Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham share some cutting-edge research on soft skills we obtained from a survey of almost 500 business people. They further dig into results among various groups, including people seeking jobs, workers without leadership roles, mid-level managers, executives, and the self-employed. It’s great stuff that will give you new insights on soft skills.

Bob Graham ‘0:00’: Coming up, we will share some cutting-edge research on soft skills we obtained from a survey of almost 500 business people. It’s great stuff that will give you new insights into how soft skills are really being used in the workplace. That and more in just a few seconds.    

Graham ‘0:28’: Welcome to Episode 4 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham, and with me, as always,  is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills.

Graham ‘0:59’: So today, Toby, we are going to do things a little differently. We’re going to talk about some research we have done in the field of soft skills that we have only released to a list of very few people. So this is breaking news. If I had a glass, I would break it. This is big stuff.

Why This Research Matters

Graham ‘1:29’: Before we get into the research, Toby, why don’t you set up for people what the research found. Of course, whenever you are looking at research, the first question is who did you ask the questions to? Can you walk through how we got this data we are about to share?

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:45’: Bob, I am going to throw you a curve ball because I think we need to actually take a step further back because one of the problems with research is you have to cover why. Otherwise, you can look at all these results and people say, “Who cares?” Let me frame it up with why we even got into this and why we reached out to our network for some answers. It started with us looking around. As we were developing that sensitivity to soft skills, we’d have observations. We’d say that we had seen leadership do this and I see the importance of communication. We usually refer to these as anecdotal or experiential evidence. We get these little snippets. They almost turn into sound bites that you might hear on the news. We’ve even seen this in news clippings. We start to pull all these pieces together, but as people who look at research, we have to stop and say, “Hold it. Is that really a unique experience I have had and it doesn’t apply to anyone else, anywhere else?” That is what brought us to doing the survey and reaching out to our network to ask the question and validate that soft skills are really important, which soft skills are important, and who are they important for.

Porterfield ‘3:06’: Our initial survey did that and it cleared up a lot of items and it brought some focus in. It also motivated us to say this kind of work needs to be done. Back to the survey. Bob, can you give us a little background on how we reached out to collect that data?

How We Found Participants

Graham ‘3:24’: We went new school, I would say. In the past you would try to find people to do surveys by mail or by fax, and I can remember doing some surveys that way. But here, we actually used some new stuff called social media and email. We leveraged LinkedIn. We used databases we each have of LinkedIn connections. Those connections we sent an email to asking them to fill out a short survey. It took less than five minutes. It wasn’t real long and involved. We also posted it on social media, on our Facebook pages, on LinkedIn and on Twitter. We got really good response there. And we did some networking, one of the soft skills. I sent it out to a few people in my network, who were kind enough to share with their networks of people. We saw a spider-web kind of thing. We received almost 500 responses to this in a very short time, less than a week. We continue to get responses to this day, which highlights to me, one, how valuable social media is as a networking tool, and two, how important this research is to people. They want to contribute and they want to know what we are discovering.

Graham ‘4:54’: Toby, tell us now what that led to.

Porterfield ‘4:57’: Certainly it’s encouraging when you see a large response like that. One, for us, because it shows that it’s a topic that’s really important and when you send a survey out and you don’t get any response, you hear crickets, you probably aren’t into something interesting. But when you get this level of response this quickly, clearly it’s a hot button for a lot of people.

A Diverse Pool of Responses

Porterfield ‘5:16’: What we saw in the results was really exciting because we asked people for age ranges so we would get an understanding where they are in their lifespans and their careers. We have great coverage over people who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50, and 60s. We even had a couple of responses from people in their 70s. Really a nice cross section. In previous podcasts, we talked about how we think that soft skills are really critical in all phases of a career, and I am really pleased that we received responses from across that generational workforce.

Porterfield ‘5:56’: The other thing that we see that is a positive is that the responses are representative of our potential audience. We saw in the ages and we saw a fairly even split between male and female participation, and we saw participation across what we call employment strata. We saw responses from people who are unemployed, people who are employed with no supervisory responsibilities, people with supervisory responsibilities and senior leadership. We’ve got that spectrum to see where soft skills are really being valued across that spectrum. It’s the kind of pool we want to be looking at when we look at that data.

Graham ‘6:40’: That would mean the data is largely valid because it’s a large brush stroke, not highlighting one specific group. I also just want to clarify that if I recall correctly, it wasn’t unemployed, it was people looking for work at the moment.

