The needed skill in a tight labor market
Written for Progressive Dairy. Originally published Jan 2023.
How often have you seen a highly skilled manager fail in leading their team? Some signs are high turnover, lax standards, and low morale. How often have you seen employees or owners in charge of managing people struggle to connect with employees and keeping everyone aligned with the goals? How often have employees been promoted because they have the technical know-how and work hard, but no one wants to work with them?
Great leaders are goal orientated but realize they need to build a team around them, which means using soft skills to build a culture of employee engagement. So often, we hear that throwing more money at employees will keep them from leaving. While that might work for a while, money and perks only go so far.
A benefit of working with ag enterprises across the USA and Canada is that we observe what the best ag leaders do differently than most. Soft skills are overlooked, but they separate great companies from everyone else. I can’t think of one ultra-successful operation where the leadership had poor soft skills.
Soft skills in leadership positions allow family enterprises to get a leg up on their competitors, even in a tight labor market.
What are soft skills?
Let’s dispel a misconception. People with good soft skills are not mushy, wishy-washy, highly polished, or great schmoozers. Instead, they have these soft skills: communication (both written and verbal), self-motivation, drive for self-improvement, able to build trust, teambuilders, good time managers, flexible, and conflict resolvers. The largest and most important skill of them all is communication.
The Big One: Communication
By far, the skill that has the largest impact and needs the most work is communication. We survey employees, owners, and managers as part of our peer groups and consulting. They rank themselves across a variety of skills and traits. Employees, owners, and the next generation consistently rank themselves lowest in communication skills.
So often, communication is assumed to be about telling and talking. But it’s so much more. Communication is more than giving task lists and orders. Sometimes communication is talking, but often it’s about listening.
- Ask your team members questions, so you can understand what they are seeing, feeling, and understanding.
- Ask opinions instead of giving yours first.
- Follow up on past conversations so things don’t fall through the cracks.
- Have daily or weekly team huddles to keep the team aligned.
- Understand your team on a personal level. Get to know them as people.
- Show your team a clear vision of where the business is going. Explain the WHY behind your decisions.
- Give feedback that helps the employee improve while not tearing them down.
- Deal with conflict constructively and timely while looking for win-win solutions.
There is much more that could be written about communication, but the tactics above are what great communicators consistently practice.
It takes deliberate and intentional work to hone soft skills. At first, it can be difficult. Some people pick them up quickly, others slowly, but everyone can improve from where they are today.
Why are soft skills the secret sauce of all highly successful operations? Unlike production technology or production practices, soft skills can’t be bought. However, they can be learned, practiced, and perfected. That’s great news for those who want to build a stronger team with fewer headaches.