Exploring the role customer service as a soft skill plays in the success of an organization om an interview with customer service expert Neal Woodson.

 

Introduction

Dr. Tobin Porterfield (‘0:21’): Welcome to Episode 13 of Serious Soft Skills. I am your host, Dr. Tobin Porterfield. Today we will have the second of a two-part interview that my cohost Bob Graham conducted with Neal Woodson. Neal has 35 years of experience across a range of environments, including 19 years in the event technology industry. Neal currently serves as director of service excellence for PSAV, where he helps management and line-level team members collaborate in driving service excellence. Last week, in Episode 12, Bob and Neal talked about the soft skills encompassed in good customer service and how the customer and employee can both use good soft skills. In today’s episode, Bob talk s more with Neal about the value of good customer service to an organization and how it’s developed. If you are involved in dealing with customers on any level, I recommend you start with Episode 12.

Automation Isn’t an Answer for Customer Service

Bob Graham (‘1:12’): With me is Neal Woodson. I can’t wait to get to the second part of this interview. We are going to dig into things a little deeper and he has a lot of great stuff to say. We have this business model that everyone is striving for — less interaction with the consumer. Do it all over the Internet. Automation, automation, automation. So as you say, the people are the company, we seem to be flying in the same direction in a lot of cases. What do you think happens when companies want more automation?

Neal Woodson (‘1:35’): It’s causing a lot of problems. This is a pretty heavy subject with a million tentacles to deal with. Over the last 30 years, we have had an increase in depression and an increase in teen suicide, and I now this is a big stretch from what you just said, but I will go back to the fact that we are social animals and social creatures. We have been working over the last 30-35 years hard, without even knowing it, to become more individualistic and not connected. Connected in a virtual sense, but that’s not the same kind of connection.

To be connected electronically, is not at all the same as being connected on a human level.

It Always Comes Back to People

Woodson (‘2:43’): I’ll give you an example. I fly in airports a lot. I fly all over the country. When I walk in airports, I see more of the tops of people’s heads than their faces. Their heads are buried in a phone. When I walk by that phone, nine times out of 10, they are looking at inane stuff. They are looking at Facebook or Instagram. It’s not even interesting. They are just flipping through it. They are bored. We have lost a lot of connections. This isn’t generational. We see it in all generations. We crush the millennials and say it’s all their fault. But it’s not. They happen to be better at it. They happen to be more ensconced in it. But that’s because we didn’t, I didn’t, grow up with the technology and they did. That’s a problem

This lack of connection among people is a problem.

Woodson (‘3:35’): I would say to every one of those companies that you so well explained that they are more electronic, every single one of them has a way to reach a human. You look at Amazon and think that’s probably the quintessential company. Go online, buy something, which is great for some things. But when you have to buy something that is really technological, I will bet at some point, you go somewhere and talk to a person and ask them what they would buy. We want to know at the gut level what you think. I don’t want to look at a bunch of stats or a bunch of numbers. I want to talk to a human being. That was my thing yesterday. It didn’t take but about 15 minutes for me to figure that out. I  need to talk to a person.

Companies are missing out; they are trading short-term goal for long-term success.

We Crave Human Connections

Woodson (‘4:40’):  If we can cut money and we can cut human beings, we can make our nut here. Instead of saying we need that human connection; we need to keep that. We’re looking over the long0-term. What will that get me? Over the long-term it gets you more success. If we can get back to more human connections, we will see a happier society.

Globalization Challenges Customer Service

Graham (‘5:10’): We are much more global, which means we are interacting with people with different beliefs, values and customs. If you work with some companies, they have people in France and take the month of August. You have to incorporate that into your business. I am not saying it’s right or wrong, bad or good. We have different holidays. Do you think that creates an additional challenge and do you do anything in your customer service work to be more culturally aware, which is its own soft skill. But it certainly plays into customer service.

Woodson (5:50′): I had something happen to me this week, where we’re trying to incorporate something into the process for our people who work in Mexico in the company I work for. One of the first questions I asked in the dialog was, is there something culturally different? I live in the U.S. I just don’t know from a cultural perspective from a Mexican perspective. There are a few issues with globalization. It’s a challenge. Part of that challenge has to do with fear. A lot of us fear leaving what’s comfortable. A lot of us do. We fear leaving that comfy couch. We panic. People go overseas, especially people who have never traveled. I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world. Once you do that, you see how exciting, how fun that can be. It can be interesting. So part of it is fear on the company behalf. It’s going to cost us more money. It’s not comfortable. It’s that fear and that’s part of the challenge.