Porterfield ‘6:57’: Correct.

Graham ‘6:59’: There is a difference. So everyone in the survey was in some way involved in the workforce. The other thing that struck me was we had five or six categories for people that were preset for their job level, and we had the Other category. The Other group was really large, with people who described themselves as entrepreneurs, self-employed, as brokers. It was really an eye-opener to me because all of these people took the time.

For both of us, it was a moment of discovery that soft skills really are legitimately making a difference.

The First Results

Graham ‘7:38’: With that as a backdrop, Toby, why don’t you tell us what some of those results actually were?

Porterfield ‘7:42: As we have discussed before, we have identified over 50 soft skills. We didn’t want to burden the respondents with all 50 of these. We didn’t think we would get a usable response. We would really wear out our people. We chose a few representative soft skills from each of our groupings. Some are more internal, personal type soft skills. Some when you are dealing one-on-one with people. Some when you deal with groups. And then some that address the greater organization, the soft of enterprise issues. We asked them to rate those six items to get some feel across that spectrum of employment situations.

Porterfield ‘8:30’: What we found was that the No. 1 group was one-on-one, the communication skills. That came out on top. We asked respondents to rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, and that came out with a 4.65, which is really high for an average.

Graham: ‘8:46’: Five would be the high, correct?

Porterfield ‘8:48’: Yes. Communication came out on top, followed by critical thinking, the personal enthusiasm, which is a really internal item, then teamwork, stress management and cultural awareness. As a ranking, that is interesting in itself. But it also can be a bit misleading because I said the lowest ranking one was cultural awareness. That doesn’t mean it was rated very low. It had a 3.96 on a 5-point scale. None of these categories were truly low. What is interesting is that those communication skills are coming out on top.

Digging Deeper

Graham ‘9:38’: That is consistent with a lot of the research we’ve seen. I know that the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) does an annual survey and that survey typically talks about the needs of employers. Employers want in that survey employees with more verbal communication and written communication skills. We see that in other research we have done and again, that keeps cropping up. What’s different is probably is we’re taking this broad cross-section. Most of the other research we’ve seen has been really focused on one specific group — employers, college graduates, university programs or alumni. I am not familiar with any other broad cross-section of this nature that really gets at the bigger picture.

Porterfield ‘10:32’: Definitely saw some new information and some affirmation for those anecdotal issues that we see in the news, that we have experience. When you can reach out to a group of nearly 500 people and get confirmation, that’s a good indication that we are headed in the right direction.

There’s a need for soft skills for those people in those positions that they are already recognizing.

Porterfield ‘10:56’: What we asked them was to please rate these soft skills on a scale of 1 to 5 based on how much they affect your success.

The people who are identifying these communication skills and critical thinking and so forth in the ranking are recognizing and attributing them to their success in their current roles.

Porterfield ‘11:19’: I think we have really struck something here.

Graham ‘11:22’: One of the things I think we saw is that soft skills are relevant at all phases of a career, based on these survey responses.

Everyone Sees The Value of Soft Skills

Porterfield ‘11:35’: Yes, and what we saw was that as we broke the respondents into groups based on how they identified themselves, as whether they were non-supervisory, supervisory or senior leadership, we could then compare how they rated each of those groupings of soft skills, how the soft skills are used across the different roles across an organization. True to what we thought we would encounter, soft skills are seen as being critical to success across the organization. We did see some slight variations in it.

Supervisors, Non-Supervisors See Same Needs

Porterfield ‘12:17’: The non-supervisory people identified those one-on-one type of soft skills as being the most important, which is not totally surprising. But it’s good affirmation. Similarly, we saw that with the supervisory people. If we looked at that and asked if that sounded right, I would say, yes, because a supervisory person, to be successful in their work, needs to be developing their employee group. A lot of times that’s being done in a mentoring, coaching and one-on-one type of situation. So I was very pleased to see those types of skills being rated highly for both supervisory and non-supervisory employees.

Graham ‘12:55’: It’s also the kind of work they are doing. In that capacity, I don’t want to say lower levels, but at the more tactical level, you’re really trying to make things happen that are specific tasks. These employees aren’t focused so much on the visions part of the organization. They need to worry about the get-it-done part. That would suggest you would have more discussions one-on-one about how do we achieve this result, if it’s getting more widgets in the warehouse on a Friday afternoon or staffing over the weekend because Trudy’s going away or something like that. Is that consistent with what you think we found?

