatic.  One of his team members had recently brought forth an innovative idea on how to improve a process within their workflow that is now saving the organization, by his calculation, over $10,000 every month.

It’s not a million-dollar idea.  But it is just one of potentially many more, and, more than the positive bottom line impact on the financial report, this shift in mindset and skillset towards ‘soft’ skills in leadership has created a sense of shared ownership and innovation, with clearly some ‘hard’ results.

I looked out the window after closing down the webinar.  The sun was out; time for another cup of coffee.


Original post; August 24, 2015 @ 

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