Recognizing What’s Good Elsewhere

Woodson (7:16′): But what people miss is the excitement of it and the opportunity to learn more about others and there are other ways of doing things. Maybe we will learn something overt here that we can can bring to the U.S. Maybe they do something really well there and we can bring it here. Maybe there’s something great in India we can bring over here. We don’t have to go all over the world and infuse the U.S. culture into them. We might want to bring some of those things they do here. There’s a dynamic that we miss if we don’t sensitize ourselves to those other cultures. 

Yes, it’s a challenge. But it’s also potentially an exciting thing that could cause great innovation.

Sharing a Vision

Graham (‘8:10’): It goes back to that shared vision.

Woodson (‘8:18’): But everyone has to have it — from the CEO down to the vice presidents, to the managers to the field employees. Everybody has to have that vision. This is what we are going for. If we have to make some adjustments and we have to deal with change, then we do. We are all in this with you. We are all rowing the boat together.

Customer Services Takes Many Soft Skills

Graham (‘8:40’): You told me a couple of days ago that you had listed all the soft skills that are underpinning customer service. You said it was a huge list. How many was it because we have 55 soft skills that we found. How many did you find match up with the soft skill of customer service?

Woodson (‘8:58’): I wouldn’t say it was all 55 and I am still fooling with that list. It’s about 30 or so soft skills that influence customer service.

Because just about everything in customer service you can find a connection to soft skills.

Woodson (‘9:14’): You can find some connection that you can use this in customer service. You might say change management; why would I use that in customer service? But you know what, dealing with change happens on a minute-by-minute basis when you deal with a customer who walks into deal with your organization, no matter what you do. Nobody’s the same.

To me, sales is a huge customer service position.

Woodson (‘9:43’): If you do sales right, to me sales is a service. Imagine a sales person who has to learn everything about a business. And Business A could be different from Business B. Their needs can be very different, but you can serve both in some way. You have to be able to deal with the change and adjustments that go with that. So change management can go into customer service. There are some odd linkages with all that.

Worth Investing the Time

Graham (’10:33′): When you think about it, that’s what makes soft skills interesting. The more you unravel them, the more it becomes connected to everything else. You start to see the connections to everything else. They make a lot of sense. We didn’t used to think that way. You and I think a lot about soft skills, but most people don’t. Here’s my final question, Neal. To the person who never really thoughts about customer service this way and never thought about it’s implications, what would spending some time looking at soft skills and customer service do for their business or for their own career success?

Woodson (’11:12′): It would potentially help them move further in their career. The better you understand and are able to work with other people, which is ultimately what we are talking about, they are the people who move. I’ll give you a reason why I believe that. There’s an author named Matthew Leiberman, who wrote a book called Social. In it, some of the research he has done led to him asking people who would they say is a strong leader: the person who is task-focused, technical, or the person who is socially focused, or is it the person who is evenly balanced between the two. Exactly 14 percent said technical leaders are strong leaders; 12 percent said social leaders are strong leaders; and 72 percent said it’s a balance of the two. That’s telling. It goes back to something Stephen Covey said: You have to have competence, but you also have to have character. Competence is about technical skills, those management things. Character is about social skills and dealing with others. Your character plays heavily into that. When you have the two, you see those people move in the organization. They can deal with all of the competing things they face at work. It can help with marriage or with your friends. It’s an area that you can’t do without.

The people in my life that have been the most successful, inspirational and meaningful have a good balance of those two, technical skills and soft skills.

Graham (’13:26′): Neal, I want to thank you for taking time with us. It’s been really great. You have shed some light on some things.

Porterfield (’13:50′): Thanks, guys. Thanks, Bob. Thanks, Neal, for joining us. if you want to learn more about Neal Woodson, you can visit his website at http://nealwoodson.woordpress.com.

Next Week

Next week, we will be looking at another soft skill and the role it plays in careers and work. Look for that and more next week on the Serious Soft Skills Podcast.

The soft skill of customer service is often misunderstood. Serious Soft Skills Cohost Bob Graham interviews Neal Woodson, a customer service expert, in the first part of a two-part interview on the topic.