Porterfield ‘13:37’: Yes. True to that, we move to that senior leadership group and look at what they ranked highest. We did see that senior leadership reach more toward those enterprise soft skills, as we call them, like change management, critical thinking, those types of soft skills, where they have much more influence on the organization as a whole.

Porterfield ‘14:00’: Seeing that dichotomy — the valuing the one-on-one type of connection and valuing the higher-level soft skills — it’s really good to see that differences across all the strata of employment.

Soft Skills and the Self-Employed

Porterfield ‘14:17’:  We had another interesting discovery that we had not expected to tease out. But as you mention, we had many people reply Other to specifying the role in their organization. They identified themselves as being self-employed, entrepreneurs, brokers, clearly people who are running their own businesses or are independent contractors. They also had similar valuations of soft skills and we saw again, those one-on-one skills came out on top, followed closely by the Enterprise grouping.

The independent contractors, the self-employed jump right from the one-on-one interaction to change management, critical thinking, shaping the organization.

Porterfield ‘15:03’: Again, that wasn’t what we were expecting, but once you look at it, you say that wouldn’t be surprising for a person who has a very strong independent role or is the champion or leader of a company or an entrepreneur.

Summarizing Our Findings

Graham ‘15:24’: We’ve given a lot of bullet points, big picture and small picture. Can you sort of summarize this so we have a couple of takeaways?

Porterfield ‘15:32’: Number 1 would be that we validated that people value the role of soft skills in the organization and in their personal success. That interest in soft skills spans ages, genders and roles across the organization. The communication-oriented and critical thinking skills are perceived as the most important across that bandwidth of employees. Roles within the organization influence the sets of soft skills they find most valuable. The soft skill set may change over the span of a career.

Graham ‘16:19’: That’s a great summary. Thank you. If you would like a copy of the white paper we put together with even more details on these results, you can go to our website, If you would like to comment on what we have been talking about today or if you want to send us suggestions for show topics, you can send an email to or you can tweet us at @realsoftskills.

Next Week’s Show

Graham ‘17:03’: That’s it for this week. Let me tease what we are going to do next week. We’re going to take a deep dive into something we touched on this week, Individual soft skills. We’ll look more closely at them in our next episode. Until then, thanks for listening, good day and good soft skills.

Today we are going to look at arguably what is one of the most important soft skills, one that sets the stage for so many other soft skills to appear. Will you agree or disagree with our host?

Bob Graham ‘0:00’: Coming up, we are going to look at arguably what is one of the most important soft skills, one that sets the stage for so many other soft skills to appear. That’s coming up in just a few seconds.

Graham ‘0:26’: Welcome to Episode 3 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham and with me, as always — well, it’s only our third episode — is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. Hey, Toby?

Porterfield ‘0:36’: I am looking forward to this episode today because I think the topic one that we don’t completely agree on. So it will cause us to have some discussion over it and I think we are going to hear some interesting responses from some of our listeners.

Graham ‘0:55’: We’ll get to that in a few seconds. But first, let me set up who we are for someone who might have come into this cold. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills and that’s what we are going to do right now.

The Most Important Soft Skill?

Graham ‘1:22’: I’m going to tell you — are you ready for this, Toby?

Porterfield ‘1:29’: Let’s have it.

Graham ‘1:31’: I am going to make the bold pronouncement that listening is the most important soft skill of the over 50 that we catalogued. I have been working on our book project and I was writing about listening and the more I wrote about listening, the more I realized it is really the key soft skill. Do you want to argue that right away or do you want me to make my case?

Porterfield ‘2:00’: I think I will start with a slight agreement in that listening enables so many other soft skills — innovation, teamwork. There are so many ways that listening is, I’ll use that term, enabling that it’s an important one. I’ll give you that. Let’s see what you have to say about listening.

Graham ‘2:23’: Okay, I was going to go with you just accepted my case. We can call it a day and people can get on with their lives. But  now you are going to make me do a little work.

Porterfield ‘2:36’: Absolutely.

