Jakarta, 25 January 2017 — "You changed career from international water expert to leadership coach. Why the shift, and how did you do it?" Now that I teach leadership in businesses in Asia and around the world, people ask me this question. And when they hear the answer, what’s most exciting to see is that spark in their eyes when they decide to take charge of their own career.
Strategies on the shelf
Let' get started with the story. For a business to get results, two things are important.
The first is to chose their strategy. Traditionally, this receives most of the attention and resources. Vast amounts of money and time are spent on setting new goals and making new plans, especially after a new executive arrives.
In my career as an international water expert in Asia and around the world, I saw that it did not take long before most of these new plans and strategies found a permanent home on a bookshelf or computer hard drive.
More often than not, a year later or less, another workshop would be organized to produce another strategy or plan, which would also fade from memory not long after. Few strategies were implemented with sustained momentum, and even fewer with success.
What was missing in this picture, I wondered?
How to get results
Today, many businesses around the world have woken up to realize that the strategy execution is equally, or more, important than the strategy itself. Execution is now becoming a sought-after topic of research in business schools. And rightly so.
Early on in my career, I discovered that two things made the biggest difference in water projects. First were the people involved, and second how these people managed to work together. Without inspirational leadership and effective collaboration, projects seemed destined to fail. That is how my interest was triggered to study leadership and help people to become leaders.
Of course each organization and project also needs a smart design, to focus on the right goal and strategy. “Does your business have the right strategy?” remains a fundamentally important question even as we focus more on implementation.
Today, we are reminded of the importance of that question when we look at the Brexit referendum, the populist policies of President Trump and other leaders, and the choice that businesses around the world face between short-term profits and long-term sustainable growth. It matters to make the right choices and get the right strategy.
What is equally important, however, is to get implementation right, as British politicians found out last year, to their loss. After campaigning for a populist choice, they were ill prepared for its implementation.
Last Saturday, while people in countries around the world marched to voice their concern about the new policies of the Trump administration, even Republicans in his own party were questioning if the necessary homework had been done to get the implementation right.
Execution and the people
Implementation matters. People matter. Process matters.
American celebrity CEO Jack Welch described how he discovered that strategy, execution and people must go together. “If you don’t get the people right, the strategy doesn’t matter, and if you don’t get the people right, you won’t get the execution, so you’re dead." People are central to getting the right strategy and to implementing it successfully.
So how do we "get the people right?” Answering this question became a leitmotif in my career as international water management expert. And I soon learned that the common distinction made about “getting people right” was between hard and soft skills.
Hard skills are those we acquire through knowledge and experience in one or more disciplines. Our degrees and diplomas are a testament to our hard skills, for example in engineering, economics, law, science or information technology.
Soft skills, on the other hand, refer to a set of competencies and practices that include communication, attitude, and teamwork. My definition of soft skills is "how you communicate, see the world, and work with others." Advancing in the soft skills is less straightforward, and may therefore take longer, than mastering the hard skills. Summing up the benefits, we might say that “hard skills make products, and soft skills lead change.”
Obviously, we need both soft and hard skills to get good results. Yet during my career, I discovered that relatively few experts, managers and executives showed strong competencies in the soft skills to “get the people right.”
I realized that almost all our education has been focused on giving us hard skills. This insight helped me understand why so many projects failed, or fell short of expectations. And that’s when I decided to shift my career and help as many people as I could to work on their soft skills, individually and in teams and organizations.
Unpacking soft skills
Now that business are waking up to the need for investing in soft skills, let’s unpack what kind of “soft” we need today to get excellent results from implementing our strategies. I propose three meanings of soft:
First, soft means agile. Our business environment today is vastly different from 20 years ago, and is rapidly changing every day all around us. If we don’t lead in change, we loose out on results. Today’s business climate is also described as VUCA, or volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. My Australian friends like to refer to tackling wicked problems, for which there are no tried and tested solutions yet. While having a strategy is one thing in these times of rapid change, knowing how to implement it is another thing entirely. And implementation now has to respond to the rapidly changing conditions. In these conditions, nurturing agility through soft skills has become a key for success.
Second, soft means emotional. From the research by Harvard's Kotter and Cohen in hundreds of businesses around the world, we know that see-feel-change is the process that actually delivers results, as opposed to our old assumption of analyze-think-change. People need to see the need for change first before they commit, and then create an emotional connection with the goal. Without these two conditions, change is unlikely to happen. This insight is even more critical today as people are chronically overwhelmed by information and choices. Focusing on fewer priorities—not more than three—while nurturing an emotional engagement with these priorities is now a key for success.
Third, soft means engaging. More than ever before, teamwork is needed for success, and more teams today work across disciplines, locations and time zones. Soft skills are now essential for teams to work effectively as they explore solutions to complex problems with a variety of approaches and in a collaborative way. Building effective communication skills to engage team partners and clients in collaboration is now a sine qua non for success.
The very good news
The very good news is that when we invest in building the soft skills of the people in our business, the life time of that investment is much longer than the strategies that we are currently implementing. After people learn how to make change happen (execution), they will still use those soft skills long after the current business strategy has expired.
Summing up, with today’s emphasis on strategy execution, we will do better when we focus on “getting the people right” so that they can get the strategies and the execution right. Then we will also be prepared when the strategy has to change, which is bound to happen sooner than we think.
Rather than focus on creating more beautiful PowerPoints about goals and strategies, let’s invest more in training to work on the soft skills of the people in our business, and practice these skills in role plays, teamwork and in conversations with our clients. Let’s make it our priority to “get the people right” so that our teams, projects and business can deliver on the right strategies.
Now you know what triggered my career change from water expert to leadership coach, and why I focus on helping people to build their soft skills, which can make such a huge difference.
And while I'm more passionate than ever about my chosen path in leadership coaching, I am still inspired by the power of water. As we speak of soft skills in people, I often reflect on the life-giving soft power of water. It supports and outlasts all of the “concrete, steel and glass” advances in our societies today, as it has outlasted the civilizations it nurtured throughout the course of human history, such as the Angkor civilization in present day Cambodia.
With that thought, let me say that I look forward to working with you, so that you can lead change in your business and your world. It might even lead you to make a change in your career too.