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Bruce Tulgan

Rainmaker Thinking


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Soft skills: how to teach the missing basics to today’s young talent


Just imagine the impact you could have if you were to spend time every week systematically building up the soft skills of your team.

You will send a powerful message, week by week. You will make them aware. You will make them care. You will help them learn the missing basics one by one - one exercise at a time. You will build them up and make them so much better. 

Over the years I have developed and tested many tools, techniques, and learning exercises, following this basic teaching strategy:

  • Make them aware: Name it and describe what the skill means to the organisation.
  • Make them care: Explore what the skill means to them.
  • Sell it: Explain the 'self-building' value of the skill.
  • Break it down: Spell out exactly what they need to do, step by step. 
  • Make it easy: Use ready-made lessons and exercises. 
  • Get them involved: Give them credit for self-directed learning. 
  • Make it practical: Spotlight opportunities to practice on-the-job. 
  • Follow up with coaching-style feedback to reinforce the lessons whenever possible. 

Spend time every day or every week building up the soft skills of your team. They will be so glad you did. You will too. Not to mention every manager they ever have for the rest of their careers. That’s what I call a 'teaching style manager.' 

Being a 'teaching style manager' means...

  • Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average every step of the way.
  • Remind everybody of broad performance standards regularly.
  • Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody.
  • Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible.
  • Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee.
  • Monitor, measure, and document individual performance in writing.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up, and provide regular candid feedback. 
  • Ask really good questions. 
  • Listen carefully.  
  • Answer questions.
  • Get input. 
  • Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line. 
  • Think through potential obstacles and pitfalls – make back-up planning part of every work-plan.
  • Anticipate and prepare. 
  • Train and practice.
  • Strategise together.
  • Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while.

Teaching-style management is also how you can help your most ambitious young employees who are so eager to take on more and more challenges and responsibilities.

Gen Zers (second-wave Millennials) often tell me, 'I can do so much more than I am doing. I want to do so much more than I am doing. But I don’t want to do more of the same. I want to do something new and different.' While this desire is a valuable impulse on the part of self-starting Gen Zers, it also poses two significant challenges to their immediate managers.

First, their job is to get the work done...

... Whatever the work happens to be. Sometimes there are no new and interesting challenges. But wait. That doesn’t need to be the end of the discussion.

Help them make their current work new and interesting by teaching them to leverage knowledge, skill, and wisdom to do their work better, whatever that work happens to be.

As soon as they walk in the door, have every new employee create an individualised learning plan in which they map out their responsibilities, and for each responsibility, make a list of learning resources (books, people, specific web sites). Encourage them to set learning goals and then keep a journal of what they are learning and how they are using it on the job. 

Second, you need to allocate time to train them

If you have truly new and interesting challenges for Gen Zers, then you will have to make the time to teach them how to do that new and interesting work. You can’t just give them a new challenge and say, ‘Figure it out.’

The secret is to teach and transfer just one small task/responsibility at a time. Make sure the person masters each new task/responsibility before you transfer another.

You can train them the old-fashioned way in short-term stages that track directly with adjustments in their day-to-day responsibilities. Every new task turns into a proving ground, which enables them to demonstrate proficiency and earn more responsibility right away.

It's not just about eLearning

Don’t fall for the myth that Gen Zers only want to learn from computers. That’s nonsense. They want to learn from people. They want to learn from you. You will never really take the place of a parent, but if you can truly become a trusted teaching-style manager, that is about as close as you can get.

If you want to take it the next level, go beyond regular performance coaching. Become a true champion of soft skills by becoming a teaching style leader.

Make teaching/learning the soft skills basics an explicit part of your mission and goals for your team going forward.

Imagine the impact you could have if you dedicated just one or two hours per week to building up the soft skills of your team. In just one or two hours per week, you can make them aware, make them care, and help them learn the missing basics one by one - one step at a time. You can build them up and make them so much better.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]. Or you can follow him on twitter @brucetulgan.


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