A Leader Who Didn’t Listen

Graham ‘2:38’: Did you know that Marissa Mayer, 20th employee at Google, female software engineer, one of the most visible employees at Google. She left there to go to Yahoo! to be its CEO, not a programmer, but the CEO at Yahoo!. Over her tenure of four or five years, things were a bit rocky, to say the least. And more recently, if you have been following the headlines, you know she has sort of ushered the company to be bought by Verizon Communications. And she’s basically on her way out the door. Her choice, she’s resigning. But if you look at her tenure at Yahoo!, what she really was supposed to be doing at Yahoo! was rebuilding Yahoo! Again and again in the reporting on her and Yahoo!, and this came up frequently, her inability to listen to people — she was one of those people who thought she was the smartest person in the room — and she tended to articulate things without listening to the people in the company who were trying to help her. We see this in companies all the time with leadership trying to help the leader because failure to them means failure to employees, which can mean bad things like uncertainty and other problems. I have certainly worked at several jobs where leadership challenges have made it hard to go in and do the job each day.

When you don’t have listening, you don’t have the opportunity for an organization to grow.

Listening Leads to Influencing

Graham ‘4:18’: That was my first piece of evidence. My second piece is really fascinating to me. I found some research on MBA students. What they did was they found that for people to be influential in leadership roles, they had to have listening appear first.

If you weren’t a listener, you couldn’t be a leader.

Graham ‘4:49’: That was the a-ha moment for me. Boy, if you are going to influence people, what are the things you need to be able to do. You have to listen because you have to understand what other people’s motivations are; what their fears, concerns, interests and goals are; and you also have to understand their language. Good leadership comes from using the language of that organization. I have worked at a lot of different jobs and the language at each job is different, the way people interact is different, the things that are acceptable norms are different. The first thing you have to do at a new job is really listen. Is it a culture where when they ask you to go to lunch on Friday, you better go to lunch or you are jeopardizing your potential there? Or is it a place where they ask you to lunch because you are the new guy? That’s what we do, but we really don’t want you to accept. Those are two examples to me where listening really shows up as a critical entry point to broader soft skills engagement.

Porterfield ‘6:11’: That connects back to what I started with. That is influence. You talk about listening and the MBA study that said if you are not a listener, you are missing a big part of being an influencer. I think back to John Maxwell, who has several books on leadership. The tagline I remember, and I may not be quoting this exactly, but it is leadership in influence, plain and simple. To be a leader, you certainly have to be an influencer. Also, pushing further into his book, he says that influencing isn’t just for the leader in the organization. Each one of us has an informal leadership position. We are each leaders in our own right, whether it is in our personal life, our volunteer life, our social life, our business life. That’s where when we talk about who needs listening skills, we all have the opportunity to influence the ecosystem we operate in. Influence is a really important part of it. Listening is so foundational to that.

Graham ‘7:33’: Someone, maybe my wife or some other people that know me well, would say my listening skills are not the best. I want to acknowledge that because maybe my lens may be challenged in some cases. I wanted to throw that out there and it’s probably fair. I was listening to what you were saying I was worried that I was sounding like this incredibly great listener, that people come to me and I listen to every word they say, and I think you, having breakfast with me probably 300 times, know that is probably not my strongest suit. I’m probably a better talker than listener. Maybe that’s part of what makes me make that one such an important soft skill. We do need to have influence at every level of an organization and it is one of those things we often overlook. We assume, and I certainly assumed this when I got into my career and was the new guy, that I was going to have no influence. I was going to have to earn the ability to speak at meetings and make a contribution. But what we are seeing now is some of the students leaving colleges are sharper technically than their superiors often. They know how to use technology in ways we older people might not be as well versed in, and know when to say something and when not to say something. And also, for that person supervising that younger person has the expertise and knowing when to listen. I have been on both sides of that and that’s a little dicey.

Porterfield ‘9:29’: Even with that influence, what I will support is that listening is so key to our success, but you make a good point that it’s not something that comes natural to us.

Listening is also something in a new situation, we may be more inclined to not listen, to jump to conclusions.

Technology and Listening, Oh, My

Porterfield ‘10:00’: You have identified for us some of the issues surrounding listening for us. Can you lay out a few of those?