Neal’s view is that customer service is the most important aspect of what organizations provide, and it ultimately is what is necessary to find any success.

Introduction

Dr. Tobin Porterfield (‘0:21’): Welcome to Episode 12 of Serious Soft Skills. I am your host, Dr. Tobin Porterfield. Today we will have the first of a two-part interview, where my cohost, the sultan of soft skills, Bob Graham, talks to Neal Woodson about how he develops soft skills related to customer service. Neal has 35 years of experience across a range of environments, including 19 years in the event technology industry. Neal currently serves as director of service excellence for PSAV, where he helps management and line-level team members collaborate in driving service excellence by analyzing customer experience, coaching the development of actionable strategies, and creating education and training techniques that ensure consistent delivery.

Soft Skills at Core of Customer Service

Bob Graham (‘1:11’): It’s great to be here with Neal Woodson. I am really looking forward to the discussion….I hope for our listeners and our viewers that the weather is good for them. Let’s get right to it.

Graham (‘1:29’): You are an expert on customer service. Beyond being a great golfer and great friend, and I want to talk today with you about soft skills and how they apply to customer service because believe it or not customer or client focus is one of the soft skills we uncovered in our research. You’re someone who really spends your days working on it. Give us an overview of what it means.

 

Neal Woodson (‘2:01’): As far as customer service, I don’t know if I am an expert, but it is something I work with all day every day. It’s always on my mind. I don’t like that term “soft skills.” I know that is a popular phrase. I prefer to say they are any number of things: social skills, collaborative skills. That doesn’t even cover it all, obviously.

Soft skills have gotten shunted to a second-class citizenship. They have been pushed to the back of the bus.

Importance of Customer Service

Woodson (‘2:57’}: I don’t think people realize how important they are. I deal with business and how business works with customers. Everybody thinks that soft skills are what customer service people do. it’s not really necessary for what anyone else does in the business. So when it comes to like a soft skills training, they will send all of their customer service people or call center people to soft skills training. one of the things we forget about in business is that everybody in business deals with somebody. You deal with people no matter what. In my role, you would think that all I deal with is customer-facing folks. That’s not true. I’m a big believer that what we do all throughout a business affects the customer. In other words, the way the CEO operates and the manager treat the workers — all of that affects how the company treats the customer. The best way I can put that is that if you are a parent and you come home every day and you scream and yell at your kids. Would it be any surprise to you at all to see your kids screaming and yelling at other kids?

What we do with others inside the house impacts what we do outside the house.

Need to Keep Improving Soft Skills

Woodson {‘4:26’}: To me, it’s crucial that everybody in an organization works on continuously improves their soft skills. How does my job role connect to the end user customer. Say you’re in accounts payable. You say that your job doesn’t connect with customers. You just pay bills. Well, wait a second. If you don’t pay the bills, what happens to the customer. How does that impact the customer? if I don’t pay the bills for the company, then a vendor doesn’t get paid and he cuts us off. It’s harder to do our jobs for that customer to make us successful. So what you do does impact the customer.

Woodson (‘5:27’): So once everybody in the organization begins to understand that everything they do relates back to the customer, now we can start talking about or getting more granular about skills. We can start to talk about empathy, one of the key skills people need. When I talk about empathy, it’s that we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. But when we talk about empathy one of the things that scares people or one thing that people think is that I don’t care what that person cares about. It doesn’t matter if you care about what they care about. It matters that you care that they are upset. Or that they are happy. That’s what matters. It’s not the fact that you feel it. For example, when my kids were younger, they’d hear about some pop star doing something and they would get all upset about it. I couldn’t care less to be quite honest. Who cares? But what matters is I care that they do care. I care how they feel. That’s a critical element.

The Iceberg of People

Woodson (‘6:38’): Along with that, I regularly talk about something called the iceberg. That is that what you see in people is 10% of what’s real. For example, you see a customer and they are all upset and they blow up at you for something. Nine times out of 10 it’s not because of something you did or said. It’s one of a hundred thousand other things that you know nothing about. One of the first steps about empathy is to recognize that in an individual. It’s to say, I know you have a lot going on in your world. And it’s going to affect how I treat you and interact with you. I do, too. We are both in the same place. You have to be able to say to them, I know how you feel.

