Evaluating the Impact of Hard Skill Development

By Greg “GW” Weismantel, President/CEO
HGC – The High Growth Consulting Group

There are two categories of talent: Management Talent and Specialist talent. Of the two, the specialist talent always comes across as the easiest for an individual, and usually when a person must learn the management talent, they find it the most difficult compared with their own specialist talent.

We see individuals always reverting to their Specialist Talent through the years because that is the easiest skill set for them. That’s why HGC calls the specialist talent of an individual the “Easy” skill sets, NOT the hard skill sets. It is easy talent because you learn it once as the basis of getting a job and having a career, and you master the basics of specialist talent at lower levels.

Management talent has two skill sets that are used. The first and most important we call the “hard skill sets” of blocking and tackling in management tenets, which include all the competencies of the Six Functions of High-Growth Management: Strategy, Planning, Organizing, Leadership, Teamwork, and Control. These are hard skill talents because an individual does not just learn them once, but must master their use with every level of management from supervisor to executive. A prospective executive enhances and masters the hard skills at each level because the Axioms remain the same, but the level of advanced management differs in mastery.

The second talent in management is the “soft skill sets” of the personal approach. On your management journey, you will need an understanding of both the hard skills and the soft skills. Unfortunately, most HR managers are only proficient in the soft skills of management, which forces the operational departments to fend for themselves in the arena of hard skill management talent.

Recently I bought a book written by the superstar Gary Vaynerchuk entitled “Twelve and a Half” which claims to “leverage the emotional ingredients necessary for business success.” Gary Vee, as he is called, does a great job of identifying 12 soft skills from Gratitude to Ambition, and you will appreciate his free style. However, it conflicts with the pragmatic needs which we noticed in our research of management workloads, as shown below.

The Average Leadership Manager uses hard skill sets approximately 90% of the time, and soft skills only about 10% of the time. So the CEO of your company is not receiving a solid ROI from the HR Manager who is only providing soft skill training.


Here are the definitions of the skill sets:

From the Vocabulary for Success:

Easy Skills

The skills that a leadership manager masters in the specialist talent of the position. Once the expertise is mastered, they become the easiest part of the workload, but are seldom used at the executive level.

The easy skills are where the individual migrates and feels most comfortable on the job.

Hard Skills

The skills that a leadership manager masters in the management talent of the position. Hard skills represent the tenets and axioms of management, which are used in the executive role.

The hard skills are the blocking and tackling skills that are developed, not trained, and include combinations of the competencies that are mastered in the six functions of high growth management: strategy, planning, organizing, leadership, teamwork, and control. It is a misnomer to say that hard skills are the skills of specialist talent, because specialist skills are the easy skills to learn through training. Hard skills are operational & strategic skills.

Soft Skills

The skills that a leadership manager masters that represent the personal attributes which are used in the executive role.

The soft skills are those that a leadership manager uses in managing the direct reports as it relates to areas of empathy, sympathy, gratitude, ambition, etc. Soft skills are “trained” skills.

Achieving management hard skills is more challenging to accomplish than soft skills, primarily because a manager at every level learns the soft skills once, but each level of growth by a manager requires a change in the hard skills, from middle manager/supervisor, to department manager, to Senior Manager, to Executive, to CEO. The hard skills are unique in every position.

In addition, a manager at every level uses more hard skills than soft skills. The studies of our firm on workloads of companies bear this out. We found that operational managers at all five levels use hard skills an average of 90% of the time, while soft skills only 10%. We also found that this percentage did not vary between Line and Staff Managers at these levels.

CEO 92-88% 8-12%
SENIOR MANAGER 92-90% 8-10%
AVERAGE LEADERSHIP MANAGER 93.1%-89.8% 6.8%-11.8%

(An Average of 22 managers per position, based upon 7 years of workload analysis, 33 companies, from 2001 to 2008: Epic Management Group)

For this reason alone, mastering the hard skills by your management team provides a higher return on your training investment than what you spend on the soft skills.

Individuals with soft skill backgrounds, such as consultants in Human Resources and Human Capital Management, design and prepare most soft skill training programs. Training programs are 90% driven by the company, with HR being accountable for determining the training programs, but not accountable for training the individual. The operational managers are accountable for training their own direct reports. Can you imagine an HR manager training in the engineering department?899

Development differs from training. Development programs are 90% driven by the individual, with the department manager guiding the effort. An individual develops management talent through proper mentoring, not training. It is our experience that you cannot train an individual to be a leadership manager, only the attributes of a leader. But remember the difference: a leader says “go,” and a leadership manager says, “let’s go.”

We tell our clients, if you want to become a high-growth executive in your career, don’t put all the emphasis on becoming a leader. A high-growth executive must master all the competencies of the six functions of high-growth management and understand the axioms and tenets as well.

Some Soft Skill Attributes

Communication: It encompasses both verbal and written communication.