Graham ‘10:08’: Certainly, one of the big things that can be good and bad with listening, and we all live it, as my phone actually is buzzing in my pocket while we are speaking is technology. The ubiquitous cellphone, it is there at all times. It’s vibrating in my pocket and I am dying to know who is trying to reach me right now. Is it something important? If I take that right now, then that means I am not paying attention to you and this podcast. I see this happen all the time. I was out to dinner a couple of nights ago. I was at a beach resort area and there was a family of six and they were all on their technology, three on their cellphones, three on their iPads. And I am certain they considered it a family dinner. It was shocking to me that that could go on. But we see it all the time. I am not going to tell you that I am not guilty of that. I have checked out of discussions with people because my cellphone or my computer or because I am a great multi-taskers in my mind. I can be watching a TV show and writing something, or editing a podcast and watching TV, and suddenly I realize that one or the other I am doing better at, and I have to go back and recover. That is a reality we have to deal with.

Graham ‘11:36’: On the other side, technology can be incredibly empowering. You and I are doing this podcast over Skype. We are in different locations. We are 63 miles away from each other. I was texting with a relative in China two weeks ago and I had no idea he was in China until he told me it was bedtime. I was thinking it was kind of early in the morning for bedtime. Then he told me he was in China. So we have this ability to communicate and be engaged with people much more than we ever have been, but it comes at a cost.

Our need to listen is heightened now because we have an incredible amount of information being thrown at us everyday and you have to be able to determine what is valuable to you.

What may be valuable to you in what I am saying may be different for someone else. We have to be able to hear for what we need to hear. Do you hear what I am saying Toby, or am I just talking to myself?

Multi-Tasking Hurts More than Listening

Porterfield ‘12:46’: I’m sorry. I was just checking a text. Did you say something? Could you play that back again? That misnomer of multi-tasking, we deceive ourselves. You mentioned that when we are multi-tasking we really aren’t engaging productively and there have been studies that show there are some things we can do at the same time, but really when we engage with another person, multitasking really gets in the way. Not only does it interrupt that flow of information back and forth, but it also sends a message to the person you are speaking to that you are not as important. Let me check on my phone right now. That’s what really can take away from your ability to influence a situation and your ability to listen. I would push it a little further. At the heart of that is the relationship between people in that suddenly they know where they stand in the priorities of your life.

Coming Up Next Week

Graham ‘14:00’: We have given people enough to think about. If you listened to this podcast and agree that listening is the most important soft skill or disagree, we’d love to hear from you. You can email us at or you can tweet us at @realsoftskills. We would love to have that discussion. There are more than 50 soft skills that you can choose from. We would be anxious to hear someone else describe what they think is the most important soft skill. With that we are getting near the end. It’s time for me to tease next week’s episode. Next week, Toby, I am really excited because we are finally going to share what nearly 500 people told us about soft skills in the survey we did a few weeks ago. It’s really good information about how soft skills are really being looked at in the workplace. We are going to share those results and talk through them next week. I think that’s going to be a real eye-opener for people. I know it was for the two of us that this isn’t just academic theory and concepts. This is actually where the rubber meets the road and it shows people are really starting to pay attention. That’s next week. Thank you for listening, good day, and your favorite line of all time, Toby, good soft skills.

Each summer more than 100 children of all ages come together to put together a summer production at a church located in Stewartstown, Pa. For more than 10 years, one or more of our nieces and nephews have been involved in this production, whether on stage, behind the scenes, in the orchestra, or playing a leadership role in the music or on stage. This summer, five of them will participate in some way in “Beauty and the Beast.”

Beyond giving the children something to do for the summer, the stage productions, which have included “Shrek,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Godspell,” allow the children to develop their soft skills. They have to listen to directors and fellow actors. They work on their communication and presentation skills, two of the more important soft skills, based on what employers seek each year. They must be persistent, as learning lines and dance moves and other nuances of the show takes most of the summer. They have to adapt to change, for as anyone who has ever been on stage can attest, no two shows are the same. They develop their teamwork and leadership skills, helping younger performers and understudies to prepare.

None of the actors and actresses, the stage hands, the orchestra or anyone else is thinking about their soft skills development as they participate in the show. But when they have to sell themselves to colleges and employers with their resumes, cover letters, essays and discussions, they are likely to point to these hot summer nights and the soft skills they developed.



You may have heard about soft skills, but you may not know who in your office needs to use them and why. We’ll explain it all.

Bob Graham ‘0:00’: You may have heard about soft skills, but you may not know who in your office needs to use them and why. We will enlighten you in just a few seconds.

Graham ‘0:22’: Welcome to Episode 2 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham, and with me is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. So let’s get to it.