Woodson (7:40′): When we say, take a few seconds and let me figure this out. And I am going to be here until we get this thing solved. That goes a long way. Now I am partnering with you. I have become your partner. I want you to be successful. Nine times out of 10 that’s what people want. They want someone who is here with you for customer success, whatever that is. Even if it’s something little. They just want to know someone is here that is willing to help them become successful.

Customer Service and the Customer

Graham (‘8:19’): Is there a way to turn this around to the customer focus so that if I am the customer, I can facilitate that partnership that we just talked about. It occurs to me that if I am the ideal customer, that customer service person trying to work with me is going ot have an easier job. I can fight or I can swim in the same direction. Can you sort of spin this around for us and look at it the other way? What are the things we can do as a customer to make it easier for everyone?

Woodson (‘8:49’): You are absolutely right. Now we’re just getting to the human element, beyond business. I will give you an example. Yesterday, I had a problem with my cellphone, and I called my provider and this wonderful young lady, Brandy, picked up the phone. We talked. I explained what was going on. I was very frustrated. It had to do with my volcemail. It was an automated situation, and none of the options fit my situation. I couldn’t figure out how to get in touch with a human being. That was the most frustrating thing. When I finally got in touch with her. She was nice and understanding. She told me she fully understood how I feel. She had problems with her phone. Now we were on an even keel. It was like I had somebody who had been here before so she knew how frustrating it was. Okay, I realized she is a person who deals with this all day long everyday. All she hears is people complaining. What’s the best thing I can do to make this better. I started talking to her about how long she had been working there. She had just graduated from college. My daughter just graduated from college. We connected on that. It was as fantastic experience. I left that experience feeling like not only did I get my problems solved, but I got a new friend.

From Company to People

Graham (’10;20′): That’s one of the things I find. Often my customer experience has more to do with the way the person handles me than the product. I also find that my loyalty becomes to the person who services me in these situations best. I told you how I had to go to the Apple store. I could have bought this cable I needed at three or four other places. But what love about the Apple store is I can walk in there and I can say, “I need a cable to do this.” They ask me a few questions. They asked how I am doing, do I like my computer. One, two, three, I have the right piece. The guy tells me his name and tells me he has the same computer. We have some common ground and I ask when he typically works. I now know to come in there when he’s working. He represents that company now. He represents everything I wan in that company. He values me so the company values me. We don’t think of companies as people. We don’t think of Starbucks, Apple and IBM as people. They are companies, not people. Some of this really is taking that brand of the company and isolating it to a person so that we have that one-on-connection.

Woodson (’11:59′): It’s interesting that you say that. The word corporation is from the word “corpus,” which means body. When you think of a company, it’s a living thing. It’s the people that make it up. It’s not the spreadsheets. It’s not the contracts. It’s none of that. It’s people that make a company or corporation. We really need to get companies back to understanding that everybody who works for you is a billboard for you not just for your brand, but your culture and what’s it’s all about and what you stand for. We get a feeling about your business by your people.

Closing

Graham (’12:50′): I can’t thank you enough for your time, for your insights and for just really saying some things in ways that people need to hear. When you talk customer service affecting everyone at all aspects of a company, that’s really a message we need to wrestle with and think about and apply to apply to any kind of business that we are trying to endeavor to create or build.

Porterfield (’13:10′): Thanks, Bob. Neal, thanks for joining us. If you want to learn more about Neal Woodson, visit his blog, where he offers some great insights on customer service, at NealWoodson.wordpress.com.

Next Week’s Episode

Next week, we will listen to the second part of the Bob’s interview with Neal, where they look on the impact of customer service on individuals and organizations.

 

Project management is not always considered a soft skill. Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss its role as a soft skill and discuss the criticism.

What Project Management Is

Bob Graham ‘1:06’: We should probably start out first off with defining what project management is and explaining why it fits into our list of soft skills because most people, or some people, might be thinking that they can take a course of project management in college. Why are you saying it’s a soft skill? 

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:23’: Let’s start that up. Let’s start with what project management is because we often see the term a lot. We see it in job advertisements. It’s prevalent out there. The term is often misapplied and misunderstood. A lot of time people say that it’s time management. Project management certainly has elements of managing your time and your resources. But it is another animal from what we consider time management.

Routine Tasks

Porterfield ‘1:55’: When I look at project management and I teach a lot of courses on it, I start my students with “Look, our whole lives, our work lives, our home lives — you can really bring everything you do into two areas: either routine things, the things I do everyday. I fill out my timesheet, I check my voice mail, I go through my email, I do my report, I do month-end close. There are things we do that are routine, that we just do. It’s what we do in our business world that just keeps the dollars flowing in. We sell appliances or we develop apps and we launch them. It becomes very routine.

