How to Measure the Impact of “Soft Skills”

Here’s a recent reader question:

“A question on talent pools. We have a talent pool comprising executives of different ranks. After putting them through a development phase (different soft skills), the question is how do we evaluate the impact of all these soft skills. As you know it is really hard to do that. How would you approach this situation? Any ideas welcome.”

First of you, good for you for establishing a “talent pool”, instead of lists of replacements for specific positions. Other than a few critical positions (i.e., CEO, CFO, CTO), I think that’s the way to go. Although I’d advise not mixing levels in the same pool.

I do have to take issue with the term “soft skills”. I hate the term. I know it’s a commonly used term with line managers, and I’m all for using simple terms that managers can relate to (like ROI, P&L). However, I think we owe it to ourselves to educate ourselves and our managers about what’s important when assessing, hiring, and developing senior leaders. “Soft skills” sounds like fluff, while “hard skills” must be more important.

Here’s a typical success profile for a senior manager:
– Creates strategic advantage
– Promotes a global perspective
– Uses sound judgment
– Uses financial acumen
– Manages and improves processes
– Leads change
– Coaches and develops people
– Inspire trust

So OK, which of these are “soft” and which are “hard”? Or are they all just critical skills needed to be effective as a senior leader?

Most companies – or leaders – don’t fail because of a lack of technical skills. It’s almost always due to what many would call a lack of a critical “soft” capability.

Back to your question – if you’re trying to improve these skills, how to you know if you have or haven’t? And if you have, what’s the impact?

That’s a question the training industry has been struggling with since the early cavemen were teaching fire-starting and wooly mammoth hunting techniques. There have been stacks of books and research that address that topic, and quite frankly, I think it’s something we in the training industry obsess about too much. I suspect a lot of training measurement activity is self-serving, and if we were doing a good job, line executives wouldn’t really care. Think about it – does the finance and accounting

Given that, it is important to have some sense of if what you’re doing is working. I’ve written a previous post called “Six Ways to Measure the Impact of Leadership Development” that provides some guidance on high-level measures.

Here’s a few ways to measure the impact of a specific program:

1. Ask the members of your talent pool. Either through interviews, surveys, or focus groups, you can ask them:
– How satisfied they were with the development
– Their perception of their skill improvement
– Their perception of their behavior change
– Their perception of the business results achieved as a result of the development. Even better if they can put an estimated dollar amount on the ROI.

2. You could also ask, using the same methods, their employees, managers, peers, or customers.
The time to think about measurement is really BEFORE you design a development program, that way you can get a baseline of current skill level. That way you can compare before and after. Again, you can use surveys or self-assessment, you can even administer before and after 360 degree assessments (make sure you allow 3-6 months for the change in behaviors to become noticeable).

3. If you really want to get academic, you can even use “control” groups – that is, do the same assessment with a group of managers that didn’t get development. But again, to me, this is time-wasting activity that could better be spent developing managers.

4. Ask those high level executives that are responding to surveys saying they are or aren’t satisfied with their company’s leadership development efforts. After all, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.