Perhaps it is indisputable that hard skills are critically important to possess for any, who either is or aspires to be in a leadership position. Management cadre of any unit, corporate, or even government must possess the necessary and relevant hard skills to deliver upon the strategies prepared and promised to the stakeholders. A research into any subject, with the available body of knowledge or even a developing one, is meant to drive new dimensions of thought and information, that will most likely impact and facilitate, in creating fresh and dynamic, management ability, within the workforce of an organisation.
Of late, many management scientists and practitioners have been focusing on the imperatives of soft skills for the leadership position. The purpose of this study is not meant to negate the importance of 'Soft Skills', but it is to bring back to focus, the necessity of possession of 'Hard Skills', as a basic and fundamental trait, to those who are already in a leadership position or are likely to ascend into being a leader.
Hard skills relate to an organised set of competencies that are required, in the execution of an assignment. These are largely in direct relation to the job and are easily teachable or acquirable abilities. The most commonly understood hard skills are acquired through obtaining a college/university degree or a dedicated certification in any field, given by an independent institution or at the basic level it is meant to include industry-specific certifications, honour and recognition by professional institutes. The possession of working knowledge of more than one language, typing, IT engineer, etc. is some indicators of the presence of hard skills. Mostly hard skills are obtained through formal education, training conferences and seminars, and certifications by professional bodies. They cover the minimum expertise required for a job/assignment and usually are inscribed in detail on the respective job description (JDs). A definitive set of competencies that permit efficient delivery of output and facilitates job performance constitute hard skills.
Hard skills are meant to be more efficient, hence these are quantifiable, measurable, defined, and evaluated. The possession of writing skills or being good in numeric is another example of having hard skills.
It will be almost impossible to list down the number and nature of hard skills, because they are numerous. Each type of profession requires a different set of hard skills; the overlap between various segments can include the following: analytical or statistical skills in analysing, interpreting data, for research purposes; creative hard skills in computer and information technology platforms, digitalization, etc.
In the context of the service industry, involving say, finance, banking, insurance, and education, the methodologies are several and different, that a worker must be fully equipped with, these would constitute hard skills, add to this the need for knowledge of related regulatory and governance framework; all of these constituents together would mean to be hard skills.
In the art of management of the business or in any area of human endeavors, it is important to recognise that both hard skills and soft skills are necessary. They are not to be seen as mutually exclusive requirements for being in a leadership position; they are complementary and supplement each other. Soft skills may actually contribute to the enhancement and betterment of hard skills, but also, no assignment can be achieved with success, without the accompaniment of the necessary and certain amount of expertise (Hard Skills) relating to any field.
Hard skills are acquired through formal education or training. Soft skills, mostly immeasurable, hence difficult to gauge the quantum required relate to, how for example, one interacts with other co-workers – soft skill is the ability to, appreciate for induction in everyday life, elements like empathy, humility, recognition of inter-dependence, etc. Soft skills fall in the territory of human skills and hence are seen as a reflection of 'Emotional Quotient'; while hard skills are aspects of technical proficiency and hence fall into the 'Intelligence Quotient', area.
Hard skills are specific, while soft skills pervade all industries and segments of the economy and society. Soft skills underlying nature is its universal applicability.
There are several professions that demand an equal ability in hard and soft skills – medical doctors are a case in point and so are psychiatrists, lawyers, etc. Further, soft skills are a major determinant when it comes to creative work. There is a greater demand on soft skills in say human resources management, marketing campaigns, brand recognition efforts, etc.
The presence of hard skills in any leader/manager is a prerequisite. In fact, at every level of the hierarchy, technical competence is extremely important. Bloom's taxonomy model is universally recognised that has classified different cognitive levels which makes comprehension of the various types of cognitive levels of learning, regardless of them being, technical (Hard) or soft skills. The accepted six levels are; knowledge, understanding, application/execution, controlling, evaluation and synthesis.
Assignments of 'execution' will invariably demand hard skills; as against say jobs that require 'controlling', evaluation, decision making, would need equal abilities in hard and soft skills. Hard skills enable confident decision making; soft skills allow to accept, alter, amend, and manage the fallout of the decision. Because of its importance, hard skills must be learned formally and sharpened on a regular basis, through continued education. Hard skills, which are more inclined towards technical proficiency, are looked at closely by organisations, far they are easier to measure. Soft skills which are more related to personality traits, can also be learnt and acquired, but its measurement being in the intangibles, is difficult upon pointation, technically proficient managers learn the importance of EQ; interpersonal skills, communication, etc. The evaluation however will always be subjective. In an organisation that I once worked for, HR had come up with a matrix of performance evaluation where 70 percent weightage was assigned to hard skills (results) and 30 percent weightage to soft skills (values). It certainly was lop-sided towards the achievement of goals and means to achieve (values) apparently seemed compromised. And even the 30 percent weightage was the victim of the subjectivity of likes, dislikes, whims, moods, etc.
These are some hard skills, which necessarily must be present in every worker; use of technology – computer, printers, scanners; use of software – MS Office (Excel and Word); knowledge of standard operating procedures, controls, systems, and the related regulatory framework. Additionally, managerial skills, like not putting square pegs in round holes; language skills, problem-solving, and decision making, are critical for a leader/manager.
Today's corporate parlance is "skills are the new professional currency of the 21st century". Employers wish to see credible evidence on the resume of candidates that certify the presence of hard skills in the candidate. In this process, the actual and quantifiable hard skills assume prominence over, all other sub-sets of skills.
It is now generally accepted that an interviewer will ask specific questions relating to how the hard skills were deployed and what was the outcome of it e.g. As a car salesman you had the benefit of major alliances with financial institutions, how did it help in achieving more unit sales of cars? The candidate is expected to give numbers in exactitude, not illusory or imaginative. Those who score high on hard skills and low on soft skills stand a greater chance to find assignments than vice-versa; the only proviso here, is that some professions as identified earlier require a greater dosage of soft skills, but again it is not to be to the cost of lower proficiency.
In many organisations, the evaluation of technical skills is left to the relevant front office that requires a certain type of talent; while the expectation is that it will be the responsibility of HR to evaluate the human skills. This results in the right hand not knowing what the left is up to. The need for synergy between these opposite positions is an imperative need. The HR manager must possess a minimum capacity to judge the hard skills also in a candidate. And if an executive of the C-Suite, who is full of technical abilities, but has inadequate soft skills, will burn himself/herself out, and may not make it to Numero Uno position.
Those organisations that place reasonable importance to 'assertiveness', which is essentially a soft skill, will have the least managerial issues. The environment it creates is one where people say, without fear or favour, what needs to be said, in the overall interest of the organisation. They need to be careful here, is to ensure that assertiveness does not convert into aggressiveness, which is a negative trait.
For any organisation to rely purely on soft skills will be disastrous in the short and long run; reliance purely on hard skills will also be perilous, but in the long term. If the human resource base is blessed with hard skills, it will be of very little use, if soft skills like attitude, behaviour, values, are ignored. Action needs hard skills. Good results need managerial soft skills to manage success.
Processes like hiring, placing individuals in diverse roles/and or elevating staff for higher roles, involvement of business function with HR is critical. The ability to strike the right balance between the two, with the capacity of knowing what proportion to use which skills lies in the wisdom of leadership.
The writer is a senior banker and a freelance columnist