Soft Skills, Hard Questions

The story is told that when Peter Drucker was asked how to become a better manager, he replied: “Learn how to play the violin.”

This was, apparently, Drucker’s way of saying that the best managers and knowledge workers are excellent critical thinkers, creative and open to learning new things—just a few of the attributes that, according to a recent article in Time, seem to be in increasingly short supply among recent college graduates.

“The technical term for navigating a workplace effectively might be soft skills, but employers are facing some hard facts: The entry-level candidates who are on tap to join the ranks of full-time work are clueless about the fundamentals of office life,” Time reported. The magazine cited several surveys showing that large and growing numbers of job applicants lack “communication and interpersonal skills” or are weak when it comes to “communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.”

Drucker would have certainly appreciated the frustration that employers feel on this front. But he also would have been quick to tell them that it’s their responsibility to look for people’s strengths, not focus on their weaknesses.

Image credit: Cranky Old Mission Guy via Flickr
Image credit: Cranky Old Mission Guy via Flickr

In fact, Drucker did just this when counseling an executive on how to deal with a particularly difficult employee named Green. “You shouldn’t be blind to Green’s inability to get along with people,” Drucker advised. “But you have him on the payroll because he has brains, not because he is supposed to act as a social director. Concentrate on strengths. When you hire for strengths that complement and reinforce each other, then weaknesses don’t mean so much.”

Drucker continued: “If you’re looking for someone to fit a job, it may take you forever, depending on how detailed the description is. To me, the effective executive starts with what a person can do, rather than what a job requires. . . . Don’t think of yourself as ‘having a job to fill.’ You need some more strength in the organization. Look for strength . . . and when you find strength, bring it in, even if you have to change the job requirements.”

As for those newly minted college grads hitting the job market, Drucker would have had some advice for them, too: Know what your strengths are.

“For the first time in human history, we will have to take responsibility for managing ourselves,” Drucker declared during a 1999 talk he gave in Los Angeles. “This is probably a much bigger change than any technology, this change in the human condition. Nobody teaches it—no school, no college—and it will probably be another hundred years before anybody does teach it. In the meantime, the achievers . . . will have to learn to manage themselves, to build on their strengths, to build on their values.”

What’s your view? Do you think recent college grads suffer from a deficiency of “soft skills”?