• Sara Murdock

Do you have what it takes to really succeed? Skills vs. Traits -- what companies need to know about

A lot of great research shows how “soft” skills--like empathy, listening, collaboration, teamwork, cooperation--are the secret sauce to high performing teams. And for good reason. The ability to ping-pong ideas, pass the torch from product owner to scrum master, and connect people teams to biz dev will make or break a company’s success. But simply “having” a skill isn’t enough. It’s the quality of the skill that matters, and quality comes from who a person is.

Imagine this: pretend you’re a terrible salsa dancer. But you’re determined to be good because you’ve decided that salsa dancing is a lucrative and highly sought after skill for top companies. So you take a Latin dance certification, join a Boogie til You Drop meetup group, read the year’s top 4 books on partner dancing, and listen to every episode of the “Cuban style vs. New York style” podcast series. You want to be a good dancer! But still, you have to count the beat out loud and look like you were stung by a bee every time you shimmy. You’ve adopted the skills technically, but you have not become a dancer.

The thing about skills is that they are not a product of hours of practice. Sorry, Malcolm! Skills are the symptom of being a person who embodies something. Put another way, it’s not hours of doing, it’s learning to be.

Of course, through practice and growth mindset, we can absolutely improve. (Including in partner dance, thank goodness!) But knowing which beat to step on is not the same as being a salsa dancer. (Anyone who’s ever witnessed a 90 year old caballero who barely moves his feet but makes his partner look way better than the quick-stepping young folks knows what I’m talking about!)

This is extra important when it comes to inclusive company culture. Hiring, retaining, and developing “non-traditional” talent… curating employee resource groups… self-organizing, agile-inspired projects... these are ways of being in the world that come from intensive, ongoing reflection. A company cannot decide to be inclusive one day. It’s entire approach to production and value creation has to shift. No quickie check-lists here.

Hiring practices are about as Jurrasic as educational systems. But in the past few years, companies are finally starting to focus on skills. As the paradigm shifts, we’re starting to see the nuance: while skills are important, the future of work hinges on qualities and traits. It’s superb that companies are moving away from credential-based hiring and promotion. Take this from someone who’s done all the school and who’s trained thousands of people! Credentials are shortcuts that we hope will signal added value.

In the movement toward flat orgs and “firing all the managers,” we see how hierarchy can backfire. Hierarchy is about role compliance rather than robust teams of people empowered to kick ass. There’s a time and a place for hierarchy, but developing world-class culture is not it. Each employee, of course, has skills, but they’re like the tools in the toolbox of the highly skilled craftsperson. The magic is in the human, not the hammer.

Executing the salsa properly is a skill. Being a salsero who can move seamlessly with a partner and with a band… well, that’s dancing! No qualifier needed.

There is, of course, a threshold. You cannot emote with such abandon that you careen into the band. Any discipline has its parameters--that’s part of what gives it value. Skills are great, but they are the tip of the iceberg, just the immediately noticeable part of a professional. So as companies shift from credential-based talent life cycles to skill-based human capital, they’re still often looking for something surface.

The future of work hinges on the future of talent. And talent is lived! Or, in some cases, twirled.