Skills are both quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative, or hard skills, are measurable and can be, for the most part, expressed with numbers. These are skills that can be taught, defined and measured. Accounting, architecture, computer programming, and auto mechanics are among many hard skills. Hard skills are acquired in on-the-job training, formal education, and apprenticeships. And when you complete your training you are thought possess the skills for which you have been trained. You have a certificate or diploma that asserts in an objective manner that you have attained a certain level of proficiency with consistent results.
Qualitative, or soft skills, are also measurable, but not necessarily by quantifiable means. Most soft skills are considered personal attributes such as patience, tolerance for ambiguity, empathy, courtesy, flexibility, decision-making, reliability, or language proficiency (Ramsoomair & Howey, 2004). Of course, these skills can be taught, too. You might have learned them at home, on the playing field, or in a classroom. However, defining and measuring the impact of these skills is much more difficult. You might be able to take a course in soft skill, for example, but assessing your proficiency in that skill defies most testing. Because, whether you possess a soft skill and use it well is often subjective.
In the broadest sense, some might argue you can learn hard skills but have a more natural tendency toward certain soft skills based in part on your personality. For example, you might be well-educated and have a lot of experience in our field, but if you don’t work and play well with others finding and keeping a job might be a challenge.
You might worry less about finding and keeping a job as an entrepreneur, so you probably think less about soft skills. Yet soft skills are an essential component of your ability to launch a business. Soft skills, for example, are necessary to both build and maintain social and business networks. Such skills also support your decision-making in day-to-day operations and guide your strategy development. It’s difficult to recognize your own soft skills, let alone those such skills in partners and prospective employees. But, soft skills are a critical component in building a high-performing team. The challenge when hiring is often how to discern those skills in the interview process.
Culling out soft skills in a partner or applicant is more challenging. While there are a number of tools and services that purport to help you assess those soft skills—behaviorial interviewing and the DiSC Assessment are my go-to’s—the tools only provide a guide. And of course, they are useless unless you know what soft skills these individuals will need (hint: most startups need people who have a high tolerance for ambiguity). Nonetheless, such tools remain subjective and should not be the sole determinate as to whether an individual you are considering for a partner or employee has those soft skills your company may need.
In the absence of tools that attempt to measure soft skills, you, like many other managers, might interview others by assessing their “ability to do the job.” In doing so, you are likely assessing only their hard skills. The "ability to do the job” is often determined by measuring the individual's hard skills and experience against the job description, which likely also specifies only hard skills (e.g., five-plus years in computer programming, six-sigma black belt, knowledge of scrum and agile methodologies). Rarely do you see a job description that includes, "Must work and play well with others." And if you do, how will that skill be assessed or measured?
So, when you have five candidates with equal hard skills, who do you choose? It often comes down to whether you like one candidate over the others. One candidate whose personality comes through—the one you like out of all the others—is often the one deemed a good fit for your organization and its culture. But, you don’t really know because you cannot effectively measure the fit—those soft skills—until the new hire is working and you can see for yourself how well he or she assimilates. Even then, it’s a somewhat subjective decision.
Soft skills bring more effective management and provide support to your organization’s strategic goals as a result of greater integration and understanding among those members on the team (Ramsoomair & Howey, 2004). All things being equal, soft skills are the things that should give your company a competitive advantage. Empathy, courtesy, language proficiency, the ability to “work and play well with others” are the things that bring cohesiveness to the organization. Still, you need both hard skills and soft skills to build a company.
Don’t be tempted to partner with or hire only those individuals who have demonstratable hard skills. People with soft skills, especially empathy, dedication, and courtesy, and the ability to make decisions, should always be highly valued. Consider this: A software programmer with killer skills and limited communication skills or no empathy might have a place in the company, but the software programmer with average skills and great communication skills and empathy might be better for the company. You can help teach new programming skills, but teaching communication and empathy is much, much harder. Which of those programmers is a better fit? It depends on you and your entrepreneurial goals. Achieving the necessary balance for your company is the key.
Partners and employees who prove to be the greatest asset to a founder have a good mix of hard and soft skills, and they make a conscious effort to continually develop both skill sets. Of course, the same can be said for the most successful founders. As a founder, you need to know how to do the work your company does each day, but you should also have strong decision-making skills, empathy for your partners, employees, and customers, and the ability to communicate well, among other skills.
Which skillset—hard or soft—do you lean on most for your business and why? How well is it working for you?
Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:
Learn more about DiSC Assessment here: Everything DiSC.
Take a free DiSC Assessment from the Tony Robbins organization here: Free DiSC Profile. Note: You have to sign up for the newsletter to take the assessment.
Interested in my DiSC Profile? I'm a very high D with a high i (Di). Read a summary about the style here.
100 behavioral interview questions to help you find the best candidates. A blog post from recruiting company, Top Echelon, provides some insights on behavioral interview questions.
Ramsoomair, F., & Howey, R. (2004, April). The Hard Realities of Soft Skills. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 2(4), 231-238.
David Harkins is a serial entrepreneur with significant experience in branding, strategy, licensing and marketing.
In his spare time, he consults, coaches, speaks, writes, hikes, explores, and creates art. Although, not necessarily in that order.
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