By Jennifer Lawrence
In 1972, the U.S. Continental Army Command (CONARC) at Fort Bliss, TX, coined the phrase “soft skills,” in order to distinguish job behaviors that characterize human interactions with machines (“hard skills,” evident in situations with clear, measurable processes) from equally important job behaviors that characterize human interactions with other people (soft skills, occurring in situations of high uncertainty and consequences). In contrasting the two types of skills, the Army’s Soft Skills Training Conference report admitted, “in other words, those job functions about which we know a good deal are hard skills, and those about which we know very little are soft skills.”
In the decades since the conference, even as the military’s “machines” have transformed into ubiquitous computer networks and daily interaction with computational tools has become routine, workplace interactions with colleagues can seem just as mysterious as they did to CONARC back in 1972.
MAPPING S.O.F.T. SKILLS FOR LIFE SCIENCES
In our recent research paper for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd), my colleagues, Karla Talanian, Luke Haubenstock, and I attempted to remove some of the mystery surrounding these skills, by mapping nontechnical job behaviors most essential to the life sciences industry. In the process, we repurposed the word “soft” to define the four axes of this behavior map as “S.O.F.T.,” for Self — Others — Feeling — Thinking. We concluded that life science enterprises urgently need to accelerate development of S.O.F.T. skills in order to decrease the talent gap that threatens the industry’s success in providing innovative therapies for patients in need.
Happily, numerous individual companies are rising to the challenge of expanding S.O.F.T. skills development across their workforces: Effective approaches are underway at organizations of all sizes across the life sciences ecosystem.
PRACTICAL APPROACHES TO ACCELERATE S.O.F.T. SKILLS
A first step in accelerating S.O.F.T. skills is to name them. At a leading global life sciences company, all employees, from entry-level associates to C-suite executives, are asked to pick one soft skill and one technical skill each year for individual development. Employees can choose to take classes to improve, obtain opportunities to practice internally, and find content available for reinforcement. “We put these things on calendars to see how people progress. We make it tangible. It’s a great program,” says a senior engineer.
Telling a succinct story is a crucial, yet often underdeveloped, soft skill among scientific professionals. A department of quantitative researchers addresses this skill gap directly through an elevator pitch competition: Each member of the group uses their phone to record a 30- to 60-second video description of their individual work projects and goals. They then refine and share it with peers who watch the brief videos and reply by sending their own. The group schedules an annual dinner to view and award the best elevator pitches. A senior member of the group reports, “I use my elevator speech four to six times a year to explain what I do to cross-functional colleagues.”
At one CMO, S.O.F.T. skills training focuses on increasing motivational conversations. As their VP of HR explains, “We teach people to inquire ‘How do you motivate your team? What are your best conversations, and what are your toughest conversations?’ and we challenge them on the answers.”
FEEDBACK AND COACHING ARE FOUNDATIONAL S.O.F.T. SKILLS
Role-playing can remove some of the uncertainty and anxiety that surrounds challenging conversations. As a leader at a growing biotech company explained, “People sometimes get data paralysis. The muscle memory of role-playing for skill-building can help in these situations.” Building this muscle memory requires continued practice to develop new habits. By identifying peer coaches to offer feedback and reinforcement to colleagues, life sciences companies provide opportunities for employees to practice building S.O.F.T. skills in giving and receiving feedback; asking thought-provoking questions; improving listening skills; and appreciating others’ strengths.
When a senior executive at a biotech company was challenged to develop her direct report — a renowned technical expert whose lack of interpersonal skills had stalled his career progression — continued feedback and coaching proved essential. The senior executive employed a two-step coaching approach with the expert that included:
- giving continued direct and specific feedback
- connecting the expert with peers who provided him with real-time feedback, providing consistent, frequent check-ins.
After many months of committed focus, the technical expert had changed his mindset and behaviors to become a highly collaborative contributor, with the satisfying result that one of his strongest critics became a strong supporter, and the expert’s career trajectory took off.
Learning the S.O.F.T. skills of giving and receiving feedback is foundational to elevating other essential workplace behaviors. Gaining commitment across the organization to practice building feedback expertise is, therefore, a best practice. At one life sciences organization, the peer feedback process includes four related components:
- Bringing junior colleagues to team meetings and debriefing with them immediately afterward, while memories are still fresh, on how they and other participants showed up to the group.
- Identifying senior people who excel in S.O.F.T. skills to weigh in on good practice and interaction with teams, analogous to a distinguished scientist role for technical topics.
- Separating technical work from S.O.F.T. skills for presentations and meetings, with the goal of separating the scientific review from asking “What went well with the team meeting? Did we reach the right people? Did we make the right points? What active listening behaviors were evident?”
- Asking peers in advance of meetings and presentations to provide feedback on specific areas of interaction at the event.
THE S.O.F.T. SKILLS OF LISTENING
Feedback is inextricably linked to another S.O.F.T. skill: active listening. At a fast-growing biotech company, employees receive coaching in mentoring others through active listening. They learn how to answer questions by listening first, in order to motivate and enroll others effectively. Explained a senior scientist, “The toughest thing to learn on a project is mirroring what people say, for example, by pausing before inserting your own ideas, and offering, ‘So if I understand what you’re saying, ...’ and ‘If I hear you correctly, the implication would be, ...’ in order to validate, by listening and rewording what they hear.”
Another foundational S.O.F.T. skill involves attentive listening — to oneself. Developing the practice of reflection provides access to deeper creativity, greater focus, and an elevated sense of calm. As a senior biotech executive explained, “Quieting the external static gives me space to hear myself more clearly.” This heightened sense of clarity and awareness provides an internal environment for the S.O.F.T. skill of self-awareness to flourish, so that acknowledgment and development of other needed workplace behaviors can then follow. Meetings can include reflection time by building short bursts of individual contemplation into an agenda as part of routine workflow, for example, by asking participants to consider a topic or question quietly for as little as 60 seconds, before opening discussion up for group comment and responses.
By committing to identifying, developing, and practicing essential S.O.F.T. skills such as storytelling, giving and receiving feedback, coaching, and listening, life sciences companies are providing employees with the requisite tools to elevate organizational effectiveness. Adopting best practices that improve S.O.F.T. skills will help to close the industry’s talent gap and — most importantly — accelerate successful results by life sciences organizations to serve patients.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE is associate director, human resources business partner at Blueprint Medicines