Madan Mohan Tripathy

Is there any magic formula that contributes to a successful and sustainable organisation?

This question has been bothering Corporations, CEOs and Board Rooms across the world. Is it Organisational and Business Restructuring? Is it Lean Manufacturing? Is it Merger, Amalgamation? Is it Core Competency? Is it Forward and Backward Integration? Is it Innovative Products? Is it Customer Satisfaction ( or Customer Delight, if you prefer to call it so)? Is it crushing your competitors by hook or crook even by maneuvering or takeover? Is it collaboration with your competitors ( even if unholy ) to thwart the ever-increasing demands of your customers? Is it Downsizing for cutting down the Fixed Cost? Is it better Inventory Management? Is it TPM or SIX_SIGMA or SAP? Is it GEMBA or KAIZEN or POKAYOKE? Is it good Performance Management and Balanced Score Card? Is it Hedgehog Principle and Fly-Wheel effect?

Something vital is missing?

All these and much more have been prescribed by all-knowing consultants as panacea for all the ills of the organisations and tried sincerely by Business Organisations, the CEOs, the Business Tycoons at one time or the other throughout the world, both successfully and unsuccessfully. But, NAY! None of them appears to give them the sustained and the lasting edge that they wish to have so dearly. I am sorry if I sound pessimistic. ( I am not at all a pessimist ). I have nothing against any of these methods. All these tools are excellent Management Practices for a great start. What I would like to emphasize that something vital is missing from the equation, the absence of which that hinders the sustainable competitive edge.

The legend of the MUSK-DEER

I am reminded of the legend of the MUSK- DEER ( a rare species found in the Himalayan Regions ), which was deeply attracted and pleasantly agitated by the intoxicating fragrance
coming from somewhere. As if mesmerised, it made a relentless pursuit of the source of that beautiful fragrance, racing all around, wandering frantically from hilltop to valley and valley to hilltop. The desperate racing and rushing continued unabated until it was thoroughly exhausted and fell flat on his knees. Only then, EUREKA! it could realise that the source of the sweet fragrance lay within, no-where-else but his own navel. ( In fact, when the musk deer reaches puberty, there is a glandular explosion releasing the intoxicating fragrance, we are talking about, from a gland near his own navel. )

The missing Link is within us

Yes, as most of you might have understood by now, I am talking of the missing link in the Success Equation, which is all-pervasive, but entirely within our own control. For getting hold of that missing link, we do not need any consultant or Management Guru; nor do we need any Management Jargon. We need to look within. It is observed and proved umpteen numbers of times that there is a little difference in Management Practices between the successful and not-so-successful organisations. But, in the end analysis, that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is how the organisation treats its people, how the organisation ensures that its people know how to handle themselves at work and how do they relate with their customers and peers. It is no magic formula; neither it is any intricate management model. The logic is simple. If you take care of your people ( by people, I mean both management and non-management ), the people will take care of themselves, their customers, their peers, your vision, goal, technology, innovation and all those which matter for success ( the success is no longer your success, it is the success of everybody in the organisation as somewhere in between, the interest of the individuals is fundamentally identified with the interest of the organisation ).

True, if you are to cross a broad and stormy sea ( as the today's economy is ), can you afford to run around and encourage your shipmates to push each other to reduce the load on the ship? If you have a little gray matter, I am sure, you won’t do that. Rather, you would put all your heads together and try to find out a solution how to pull through the storms. People around you represent your best hope to attain a pleasant future.

A couple of years back, in an article titled " WHY CEOs FAIL?" in the famous Fortune Magazine ( in USA ), the magazine analyzed all possible reasons and came up with only two which are really important. One was the inability to put right people in the right jobs and the other was the inability to fix people problems in time. It was only these two failures that culminated in the failure of the Company to perform and cost the CEO his or her job.

Hard Skill vrs Soft Skill

In management jargon, Hard has always symbolised good or important. We talk of hard results, hard numbers, hard and tough management style, and more so in the present hard time. Hard skills relate to human tangibles, the knowledge, the background training and experience, which can be measured, systematized and verified. It represents what people know, think and capable of doing. Soft skill, on the other hand, is the human intangible, the initiative, the attitude, and the character. It represents what people feel, what they tend to do, in contrast to what they can do.

Study by the eminent psychologist David McClelland showed that the most powerful factors that contributed to top executive success were achievement drive, developing others, adaptability, influence, self-confidence and leadership. All these are soft skills. The research studies throughout the world has shown umpteen number of times that it is in fact the soft skills that make for career success and organizational performance.

