Vince Mirabelli
January 23, 2017

Don't Sweat the Soft Skills

Screenshot 2017-01-23 16.51.47.pngOne of the most frequently asked questions I get as a Lean Six Sigma coach and mentor is about project leads or candidates, and more specifically, what type of person I'd like to help guide to project execution. My answer has become so standard, I should probably put it in an FAQ or something...maybe we'd benefit from a blog post about it...

But I digress.

In my experience, there are really two types of project leads; those that are technically proficient, and those with what we commonly call soft skills.

(As an aside, I don't totally buy into the notion that these skills are "soft" in any way. While some of them are inherent in the lucky few, they can nonetheless be learned or honed, so I don't see anything soft about that. But again, I digress...I generally try to keep my digressions to 2 or fewer, and I've already blown that in the first 150 words)

If I have my way, I'd rather take the latter than the former...soft skills over technical proficiency, any day. Seems contrary to the norm, since Lean Six Sigma is a data-driven approach to problem solving, often requiring in depth statistical and graphical analysis, which takes many of us back to the miserable days in university stats class. Yet here's the thing...I can teach the technical stuff. In fact, I expect nothing more from a technical standpoint than a willingness to learn. But the ability to communicate up and down to various stakeholders, the ability to manage your project and your team, the ability work with and get support and buy in from people is absolutely critical. If a candidate can't get support for a project, because they didn't do the work, they missed something, or worst of all, they didn't engage all of the necessary stakeholders...well, they're dead in the project water.

So what are the qualities I look for in a potential candidate? What are the skills and characteristics (at least in my opinion) that make people great project leaders, regardless of whether in the lean six sigma or project management spaces? Well, there are really 5 traits that separate the best from the rest (Each of these 5 are deserving of their own posts, which I think is fair since countless books and texts have been written about each, so forgive me for covering at the high level below, and in more detail in the future)

1) Coaching

We all come with various strengths, and accompanying weaknesses. The best project leads know this, and exploit it for gain, instead of complaining. This one has taken me a while to wrap my head around, to my own detriment. One of the biggest responsibilities of a project lead is making sure feedback is given to your team, and that appropriate guidance (maybe in the form of training, or not) is given to develop and grow their skill set.

2) Communication

Communication is key. Being able to scale our communication up or down, as the situation calls for, prevents confusion, which could be the difference between an ongoing or cancelled project. Being able to use examples, terms, etc., that are relevant and understandable for your audience is also an incredibly valuable asset. Most people think they are great communicators, but this one is much easier said than done.

3) Personal Drive

This is the "get off your ass and go" part. We all have that proverbial little man (or woman) inside of us, pushing us to achieve greater and greater heights, whether in our personal or professional lives. Drive, or initiative, or self-motivation; whatever you want to call it, is what causes us to step down on the gas to achieve something great.

4) Leadership

When I think of leadership, I think of the ability to build a following, not through coercion or threat; not because a team or group has to follow, but rather because they want to. Leaders find a way to light a fire within people, as opposed to under them. And leadership means celebrating the good things that happen, but also acknowledging and addressing the failures we are all bound to experience.

5) Teamwork

Project teams would be perfect if not for the fact that they require people (aren't people just the worst sometimes?!). And this may surprise you, but sometimes project team members don't get along, falling somewhere along the adversarial continuum between "he never pays for coffee" and "mortal nemesis"...though depending on your feelings about coffee, those could be one and the same. The best of the best know how to manage cohesion within the ranks. People don't have to like each other to get a job done, though admittedly, it helps. 

We all tend to think of the technical side of our disciplines. That is, after, largely what makes up the certification exams. But in order to rise above, to hit a new become a true professional in our respective fields, we need to continue to build and develop the skills that allow us to get there.

And there's nothing soft about that.

Vincent is a principal at Global Project Synergy, working with clients in the fields of project leadership, business analysis and Lean Six Sigma. He has many years of direct senior-level experience in various aspects of project life, including Project Management, Business Analysis, Business Process Improvement and Enterprise/Organizational Design and Planning.

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