When It Becomes a Project

Porterfield ‘2:31’: But when something moves to the elevation of being a project, that’s important. To be a project, it has to meet a couple of criteria. It has to have a start date and an end date. There has to be a time component. We need to get this done. A big one is that there needs to be a specific deliverable, a definable thing, so that when we are done we know what we really accomplished. The third one is a really easy one. That is that it uses resources. But almost everything we do uses resources. I kid my students by saying that me losing 30 pounds is something that needs to happen and it’s a project. But it’s not really a project because there isn’t a start and end date. So it’s not a project. In reality, it’s never going to happen. That’s what we see with organizations. They need to keep the routine going. They need to keeping doing what they do.

Executing projects is how they move the organization forward.

Porterfield ‘3:30’: It’s how they launch that new project, open that new location. For us as individuals, an individual project for us might be to complete a certification, to write that book that you always wanted to write. Projects fit that definition of start and end date, use resources and a definable outcome. They need to be treated differently. There’s a mechanical skill set to project management.

People Skills in Project Management

Porterfield ‘4:00’: There a whole lot of people skills issues that are in project management that in order to get things done that integration has to happen. That’s one of the reason why it earned a place in our list of soft skills.

Graham ‘4:14’: You looked at all of the academic literature you could find to create our list of 55 soft skills. Didn’t you find some researchers who had clearly put project management in the list of soft skills, not technical or hard skills?

Porterfield ‘4:34’: Yes. We didn’t just put it under our list although it’s an area that’s important to us. Studies were done that said project management clearly is a soft skill. Some could make the case that it’s not because in some fields like engineering and some business fields and some IT fields that consider it a hard skill. It’s an important technical skill, and learning how to design a project, to do a Gant chart, that network diagram and time estimates. There’s a mechanical-technical aspect to it, but those technical requirements are not universal across fields. Even within business, where we looked at a lot of Indeed.com job postings, we saw hundreds of occurrences where companies were asking for project management skills specifically specifically across marketing and engineering jobs. Btu still within academic training, when people are earning their degrees, even across engineering, project management does not occur across all engineering disciplines. Even in business, we normally only see it in supply chain management, MIS. We don’t see it in accounting and finance and other areas where it’s a skill that we’re expected to have.

Interconnections

Graham ‘5:47’: We can at this point tell people that they have to accept that project management is a soft skill for the purposes of this podcast and for your own benefit. Thinking of it as a soft skill probably makes it more valuable to you because you can look at it within the context of soft skills and how you interconnect with people, which is really the name of the game anyway. 

Because it’s all well and good that you can manage a project, but if you can’t do it with other people, it’s really going to limit our ability to be effective any organization of any size.

Not Certified, But Still Managing Projects

Porterfield ‘6:23’: We have experienced in actually being project managers while our titles never had that in them. It’s part of what we’ve done in many career opportunities, certainly in our educational/academic careers. We have routine tasks: I have to go in, I have to show up and teach my class, I have to grade assignments, I have to prepare that exam. That’s the routine. I just need to do these things as part of the job I do. It’s what we are expected to do. Porterfield ‘6:53’: If we didn’t do more, if we didn’t develop new curriculum and do new research projects, our organization wouldn’t move forward. We’d be teaching the same thing we were teaching 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago. The business world wold have moved forward and we’d be still using those overhead glassine on the overhead projector. We have seen things change, and we had to convert what we did to this new approach. We had to change what we’re doing. We’re going to introduce new courses, which requires a series of steps. I think we are good where the projects are different, but I think we need to dig in a little bit. We have learned as we do projects that it’s great to know the steps and the process of what has to occur.

It’s the people, the ability to motivate a group of people that makes the difference between a project being successful.

Porterfield 7:54′: Whether it meets that end date, it meets those stated objectives of what it needs to look like, it mostly comes down to getting people to buy-in and do their part.

The Soft Skills Inventory

Graham ‘8:09’: I was just going through all of the soft skills to manage a project. You have to listen, delegate, manage teamwork, lead people, adapt to change, collaborate with others — those are just off the top of my head. So you can see where just being a project manager isn’t just the mechanical aspects of managing a project. We should probably make clear that neither of us believes that project management is just telling people what to do. 