An article in the CPA Journal stated that " 20% of a person's success is estimated to be based on what is normally considered intelligence: the ability to learn, understand and reason… The other 80% is based on our ability to understand ourselves and interact with people".

Just consider how many people you know who had enough of hard skills, the knowledge, the analytical and cognitive ability, and still they failed. This is because they did not have the soft skills. In contrast, just ponder over how many executives you know just do have the modest knowledge and intelligence, but are very successful in their professional field beyond anyone's imagination. The skill sets of personality traits, social graces, facility with language, optimism, ability to function within a team and lead a team, self-discipline and self-confidence are the ones I am talking about. Soft skill is the catalyst that transforms ability into talent. These are the human intangibles that are hard to define and pinpoint and more often than not are more conspicuous when absent than when present.

Performance and Soft-skill

Though establishing a relationship between Performance and Soft-Skill is not a new concept, not much research had gone into it till recent times. Works of psychologists and behavioural scientists like Peter Salovey, John Mayer, Dr. Michael E. Rock, Dr, Reuven BarOn have popularised these concepts and shown that in determining star performance in every field, the soft skills matter much more than the hard skills or technical expertise. Traditional ways of viewing performance only related to job ability is no longer valid. In order to have a complete perspective, the softer side of the job behaviour that is the soft skill competency must be added.

The higher the individual advances in the organisational ladder, the criticality of the soft skill competency increases in leaps and bounds. It is very unlikely that an individual can rise in the organisation without strong inter-personal skills. It is aptly told that hard skill can make you a legal scholar, a successful fiscal analyst, but you need really abundance of soft skills to become a good trial lawyer or a successful Chief Executive. Soft skills come into play when an individual tries to set himself apart from others in his profession. For every job, there are basic capabilities or soft skill competencies essential for success.

Emotional Intelligence

Any article on soft skill will be incomplete without a reference to Emotional Intelligence and Daniel Goleman. The real credit for making the term Emotional Intelligence ( Soft Skill Competency ) popular goes to Daniel Goleman, a writer with the Newyork Times and his best seller " Emotional Intelligence: Why it matters more than IQ” published in 1995. Emotional Intelligence is the capacity to sense, to understand, our own feelings and those of others, the capacity to respond to them appropriately for motivating ourselves and in our relationships. Emotional Intelligence does not emerge from the intellect, but from the workings of human heart.

The term Emotional Intelligence has the following ingredients:
i. Self Awareness
ii. Self Management
iii. Self Motivation
iv. Social Awareness ( Empathy )
v. Social Competence

( You can read a detailed article on Emotional Intelligence by the same author in the January-March 2001 issue of Personnel Today )

Soft Skills and Organisation's Performance
Why should an organization turn its attention and resources towards soft skill competency? Would there be a significant difference in terms of employee productivity, employee commitment, satisfaction and overall organisational effectiveness, if soft skill competency in the organisation as a whole increases? The answer is, you guess right, yes.

A leader's soft skills can make a huge difference in the working environment, and the working environment can make a substantial difference in performance. How managers reason from their emotional experiences and how they handle softer behavioural issues in pressing situations like decision taking, handling conflicts, dealing with peers and subordinates, handling criticism have a great deal to do with building the work atmosphere and consequently the performance. Managerial reactions to employee performance, suggestions and feedback have a lot of impact upon how the employees receive the same and react.

Ken Iverson, the president of Nucor Steel ( America’s 3rd largest Steel Company), a Fortune 500 company with sales in excess of $ 4 billion, with seeming incongruities like 7000 best paid employees in the industry, but with lowest labour cost per ton of steel produced, not laid off any employee or shut down a facility for lack of work ( mind you that is in American Steel Industry that lost one-out of-two-jobs over a twenty-five-year span) for last thirty years or more, yet not made any loss in any quarter in last thirty years, is often asked how does he explain Nucor’s success. Ken Iverson’s stock reply is “ It is 70% culture and 30% technology.” He adds ( He writes in his famous book PLAIN TALK, and I quote ):

“ The truth is, I am not sure if it is 80 to 20 or 60 to 40 percent, but I am certain our culture accounts for more than half of our success as a business.

Equality, freedom, and mutual respect promote motivation, initiative, and continuous improvement. Without a doubt, Nucor’s culture is its most important source of competitive advantage, and always will be. Of course, every company has the same opportunity to build a culture that yields competitive advantage. Yet remarkably few seem to act on their opportunity. One reason, I think, is that culture has to be consistent to be real. Consistency is the name of the game, as far as I am concerned. Consistency begins with really believing in the culture you hope to shape. Nucor is founded on principles so basic, they sound corny. We believe in treating people the way you’d want to be treated. That’s fundamental building block of our company. It sounds simplistic, but it works.
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
To managers and executives who sincerely would like to build a great culture and to gain the competitive advantage, I’d offer just this one piece of advice: Be a part of your company. Never set yourself above it.”

