Saturday, August 18, 2007

Soft Is The New Hard

Soft is the new Hard
“Small is the new big.” “50 is the new 30.” “Green is the new black.” There is so much “this is the new that” buzzing that an astute cultural observer recently mapped every instance of when “this is the new that” appeared in media during a one-year period. Check out the map. Even Wikipedia (the new Google) lists “X is the new Y” among its defined cultural elements. Amidst this vast array of newness, another “new” phrase couldn’t hurt. So, consider “soft is the new hard” when it comes to being a world-class professional services firm. To be a successful professional in the current market, technical competence in your specialty is no longer enough: advisory and relationship-marketing skills are paramount. And, these two skills are softies.

You can usually tell when professionals and their firms value “hard” over “soft” when they culturally emphasize:

Hard skills first =
Credentials over competence
Technical prowess
Lone rangers
Linear thinking
Analysis of data
Emotion-free behavior
Facts first
Certainty of conclusion
Professional hubris
Short term action

Conversely, you can usually tell when professionals and their firms value “soft” over “hard” when they culturally emphasize:

Soft skills first =
Competence over credentials
Advisory ability
Non-linear thinking
Synthesis of diverse inputs
Emotionally generous behavior
Relationships first
Flexibility of opinion
Professional humility
Long term trust

Think in circles
Rational, reasonable, quantitative-data-centric professionals can often be fooled by the facts. Benjamin Franklin put it this way, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for anything one has a mind to do." Straight thinking professional experts can easily be led astray…or straight into a wall, with no real progress made on behalf of their client. “All progress depends on the unreasonable man,” said George Bernard Shaw. Unreasonable men think in circles. They follow a string of ideas around its circumference and join the round-about notions together like dots until the circle is complete and a new, bigger idea emerges. Clients not only get problems solved by soft thinkers, they get quantum leaps forward.

Think soft
Hard skills can be disaggregated, replicated, digitized, and outsourced. Soft skills can’t. Listening, observing, relating, creative problem solving and leading clients to successful implementation of solutions are inherently custom procedures that are best accomplished locally, in-person.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, professor Richard Florida claims that U.S. cities will increasingly thrive based on their ability to attract creative (read “soft”) thinkers. He says, “The key to economic growth lies not just in the ability to attract the creative class, but to translate that underlying advantage into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech businesses and regional growth.” In another recent business bestseller, A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink claims, “The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind – computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” Underscoring the relevance of these concepts for professional services, Daniel Pink recently served as the keynote speaker at a national conference of accounting firm marketers.

Thinking Soft is Hard
Professionals have a hard time weaving soft skills into their advisory arsenal for multiple reasons but most notably because appropriate soft skills have never been modeled for them and they’ve had no opportunity to practice those skills in a safe environment. Professional services firms that believe in the need to excel on the soft stuff, should invest in soft skill building and enhancement initiatives. When it comes to soft skills like advisory dialogue, relationship marketing, executive presence and creative problem solving there are five key components that must be present in any professional development initiative order for professionals to advance their soft skills.

Specialized: Professional services providers operate in a parallel universe to their clients…and the soft skills needed are therefore similar but different. So, firms that want to successfully build their soft capabilities employ professional development techniques and outside experts who specialize exclusively in building skills relevant to professional services providers.
Individualized: We learn and change our behavior better when the learning is tailored to our unique skills, abilities and interests. Firms that want to be as soft as they are hard employ professional development techniques and outside experts who are able to tailor programs to each professional.
Collaborative: As grown-ups, we also manage to change behavior better when we have a support group in which we can practice our new skills safely and gain encouragement from peers. Firms that want to instill lasting change in their teams embrace soft-skill professional development programs that have a group component in order to provide professionals with the support structure and safe-practice zone they need to build their skills.
Framed: Soft-skills can’t be scripted. However, professionals can be given frameworks that allow them to quickly read an improvisational encounter and respond within a conceptual structure that makes it easier to respond positively. Smart firms seek frames not scripts.
Continuous: Gaining and honing soft skills is a process not an event. Firms that want to realize a positive ROI on their people investment favor soft-skill professional development programs that weave ongoing coaching into the mix over other programs that are merely brief, one-time training sessions.

Check out Change or Die by Alan Deutschman and you’ll find that experts on effective behavior change agree with the elements described above.

Check out California Western School of Law in San Diego’s Center for Creative Problem Solving which was developed to teach attorneys how to think in a non-linear way that better serves clients. According to the Center’s leadership, “Today’s lawyers need training in skills that demand broader and deeper understanding of people, their problems, and the consequences of confronting those problems in narrow, legalistic ways. Lawyers of the future need training on how to think more broadly, more flexibly, more relationally and more preventively.”

Check out Kenning Associates, a professional development and executive coaching consultancy that helps build communication and interpersonal skills. One of Kenning’s best clients is a world leader in strategy consulting that hosts brilliant analytical minds but hasn’t typically been known for its professionals’ “soft” skills. Kenning is helping to change that. Daryl Ogden, a Partner with Kenning says, “Getting a client the right analytic or technical answer is indispensable, but without the adept application of soft skills – such as the ability to listen thoughtfully, to play back understandings of a situation or problem, and to structure and restructure a conversation to enable new and more creative solutions – professional service firms will almost always fall short of achieving their full potential for delivering high impact client service. But it takes more than just a determined effort to develop better soft skills. Those who employ soft skills with the most adroitness do so because they’ve developed a mindset of inquiry and curiosity that genuinely opens them up to the world of others and to an arena of new meanings. My partners and I would call this a “learning” mindset which, coupled with effective soft skills, much enlarges the solution space, much enhances the chances for implementing a creative solution, and much improves the possibility of building distinctive, long term client relationships.”

Awarding soft
Creative Growth Group has developed a series of collaborative, continuous coaching programs to help professional service providers enhance their creative problem solving skills – which are the essential tools of world class client developers and advisors. One of these modules is “Connecting the Dots – how thinking in circles helps grow clients.” It is a practical introduction to creative problem solving for professionals in dialogue with prospects and referral sources. Another is “The Laws of Gravitas – Executive Presence in Professional Services.” That one focuses on how professionals present themselves physically and verbally and retools their perceptions about encounters with client senior executives. But, the most significant “soft skill” effort which the firm has supported is The Client Advisor Awards. The premise of the Awards program is that clients and their advisors both get more out of their engagements when they demonstrate certain best practices…four out of five of which may be considered “soft” skills. Check out the criteria by going to and selecting “Nominate” from the menu. Tell us how you have demonstrated the best practices of a world class advisor or a trusted client…and we will tell the world about you and how you are setting the standard. You can also tell us about your clients, advisors, colleagues and cohorts if they meet the criteria. The deadline for submissions is August 31, 2007.

1 comment:

David said...

Andrew, this is great stuff. Very relevant in how we need to "get into the mindset" of our clients as we approach them in trusted advisory roles. I might add that, not only do we need to correctly understand the "hard/soft orientation" that the client posseses regarding leadership development, we need to also understand ourselves as service providers, partners and collaborators and how our orientations (cultural, personality and otherwise) equip us to relate to our clients as people and as organizations. Are we configuring ourselves properly to model the kinds of behavior that our clients are asking of their leaders? Often, simple beahvioral examples speak volumes.

If you add to this the complexities of a globalizing market, where clients frequently fall back on "hard" indicators because the "soft" ones cannot be expressed consistently across cultures in an alignment with the systems/processes/decision making structures in place to reward and reinforce expected behavior, we as service firms are often caught in the middle, without a clear way in which to express our unique ROI or create effective linkages.

David Lange
President, TMC
Princeton, NJ