The Real Truth about Soft Skills

Attention to women in leadership comes in waves. This week's BusinessWeek article titled the Hard Truth about Soft Skills reports on a Hay Group study of successful women as compared with successful men and less successful women. To summarize
"The outstanding women," Fontaine notes, "used a better blend of what we think of as traditional masculine styles—being directive, authoritative, and leading by example and as well as feminine ones. They also knew when to be more nurturing, inclusive, and collaborative."
True, but I've seen too many articles like this (including BusinessWeek's own "As Leaders, Women Rule" back in 2000). And I believe they work to the detriment of women.

So, of course, I had to comment. Here's what I had to say (by the way I was the first woman to post - interesting how men dove in first).
  • Part 1: Since the 70's women's "soft skills" have been touted as the solution to the management challenges of the decade - from employee empowerment in the 70s to "transformational leadership in the 80s to the great recession of 09-10. An unintended consequence is that too many women rely on the false belief that soft skills will get them ahead. The hard truth about soft skills is that they are a necessary, but insufficient, element of the leadership success equation for both men and women. The skills that get women and men to the executive suite are those that allow them to align teams to hit key outcomes. These include the "hard skills of" business, strategic and financial acumen. Articles and research that continue to tout women's excellent interpersonal skills as the key to leadership success overstress what women already do well, and under-focus on the hard skills that women are perceived as lacking. They do little to increase the glacial rate of women's advancement.
  • Part 2: There is a second challenge suggested in this article. That is that performance and succession assessments covertly or overtly equate command & control behaviors with leadership. Women who are penalized by statements like, "she's nice, but can she be effective? suffer from the command & control = leadership bias. These assessments and the assumptions behind them have to be directly confronted in order for subtle biases against women (and men who are more collaborative) to be overcome. This requires a shift in worldview/mindset. It's been called for since the 70s. Whether today's crisis will effect the change remains a question.
What do you think?

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls. She blogs on networking for PINK Magazine. Follow her on Twitter.
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Elizabeth Laden said...

Interesting! When I read blogs like this, and look at Web pages like yours, I feel so grateful to live in Idaho.

Susan Colantuono said...

Elizabeth, I'd love to know what it is about living in Idaho that makes it a great place for women to advance in corporate careers.

Or are you saying that in Island Park you don't have to deal with such...

Looking forward to visiting!

Stephanie L. said...

I have personally experienced being overlooked for executive roles not because of my lack of business acumen but the perceived lack of a "command and control" style. Ironically, this is the case even when I've demonstrated proven bottom line impact to the comapany's growth. It's unfortunate because when we don't have diversity among executive leaders, employees, consumers and stakeholders don't see the level of high performance they deserve.

Susan Colantuono said...

Stephanie, it is indeed unfortunate that for too many men at the top, leadership = "command and control". That's one reason why I suggest (in No Ceiling, No Walls and its online resources) that women learn how to represent themselves as "in command" when they are speaking up the organization. Sad reality - and as you say - costly to customers and consumers. I hope you find an organization that values the full range of your talents and lets you employ them at the appropriate level to add value to the bottom line and to customers.
Lead ON!