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, SeriousSoftSkills.com. 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 podcast@serioussoftskills.com 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.