We should be talking to people and looking at what we are trying to achieve together and how to allocate those resources, your time and expertise and my time and expertise, to be the most efficient and effective to achieve that shared goal.

Getting More Resources

Graham ‘9:01’: I always worry that people are going to use these podcasts to say, “Hey, people, do what I say. Clean up your office now.” But it would be better to go to people and say, “Hey, if we all clean our offices before the vice president comes to visit our location, we probably going to look better, and that will mean that the chances of us getting raises and additional resources to do new things is available to us.” That’s the difference and distinction we probably need to make. 

Porterfield ‘9:47’: That’s a great example because projects can be these massive new locations. If it has a start date and end date it’s a project. The boss is coming in two weeks and we need to have this place ready. There’s a date, and what does ready look like. It looks like everything is filed away properly. We can treat small things as projects.

Yes, Project Management Fits Every Group

Porterfield ’10:12′: That brings us to another thing that comes up in our discussion of project management. We have four groupings of the soft skills — Individual soft skills (Episode 5), the Nexus soft skills we use to talk and integrate with another person (Episode 6), and we have the Group soft skills (Episode 7). But we put project management up in the Enterprise skills (Episode 8), which are the highest level of soft skills used by leaders of organizations to lead change. We found in our study of soft skills in job advertisements that individuals were required to have project management skills. But we intentionally moved it to Enterprise. Bob, tell us understand why?

Graham ’11:48′: When we talk about project management, we’re putting it in our Enterprise grouping, which is the grouping where we are at the highest level of leadership within an organization. We are in that strategic area. We are trying to build the vision. We are trying to achieve bigger things. It’s not daily tasks. It’s organizational improvement and organizational change that is our approach. In that area project management is really about allocating resources big and small, and as you are a leader, you have a limited number of resources. You have only so many employees. You have to maximize the use of those employees and also your resources, which are also limited. 

Allocating Effectively

Graham 12:31′: If you are operating a warehouse, you can’t run it more than 24 hours a day. There’s a limit there. Many operations can’t run it more than 8 hours a day or 10 hours a day. Project management when you start to apply those constraints to it becomes more of a leadership issue and less of a low-level, entry-level issue. 

Project management is much more about how an organization is going to use project management to achieve its goals and to grow with the right structure to achieve things in this timeframe.

Graham ’13:12′: For instance, if you are developing a new product. If you are creating a new product, you have a lot of steps. You have to figure out what that product is, how you have to source the materials, your timing for that. Marketing has to be involved. Pricing, finance, shipping, packaging — all those things are part of it. That’s a much higher level than any person that would be in an entry-level job could manage. That’s going to require people at all levels of the organization working together to set deadlines. We need two weeks to get the boxes to put the widget in. And the shipping people might say that if it’s going to take two weeks, that’s going to put it right in the middle of our holiday rush. We cannot do it then. That won’t work. Leaders in the organization have to referee those various concerns and constraints and come up with the best strategy for the overall organization to achieve that goal that they set out on with that new project.

What We Know

Porterfield ’14:13′: Project management is such an interesting area because I do believe that as an individual I should be looking at my work and parsing out what is a project and what needs to be treated differently. It’s very likely a smaller project, but one of the items we have always encountered when studying and teaching project management is there is not a recognition of the value of project management as a technique from the highest levels of the organization, then it’s going to greatly limit our ability to really use project management to launch those big initiatives. That’s also what tipped us over to say that project management is more than just working for the individual. It works with a team and a group. It goes with all three of those groups. But it’s got to be at the Enterprise soft skills level. It has to be alive at the top if it’s really going to have an impact on the organization.

Project management lives at many levels but if it’s not at that top level, we’re really going to have a problem.

Next Week’s Episode 

Graham ’16:05′: Next week, we will address another soft skill and how it fits into our work lives and why it matters to an organization’s growth.

Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss perseverance or persistence, and why it plays a critical role in group dynamics.

Introduction

Graham ‘0:21’: Welcome to Episode 10 of Serious Soft Skills. I’m Bob Graham and with me as always, at least so far, is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college; we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others employ soft skills over the course of our long and illustrious careers, not that long and not that illustrious. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. We’re going to show you that when we talk in the next few moments about perseverance.

What Is Empathy?