We explained what soft skills were and were not in Episode 1. But before we get to our topic today, let’s answer a few emails we received.

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:06’: It’s always good to hear from our listeners.

Aren’t Soft Skills Just Being Nice To People?

Graham ‘1:09’: Tim asked, aren’t soft skills just being friendly and nice to the people you work with? Toby?

Porterfield ‘1:13’: Wow. That’s dangerous. While we certainly want to be engaging with people and interested in the people we work with, that’s an oversimplification. That casual smile and looking like you are paying attention are not what we are looking for. When we are talking about soft skills, we are talking about intentionality here. It’s not just being nice, it’s not just being there, but that’s important. It’s the intentionality of engaging in such a way that it enables us to apply our technical skills, our hard skills, in a new way.

Graham ‘2:19’: You aren’t saying we shouldn’t be nice. You’re just saying that soft skills are more than just being nice.

Porterfield ‘2:23’: That just isn’t going to get us where we need to go at work.

Why Did It Take So Long to Recognize Soft Skills?

Graham ‘2:27’: We also have a great question from Kaitlyn. If researchers working with the Army first coined the phrase soft skills in the early 1970s, why did it take so long for people to really start talking about them?

Porterfield ‘2:49’: The work for the Army in the early 70s is where they coined that term “soft skills.” I wish I had coined that term myself. It would have been a great thing. They were pretty forward-looking on soft skills. They really were able to grab hold of that. I don’t think we are arguing that soft skills didn’t exist way before the 1970s. People have been working in teams, using listening skills, perseverance. We have a country made of pioneers who persevered and captains of industry who built the economy that we live in today. It comes back to intentionality in what we have seen as we have progressed from the 1970s, the 1980s to today is, as we talked about in Episode 1, the economy has changed, the workplace has changed and there is a need now to approach work in a new way. We have emphasized those hard skills, we have a lot of disciplinary knowledge in so many fields, but those soft skills are what are coming into play today that are making us say, what do we need today to be competitive, innovative. We’ve got the hard skills and soft skills, but how do we mobilize them? That’s where soft skills really are coming into the discussion today.

Graham ‘4:26’: I want to thank Tim and Katlyn for their great questions. Keep those questions coming. You can email them to or tweet them to us at @realsoftskills. We will answer more questions in future episodes.

Which Employees Use Soft Skills?

Graham ‘5:19‘: Now, Toby, let’s talk about which employees have to use soft skills. Is it the leaders, the new employees or only people who have to interact with a firm’s “customers”? I have heard all three of these.

Porterfield ‘5:46’: We both have heard all three of those and that is because all three are true. We use the term that we take a lens. We look in our camera and get a slice of it. Historically, we have seen a lot of that come to fruition when we looked at leadership. We saw these people who were moved into leadership, promoted into leadership and they weren’t able to rally the team and take it where it needed to go. Oh, that leader, they didn’t have the soft skills they need to be successful. And we get fixed in on that. Then we look out at the new hires and they come out of college with all these disciplinary skills and they know how to use the technology. And we are seeing in the job descriptions that oh, by the way, you need communication skills. You need self-discipline, self-motivation. Depending on which lens we flip to, we see those soft skills. I hate that pat answer where we say, “Everybody needs soft skills.”

The Story of Doug, Whose Soft Skills Were Lacking

‘7:02’: But let me share one more story that will frame this up a bit better. We have a shared connection, Bob, and I met with him for coffee recently. We were talking about these soft skills issues. He’s quite a leader. He has established a marketing and Internet company. And he had an industry career before that. Like us, he had that industry experience, then moved on to other opportunities. He shared from his technical background back in industry. He had this guy, we’ll call him Doug, and he was an incredible database administrator. He was just a genius with it. We could put anything we need in front of him and he would take care of the databases for their clients. Certainly Doug was an outstanding resource for them to have. But then as time went on, clients started to say they wanted to meet Doug. We want Doug to come to the meetings. And they started bringing Doug along, and pretty soon they found that he didn’t want to communicate what would be challenging, what would be easy. Doug clearly lacked those soft skills and even cost them some relationships. That is where we see that fallback. Oh, this person has the technical expertise. In most situations these days, we are seeing that those technical skills are not enough. Just being that technical expert and being locked in your office or your cubicle, and never having to interact is not feasible in a competitive environment. You can’t have a resource that needs to be locked away to protect them from anyone they might encounter.  

