Why soft skills are not optional for leaders

Why soft skills are not optional for leaders

Return on investment in soft skills is much more than you could ever get from hard skills training, according to leadership speaker, author, and coach Jeff Nischwitz.

Nischwitz, who spoke recently at the American Institute of CPAs’ CFO Conference in New York City, said emphasising soft skills does not equate to soft leadership.

Many people have been influenced by the idea of top-down leadership, which means “cracking the whip” and giving orders, he said. That can lead people to think that leaders who focus on soft skills — those that help them deal with people, communication, trust, and relationships — are themselves soft.

“But the contrary is true,” Nischwitz said. “Soft skills help you set clear expectations, elicit clear commitments from colleagues, and bring sharp accountability. You will get the right things done consistently. That’s not soft.”

He said excellent soft skills are therefore not optional for leaders, and he highlighted research conducted with Fortune 500 CEOs by the Stanford Research Institute International and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, which found that 75% of long-term job success depended on people skills. Only 25% of success depended on technical knowledge.

One way to avoid this misperception of soft skills is to instead refer to them as impact skills, said Nischwitz, “because they enable leaders to help their people have more impact”.

Leadership shift

Nischwitz said this often makes the difference between bosses, who typically focus on getting things done, and leaders, who help people grow so they can be more effective.

Leadership is more internal and associated with who you are as a person, he said.

“All of us, to some degree, wear masks at work and in other parts of our lives,” Nischwitz said. Those masks are based on how other people have told us to be and are often about protection. Taking off the mask means being vulnerable.

“But most effective leaders are vulnerable. They allow people to see and know them, though it might be scary. So you’ve got to look at who you are and decide to be that person. It might take a risk to change.”

This is a step towards what Nischwitz calls the “leadership shift”, which means understanding who you really are, how you interact with people, and what impact you are having.

Boosting engagement

Another critical part of this shift is to enhance engagement, he said.

“If your people aren’t engaged, they are missing something and someone to engage with,” he said. “They do not see the organisation as worthy of their engagement. So get clear on what you stand for. Today’s workers want to be a part of something that has meaning; to stand for something; and to see values in action. And they want feedback and growth opportunities.

“Get them to commit to those things, and give them feedback about the amazing things they do and what they could do even better.”

Consistent, quality feedback helps workers develop, feel empowered, and feel engaged.

“The more specific the feedback, the better,” Nischwitz said. “Tell them why what they did was great, how it impacted the organisation, and how they make a difference. Constructive feedback is not about what you did wrong, but what would have been an even better approach. The message they get is, ‘I care about you and your future.’

“Your time and your attention to feedback create a return on investment that no other investment can replicate.”

Break constraints on finance

Nischwitz provided specific advice to finance leaders, encouraging them to “claim their space”.

“They can get locked into roles that are just about finance and numbers,” he said. “I challenge [them] by asking: ‘Are you at the [top] table in your organisation, developing vision and strategy? Are you part of decision-making, or just contributing information for those decisions?’

“Don’t rely on the box others put you in. Start with saying, ‘I am not a finance leader; I am a leader who happens to work in finance.’ That’s not a small shift.”

Claiming that space takes courage and can be risky, he said. It means stepping into an area that might be uncomfortable or where someone else is not ready to see you.

“But you decide whether you [do this], use your voice, and ask hard questions,” Nischwitz said. “It is for finance leaders to claim their space outside that box.”

— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at