Porterfield ‘0:57’: Bob, you already let the cat out of the bag about what we are covering, but I am pretty excited. In these podcasts, we laid out the over 50 soft skills that we have identified through our research and we framed them into four groups — Individual soft skills, a big list with 28; ones where we interact with people, Nexus soft skills, where there are seven; then we looked at Group soft skills, where we work with a team or group; and Enterprise soft skills are the leadership ones.

Porterfield ‘1:32’: Now it’s time to dig in deeper. Today we want to get into one of those Individual soft skills, one of the 28. In our list, we call it persistence. The individual should bring persistence when going after an objective, to not let obstacles get in their way. Persistence is to vastly pursue when undertaking a task even when hindered by an obstacle or distracted by an obstacle.

Perseverance is different from being stubborn.

Porterfield ‘2:07’: We’ve worked with people who have are stubborn. Then we looked at other people who we admire because they persevere. It’s not usually the person who is stubborn that we admire. It’s perseverance. There’s a difference there that we want to make sure we unwrap today. We really need to understand what perseverance means for an individual and how an organization perseveres.

Graham ‘2:33’: Can I tell you a story, Toby? I have a great story about someone who persevered. And when I get to the end I think you are going to know who this person is. I think everyone will know this person.

The Story of a Writer Who Finally Succeeded

Graham ‘2:48’: For purposes of this story, I am going to call him Steve. And Steve when he was a child liked to write. He wrote his first story before he could even shave. His mother loved his story and said it should be in a book. He didn’t think a lot of it. A couple of years later, he sends one of his stories to a magazine to get published. They rejected it. He put the rejection letter on his wall and he keeps writing. He keeps writing. And he gets more and more rejection letters, but he keeps writing. Ten years later, he’s still getting more rejection letters. Now, he is 26 years old. He a teacher with a wife and two children and gets a telegram — back before the Internet — and the telegram is from Doubleday Publishing Co., one of the big publishing companies. They tried to call him on the phone, but he and his wife didn’t have enough money for a phone at that point. But he kept on writing and teaching. The telegram isn’t a rejection letter, but Doubleday wanted to publish his first novel. It was horror story about Carrie White, a teenage girl with telekinetic powers. He got a $2,500 advance for the book and not long after that, the paperback rights for Carrie sold for $400,000. That was the start of the person we know as Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. 

Graham ‘4:37’: I’m a writer so that story of course resonates with me profoundly. But that’s one of those stories when you talk about perseverance, he really stuck to what he believed to be true. He kept writing and knew he would find a place to publish one day. Rather than send the same story again and again, he kept working on his craft, modifying his approach and improving it. Eventually, Doubleday Publishing says they want to publish his book. When you talk about the difference between stubborn and persistence or perseverance, Stephen King demonstrates that in his writing. He didn’t send that same story he sent when he was 10 years old to every publication in the world, thinking eventually someone would publish it. Instead, he kept working on his craft and continuing to refine it and improve it, and getting better. I am sure his first story, the one his mother loved, wasn’t Carrie. 

The Challenges of Perseverance

Porterfield ‘5:52’: You bring out some of the challenges of perseverance. In the Stephen King example, it’s not just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s improvement and a commitment and as you said, a faith that this is what I am supposed to be doing. This is the right direction and I need to keep at it.

Perseverance is a lot about keeping at it at a real, continuing to improve way.

Organizations Must Persevere

Porterfield ‘6:22’: It really crosses over from the individual to the organization. For an organization that has a vision for what they want to be, the goal, the goals of what they want to achieve, staying after that regardless of what’s going on and persevering to work toward that goal is vital. At the same time, we mentioned the word distractions.

There’s a difference in being aware of our surroundings and being distracted and thrown off track fro where we are going.

Porterfield ‘6:46’: We can’t blindly go after things. We need to listen to those rejection letters and see what we are doing wrong, what was good and what was bad. Then we need to make those changes and improvements so those obstacles don’t become barriers. They become learning points and we move forward on them.

