Technical staff need technical skills. In fact, for individuals holding professional licenses and certifications, technical-focused CEUs are often required to maintain their designations. So the need to obtain this type of training is absolutely critical.
And yet, this training often comes at the expense of something that is equally important, but often overlooked: soft skills. Sure, some of these skills are taught in A/E/C firms – project management comes to mind. But often this type of training is reserved for a certain level of employee, and not all employees.
So what, exactly, are soft skills?
According to Oxford Dictionaries, they are “Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.” Contrast this with hard skills like learning how to use a software program, typing, interpreting engineering tables, or welding steel.
Here are primary soft skills needed by A/E/C professionals:
Communication – This is a big one, and includes both speaking and writing. Do your professionals look strangers in the eye, or look down? Can they stand in front of an audience – whether two people or two hundred – and speak without sounding nervous? Likewise, do they write sentences filled with technobabble or industry jargon? Or can they write well, in an easy-to-understand language? Do they use too many abbreviations and acronyms in email, or write out what they are trying to get across? Do they hide behind email instead of making a phone call or meeting with someone in-person?
Interpersonal – Maybe they have communicational skills down pat, but can’t effectively relate to those they are interacting with. A component of this is known as Emotional Intelligence (EI), which is understanding how your words and actions impact others as well as the importance of empathy. On one hand, it is understanding and controlling your emotions. On the other hand, it is being able to interpret and respond to the emotions of others – co-workers, clients, prospects, vendors, etc. Was EI part of your schooling? I didn’t think so!
Research – Research isn’t just for marketing departments, but for any and every professional. With “The Internet of Things” connecting just about everything these days, research is a critical soft skill, whether researching a person you are about to meet with, learning about their firm or institution, looking for new products or techniques, or just about anything else under the sun. We can all Google, but do our research skills go much deeper?
Project Management – Perhaps the most obvious of soft skills in the design and construction industry, project management is about a lot more than managing an architectural, engineering, or construction project. In fact, project management skills can be applied to most of what we do on a daily basis. A project manager may be in charge of running a specific project, but team members are often managing their own work, as well as the work of others. Developing a new process or specification requires project management skills, as does overseeing development of a proposal or presentation.
Problem Solving and Critical Thinking – The A/E/C industry is highly complex, and requires advanced problem-solving capabilities on a daily basis. But how are you to go about researching and identifying the issues that may be at the root of a problem, much less applying the critical thinking required to determine the ideal solution(s)? “Make it happen” or “just do it” don’t count as effective training.
Team Approach – The cliché “there is no ‘I’ in team” really is appropriate. In this industry, we are continually working in teams to win projects, design the work, and construct the deliverable. Many parts are moving at any given time within this complex world. No one person can do everything – by the very nature of the business we need a team-based approach, one where every team member carries his or her weight and all team members trust one-another to play their part. But so much of our upbringing reinforces the “I” over the “We” mentality, so a lot of professionals (of all ages, by the way) don’t truly trust and embrace the concept of “team.”
Attitude – This soft skill ultimately determines whether or not a person can succeed with other soft skills. And unfortunately, this is extremely difficult to teach. Sure, you can talk about having the right attitude, you can ask people to read books about positive attitudes, but this is truly up to each and every person. But when you can share lessons learned from positive – and negative – attitudes, and how they have impacted projects and relationships, you can create a powerful training tool.
Innovation – Sometimes it seems like innovation is being shoved down our throats with an “innovate or die” mentality. But clients are demanding innovation – not just by their words, but by their actions. When they tell us that they want it faster and better, but aren’t willing to pay more, they are essentially requiring innovation on our parts. But how many of our staff members understand innovation concepts? How does one even begin to innovate? Heck, what is innovation in the first place?
Listening – Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who was constantly talking – even cutting you off before you were finished? (You would never do that, right?) Or seemed like they weren’t paying attention to what you were saying because they were thinking of what they would say next? Those people have poor listening skills. Years ago I heard a simple rule, one that I continually reference – we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. But how many of your staff members have ever been coached to improve listening skills? How much valuable information do they miss because they simply aren’t listening?
Time Management – Although time management relates to project management, it is also its own beast. How many of us find ourselves sitting around with nothing to do? No, we don’t have enough time in the day, week, month, or year. But there are myriad tools and resources out there that could help us better utilize our time. And hey, one of my favorite time management tools is delegation. Micro-managers aren’t good time managers (nor team players). Do your staff members understand that there’s probably a better way than they are doing it now?
Organization – My email box is cluttered. Sometimes I feel like an electronic hoarder. And while my office can seem disorganized, I’ve seen some that make my office look extremely neat by comparison! Organization is physical and digital. Your company probably has standards for organizing project files, but are those standards followed? Are they archaic? And how do you and your co-workers organize anything that isn’t specifically-related to a project?
Professionalism – This is related to attitude, but is also different. I’ve known people who had great attitudes, but came across as unprofessional – or vice-versa. The way you dress. The way you speak. The way you shake a hand. The way you handle yourself with co-workers, clients, and prospects. The way you write your emails. The way your organize your files or manage your projects. There’s a professional way to do things, and many unprofessional ways to do them as well! Professionalism is closely intertwined with many other soft skills.
Hygiene – Sad but true: hygiene is a soft skill. If you are well-dressed but have bad breath and stinky clothing, people won’t remember what you are wearing. And I have to tell you, nothing freaks me out more than the men’s room at a networking event – watching “gentlemen” do their business and walk out of the restroom, bypassing the sink. Yuck! Do they understand what a hugely negative impression they create? I sure don’t want to shake their hands….
Etiquette – How do you make a proper introduction? Which fork do you start with at a dinner event? Manners are related to etiquette. Hopefully our parents or grandparents taught us proper manners, but in a world where people eat on the go, families spend less time together at the dinner table, and a plate and couch seem to be the new norm for eating a meal, sometimes we need a refresher.
As you can see, there’s a whole big world of soft skills out there – and this list certainly isn’t comprehensive.
Now think of all the hard skills training that you and your coworkers have received over the past few years. Compare that with the soft skills training received during the same period. Hard skills are less valuable unless backed by competent soft skills. If your firm held a monthly soft skills training program, you couldn’t even get through all these topics in a year. Furthermore, some – like communication – are so broad that there are critical sub-skills. For communication those skills are speaking, presenting, writing, and even listening.
Hard skills are important to the success of your firm – and to your own success as an individual. But they aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, in this industry they are hugely interdependent upon one-another. If you are lacking in any of the areas identified above, by all means seek out training opportunities. While you can’t go to a one-hour program and expect to master a certain soft skill, you have to start somewhere. Maybe your company can launch a series of soft skills lunch-and-learn programs. Maybe you could teach one or two sessions where you excel, and a few other co-workers could teach a session or two where they have a broad skill-set. Maybe you need to bring in consultants to help. Or maybe you and your co-workers need to go to third-party training to learn about these skills.
It doesn’t matter how you and your colleagues get this training, what is most critical is that you get this training. At a minimum, read a book. Watch a webinar. Do something, anything, to enhance your soft skills. The future success of your firm, and your career, depends upon it!