Empathy: Share another’s feelings.

Sympathy: Pity for someone’s misfortune.

Courtesy: Considerate of other people in the company.

Flexibility: A flexible employee can quickly adapt to change. But be careful when using flexibility as a positive attribute. Often it refers to a manager who cannot make the right decision. “We’ve got to be flexible around here.”

Work Ethic: Willingness to work hard.

Integrity. Sign of robust character.

Emotional Intelligence. Recognizing your own and other’s emotions.


Some Hard Skill Attributes

(In the 6 Functions of High Growth Management)

In Strategy: The driving force, or game-changer events.

In Planning: Strategic Planning and Setting Operational Objectives.

In Organizing: Transformation & Reformation of your organization.

In Leadership: Accountability & Responsibility; Proper Delegation, Decision Making, Problem Solving.

In Teamwork: Conflict Resolution.

In Control: Axioms, Metrics, and KPIs.


The Soft Skills Conundrum

Unfortunately, the soft skills don’t resolve operational issues, where all the management talent focuses on. Only mastering the hard skills allows that.

Soft skills provide soft-dollar ROI, specifically in projected savings of time, but it’s always an estimate or opinion of the savings. Since these are soft-dollar savings, as a CEO, I always questioned the soft skill ROI.

Hard skills provide hard-dollar ROI, because the decision making and action planning components can provide actual hard dollar ROI; or the strategy can measure a “game changer event” in dollars versus a KPI. This is not possible with soft skills. How do you place a KPI on empathy?

Soft skills cannot provide KPIs like hard skills can. In fact, the metrics for soft skills usually all involve qualitative metrics and not quantifiable metrics, as operational management requires. That is why hard skills are required for corporate programs like Succession Planning, Career Path Planning, Pay-for-Performance, and Executive Management.

What we see with any training program is the value placed on them depends on how much we use the training on the job. From our experience, hard skill development has a tendency to be used on the job more often because hard skills occur more operationally than soft skills.


Where the Problems Lie in ROI

Normally, a soft skill consultant will attempt to show an ROI for a training program on soft skills in a couple of ways.

First, they incorporate hard skill attributes into their soft skill agenda. This is because they do not comprehend how the hard skill functions of management interlink together with corresponding management competencies, as well as a company’s management process.

Another problem is the infringement of the soft skill consultants into hard skill areas. We find that most HR managers like to think that “communications” is a soft skill, but that’s a hard skill competency of the function of leadership. It is a hard skill because communications always combines with other hard skill competencies to be effective, such as setting objectives and metrics. Soft skills look at “how” they provide the communications, so that it offends no employee. That is important as well, but it underlies the amount of utilization that hard skills have over soft skills.

In providing a soft skill ROI, we usually see metrics used which relate to time saved. There is an attempt to link absenteeism or turnover rate to have implemented a soft skill training program.

Our expertise shows that while turnover rate is a good vital sign for a metric, the turnover rate is based upon logic gaps in a management process, and morale deteriorates to where it is no fun to work at the company. The increase or decrease in the turnover rate usually has more of an impact on what hard skills of accountability and authority the employees have to make decisions. What we find is that a turnover rate usually occurs most in those organic companies where the managers make all the decisions, not on the empathy or sympathy of a manager. The other hard skill of determining the proper metrics for objectives also is a key area affecting morale.

Another problem rests because soft skills are not linear like hard skills. That’s why hard skills appeal to operational managers, because while management is a curve, a derivative, a management process is linear. Managers know this, and can take out their hard skill axioms to determine what action or decision to make on a particular management issue.


Where to Spend Your L&D Budget

Learning and development budgets are normally frugal, but even when they are all-encompassing, the department normally accountable for the spend is the soft-skill expert in HR. In my discussion with a key executive at Brandon Hall, the international HR consultant group, he informed me how important it was to have an engaging discussion so that HR will allow hard skill development to accompany the soft skill training.

Here are the key reasons:

  • Hard skills are management development skills, not technical or specialist skills of the job. Those are easy skills to which an individual reverts.
  • Hard skill development can accommodate hard-dollar returns, whereas soft skill training can only accommodate soft-dollar returns, such as time savings.
  • Hard skill development continues to grow in importance as an individual advances within the management team. Soft skill training stays the same throughout your career.
  • Hard skills are linear, and provide a hard skill road map to managers within a management process. Soft skills are adjunct to a management process.
  • Hard skills are the basis for the competencies of Leadership Managers and Executives in strategy, planning, organizing, leadership, teamwork, and control. Soft skills are important, but are not the basis for management tenets.
  • According to our pragmatic studies, managers used hard skills in 90% of a manager’s workload; they used soft skills 10%. So, for every $10,000 of L&D Spend in the budget, $9,000 should be on developing hard skills in your management team, and $1,000 in training on the soft skills. You will measure the ROI in hard dollars, not soft dollars that cannot be measured.