Soft skills like openness, honesty, trust and smooth communication builds the necessary culture in the organisation, which promotes innovation, creativity, motivation, loyalty to the organisation furthering the growth and development of the organisation. But soft skill works top-down and has to be imbibed in the business leaders at the top, then cascaded down below to the grass root level.

Having only functional competence is fine as long as work is done independently. But most organisations of today are structured in teams, even cross functional. Without good interpersonal, communication, cooperation and negotiation skills, even the most functionally competent manager will be reduced to nuts.

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the eminent Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School in Boston, specialising in strategy, innovation and leadership for change, writes ( and I quote ) in his widely acclaimed article

" Leadership and the Psychology of Turnarounds" published in Harvard Business review - June 2003 issue, right in the opening para itself,

" In recent years, I have been inside nearly two dozen turnaround situations, in various stages of progress, in which new leaders were bringing distressed organisations back from the brink of failure and setting them on a healthier course. In every case - I saw - and agreed with - the need for smart financial and strategic decision making. But along the way, I also noted another important aspect of this leadership task, a related line of effort that seemed to go largely unnoticed and unstudied by observers but that was just as vital to improving the company's fortunes and just as hard to do well. Each of these executives restored their people's confidence in themselves and in one another - a necessary antecedent to restore investor or public confidence. They inspired and empowered their organisations to take new actions that could renew profitability. In short, each had to lead a psychological turnaround."

The higher the level of responsibility of an individual in an organisation, the more critical soft-skill competency becomes.

It might be fair to contend that hard skills and competencies, well thought out business strategies may be able to propel us to heights of fame, fortune and mastery, but it is only soft skill that allows us to stay there. Otherwise, a fall, at least as fast as the rise is, if not faster, is inevitable.

Soft skill is all-pervasive

Soft skills and the advantages flowing out of it are not confined to business alone. It is all-pervasive and offers tremendous practical applications in all facets of our life- be it at work or home, at the club or in seminar. A touch of soft skill at the right time can make a hale of a difference between nearness and distance, open or closed, conflict and cooperation, acceptance and rejection, love and hate, understanding and misunderstanding, violence and non-violence, jubilation and disappointment. Soft skill gives the competitive edge.

There is much of soft skill that rather sounds like plain common sense. Does it not appear obvious that the ability to control emotions, anger, fear, the ability to develop empathy, the ability to understand feelings of others and relate in a subtle way to their feelings are the true indicators of success rather than abstract intelligence based on reasoning and rationality?

When we talk of magnetic personality or when we talk of a charismatic leader like Mahatma Gandhi or Mujibur Rehman or Nelson Mandela, we in fact are talking about their capacity to relate to masses, their soft skills.
The anecdote of Sridharji Maharaj

Only the other day, I was listening to the discourse in the ISCKON temple at Juhu. The speaker was referring to the famous Sridharjee Maharaj of the Harekrishna faith. Sridharjee Maharaj was suffering from an incurable disease before he breathed his last. It was only a couple of days before he left for his heavenly aboard; he was to give a discourse to his followers at Delhi. He was initially reluctant, as his brain was not functioning properly due to the disease. Then he mustered courage and told, " So what if my brain is impaired. I am not going to talk to my people through my brain. I am going to relate to them through my heart. By God's grace, my heart is still intact." Then he went on to address the congregation with applause from one and all, a talk from the bottom of his heart, which the people still cherish. No wonder, the discourse was one of the finest he had ever given. Such is the power of the skill from heart, the soft skill.

The anecdote of Hyderabadi Biriyani

My wife and I had the privilege of having Hyderabadi Biriyani in a small eating joint named " Daawat" in Hyderabad. The taste appealed to my wife, a good cook in her own right, so much so that she insisted on talking to the cook to learn the intricacies. After some initial reluctance, the cook was ushered in. After discussing with him at length, my wife found out that the constituents and the method of preparation is not much different from the way she knows it and enquired from the cook the real secret of the taste. What the cook answered was of interest to me. The cook replied humbly, " Madam! The difference is we give our heart and soul to it." How true! Giving your heart to anything you do makes a lot of difference in the end result.

So, dear readers! Let us think hard about soft skills. It is only these skills than can get us going, when the going gets tough.

Author's Bio: 

The author Madan Tripathy is a HR professional. He can be contacted at madan.tripathy@gmail.com.