Another Story About Perseverance

Graham ‘7:15’: I have another story about perseverance. I had a student last year who wanted to go to medical school. She was an undergraduate student. She realized that she had to write a great resume and a letter about why she wanted to go into med school. She came to me. I had taught her a year or two before. She didn’t know how to write it. She wanted to meet with me and talk through it and show me drafts for comments as she went along. She came with a first draft that was pretty rough. We talked through it, and she took copious notes about everything we discussed. Then, she goes back and a week later and wants to meet again. She brings me a next draft, which is much better. And we talk about more improvements. She continues to improve it. She came to my office over about three months six times. By the end, she had a great piece. She was willing to persevere. She wanted to go to medical school. I am happy to say she got into medical school. I was one of those people who wrote a letter of recommendation. I knew she was someone who could do the work. It was easy to say that because I had seen all the work she did to get into medical school. She had her eye on the prize. The prize was medical school. The hinderance for her was getting that letter they need to be good enough for them to accept me. She knew where she was going and she knew what she needed to do to get there. It was just a matter of traveling that road. I can assure you a senior in college has plenty of distractions. All of her courses and friends, everything go on around her — but she kept to her commitment to get the best letter she could so she could get where she wanted to go. That’s an example of those whole idea of perseverance that is a little easier for us to appreciate. It wasn’t her saying I am going to do something unrealistic. Medical school was realistic. It was just a matter of her achieving these things to reach that objective.

Can We Get Better at It?

Porterfield ‘9:45’: You just got us to our next point. If we drill into that a little bit, we have to figure out how to practice, how to learn to be better at perseverance. Your student example gets at an element of that. She had a clear goal in mind. She knew what the obstacles were that she needed to overcome to get there. When we talk about obstacles and getting to a goal, I think of Randy Pausch, a faculty at Carnegie Melon University. We lost him a few years ago to cancer. A case of perseverance, but at the same time, he wrote the book, The Last Lecture, and did several videos on it. He talked about perseverance. He said that those obstacles are not there to get in your way. They are there to see how badly you want it and to keep the other people out. That’s sometimes a good way to look at things. Your letter is a great example of that in that medical school was the goal, a big obstacle for her was that essay, and keeping the eye on the prize. I’m going to get into medical school, but how do I get past this obstacle. Who can help me? What faculty members? Who can read it?

Perseverance has to start with choosing the appropriate goal. Once we know what that goal is, we have to know what the real obstacles are.

Graham ’11:09′: Isn’t it also being realistic with ourselves as well. Knowing what those obstacles are can be hard to admit. Admitting you are not a great writer and coming to a teacher for help is not an easy thing. It’s not easy at all. For me, it’s hard to ask for help all the time. I can only imagine that is fairly common for people. But before you can ask for help, you have to acknowledge that you are not as good at something as you may need to be. 

How Perseverance Helps Entrepreneurs Succeed

Graham ’11:44′: You look at a lot of entrepreneurial efforts going on and you see that someone has a great idea, but they need to bring other people into that to build that team that can achieve the result. Because they cannot do it themselves. 

Most of us don’t have the expertise to be able to do something start to finish. When we bring in team members to help, we give ourselves a huge advantage.

Graham ’12:07′: When we say, “Toby, you’re really good at certain aspects of what we want to achieve. I need your help to achieve these things.” We see it today in this podcast. We didn’t script it out real well. You have some real strengths that most people would not know, but it works really well. I have to acknowledge that because we had a discussion a couple of hours ago about how I was going to do this one by myself. Your contributions today are far more valuable than it would have been if I had done it by myself. 

It’s the acknowledgement that two heads is better than one, three is better than one, and building a team that allows you to persevere is important.

Graham ’12:45′: The other thing a team does is when someone is down, the other people pick them up. We think of perseverance as a uniquely individual quality. But a team can develop a quality of perseverance, too. You have the person who says we can’t win the football game. We’re down three touchdowns. And you have the guy on the team who says they can score three touchdowns in no time at all. And they get behind him. That person carries the team forward. 

We think of perseverance as an individual characteristic, but a team also develops perseverance. They help each other.

Porterfield ’13:30′: We are right on track with that. It’s such a necessary skill so we put it in the Individual soft skills category. If we’re really going to move organizations forward and we’re going to move forward in our own careers, we have to bring that perseverance to it. We can’t just be cast about and be going here and there. We have to keep on track. Having that group, having other people involved can be a benefit, especially if they are the right people.

Next Week’s Episode

Porterfield ’14:03′: Next week, we will be talking about project management, another soft skill. We are going to jump into another group this time. Project management has some controversy so we will have an interesting discussion. We’ll look at what it means and why it’s valuable to employees and organizations. Thanks for listening, good day, and good soft skills.