Graham ‘9:01’: You scare me when you tell me about Doug because you make me think there is no hope for Doug. The reality is we can all build our soft skills. If we want to be better at teamwork, then we have to put ourselves in positions where we have to work on teamwork. If we want to work on problem-solving, which is another soft skills, we need to work on solving problems. We can’t easily be in the work world and not be adapting to change. We all have the ability to improve on these things. It’s not like guys like Doug that you described are consigned to working in the basement of the building and never interacting with people.

Porterfield ‘9:54’: I would say that’s not going to be our most effective organization if we are going to have that type of situation. We probably need to devote a couple of episodes just to how to develop soft skills because it’s different than developing technical skills.

Soft skills can be developed, they can be strengthened, but it takes some different approaches.

Graham ‘10:22’: Probably the first thing is awareness, knowing, so someone like Doug realizing that he cost the company some business and someone having a hard discussion with Doug about the situation. He has to take stock and may say, “I had no idea.” We aren’t always aware of our weaknesses. It’s not like technical skills. If I can’t write a press release for a client of mine, I am in trouble. If I can’t teach the course I am teaching to my students, then I am in trouble. I get feedback almost immediately and I can make corrections right away.

But with soft skills, it’s a little more fuzzy and a little more in the background.

Porterfield ‘11:18’: Soft skills are hiding beneath the current sometimes. But for talent professionals, they really need to get an eye for those soft skills. They need to be able to detect and have an awareness for soft skills, which ones they need at the time and where the weaknesses are.

Seeing Soft Skills Everywhere

Graham ‘11:39’: Maybe it’s time for you to bring up the idea I idea you mentioned a few weeks ago: the eye of the hunter and how that might apply for people. I have found this idea to be a really valuable part of this discovery.

Porterfield ‘11:55’: We had that discussion because as we started into this process, we were looking at teamwork, we were looking at different aspects of the work situation, and soft skills started coming in to our discussions. We started to unwrap them ourselves and to demystify them. We found out that there are specific things that are soft skills, and as we started learning them and unwrapping them and started looking at what are the Individual soft skills and what do they look like, and other ways of looking at them, we ran across the idea of the eye of the hunter. I know with my father-in-law, he lives out in the country and when we are driving down the road, he will be looking around and he’ll ask if I saw that pheasant over there or that deer over there. I’m thinking, I’m looking around and you’re driving. I didn’t see any of this. That’s where the eye of the hunter comes from. Once you know what you are looking for and I have heard it described as when you look down a hedge row and you see that item. That’s not found in nature. It’s a rabbit. You have to know what to look for and you see it. That’s what we’re experiencing with soft skills. We’ve become sensitized to soft skills. We’re seeing them all the time. Unfortunately, we are seeing or not seeing them in ourselves. I realize that I wasn’t listening really well, was I? Or we see it in other people who have this idea or something they are trying to endorse, and they didn’t have the communication skills ready to put that out there. That’s what we want to help people with. We really want them to become sensitized to soft skills, but in an informed way. We actively identify them and then actively work to correct them or improve them in the situation.

We want that eye of the hunter for soft skills in everyone. We want them to be attuned to the soft skills.

How Soft Skills Can Change Us

Graham ‘14:09’: It’s interesting and fun to have this new set of skills that you can bring to the table and be more strategic and more conscious of them. I don’t want anyone to be listening to this and saying this too much work. I can’t deal with all this soft skills stuff. The me with awareness of soft skills is a much better me. I see things differently now. I find times that I might act differently now than I would have in the past and to good effect for me and the people around me.

Porterfield ‘14:57’: I guess what I am seeing is what we have started to promote and what we have started to promote. As a researcher and an educator in my current role, having sensitive to my soft skills and where I am weak, it’s really helped me apply my technical skills in new ways, in my research, in my engagement with students. It’s exciting.

Graham ‘15:29’: That’s probably a good place to stop things. The idea that it’s exciting allows us to continue on with this podcast week after week. Next week, I am going to make the case — be ready for it Toby — that this one soft skill is the most important, one that enables so many other soft skills to appear. If you think you know what it is that I am going to bring to the table next week, why don’t you send us your guess. You can email us at or send it on Twitter at @realsoftskills. We hope you will join us next time. Until then, thanks for listening, good day and good soft skills.