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Bridging the Soft Skills: An Interview with Bruce Tulgan

Bridging the Soft Skills: An Interview with Bruce Tulgan

By: Connie Blaszczyk 

Perhaps you've noticed the trend.  An ever increasing number of job descriptions include technical skills as part of the job requirements. Yet it's the soft skills that are proving to be a bigger challenge for employers to find, particularly when hiring younger workers. Skills such as personal responsibility, a positive attitude, people skills, critical thinking, and decision-making. Those are the skills that are often lacking. 

In his new book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today's Young Talent, best-selling author Bruce Tulgan cites many a workplace disaster that is stemmed from a lack of soft skills. The book, which is published by Wiley, is based on over 20 years of research and includes 92 step by step lesson plans to help employers teach soft skills to employees.

Here to talk about the soft skills crisis is author Bruce Tulgan.

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Monster: Welcome, Bruce.

Tulgan: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.

Monster:: Congratulations on the book. You lament that many young workers today lack an awareness of what you call the incredible power of old fashioned basics. Are we talking here about basic etiquette, or is it well beyond that?

Tulgan: Sometimes it is big etiquette. I had a business leader say to me recently, "Yes, I would love it if they had a deep sense of professionalism, if they were great at critical thinking, if they were good at old fashioned followership. I'd just take a please and thank you once in a while." There is a generational change. The issue has grown over the last 20 years noticeably, and in particular, over the last 10 years.

Monster: Let's clarify the age groups that we're talking about and how we reference them. There's a lot of terms out there now, Gen Y, Gen Z, Millennials. Who are we talking about specifically when it comes to this soft skills gap?

Tulgan: As you say, demographers differ about the exact parameters of each generation. The United States Census Bureau has pretty well settled on Generation X, my generation, those born in 1965 to 1977. Those born in 1978 to the year 2000 — often that is the time frame that's used for describing Millennials. I think that's way too big of a time frame. That means that 15 year olds are in the same generation as 37 year olds. That seems problematic at best. We look at the great Millennial cohort and we look at two waves. 

The Baby Boomers were born 1946 to 1964, but there's really 2 ways in that great baby boom. The same with the Millennials. Right now we're studying second wave Millennials, those born 1990 to 2000. They are the emphasis of this particular book. Some people call them generation Z. 
We've been calling them first wave Millennials Generation Y and the second wave Millennials Generation Z. A lot of folks who are in marketing, they're trying to use Generation Z to describe really whoever is young today. The younger the better.

Monster: It's interesting. You mentioned as every generation is impacted by national global events, this young generation has been heavily impacted by things like 9/11, the 2008 recession.

Tulgan: Yeah, that's absolutely right. Look, generational difference is really the story of, where do the natural developmental life stages that everybody goes through? Where do they intersect with the accidents of history? Everyone lived through 9/11, but if you were 10 years old, it had a different impact on you than if you were 30 or 20 for that matter. 

If you look at the first wave Millennial, they were born in the 80s basically. They came of age in the 90s. If you're a first wave Millennial, you grew up in the 90s. Peace and prosperity. The first wave of the Internet coincided with the first wave of the Millennial generation. It's peace and prosperity, we're going to have a magical business model. You can go to work whenever you want and bring your dog. 

Then of course for those first wave Millennials, if they were the class of 2000, they came into the workplace and 9/11 hit and all of a sudden people's sense of security and safety and certainty was crushed. The second wave Millennials, they came of age in the 2000s during an era of profound economic uncertainty and during a time when we've been at war, the longest war in American history for that matter. Of course they're also inflected by this rising global youth tide. All of these huge historical forces are a big part of, as you say, the imprint on this new generation.

Then if you look at the micro level, on a micro level in terms of their day to day experience, what was for the first wave Millennials this self-esteem based parenting, Generation X's, we were the great unsupervised generation. Our parents were busy being groovy in the 1970s. They didn't have time for us. In the 90s, oh, parents were very focused on building up the self-esteem of their children. By the 2000's, it was helicopter parenting on steroids. 

On a macro level, the world is becoming more and more uncertain, more and more dangerous, more and more like a science fiction movie. On a micro level, parents were providing more structure boundaries, support, guidance, direction to children than they ever had. Parents went from just trying to make their kids feel good, the self-esteem based parenting, to trying to give their kids some kind of special advantage in this very challenging world.

The helicopter parenting on steroids, I sometimes call it investment parenting or cultivation parenting. I had one parent told me, "I don't want my kid to feel good if he's losing. I want to make sure my kid wins." I think that was a big part of the shift from the first wave Millennial parents to the second wave Millennial parenting. 

Then of course the other part is they grew up with handheld supercomputers attached to them at all times. Sometimes I say the second wave Millennials are like children of the 1930s, if children of the 1930s were raised by helicopter parents on steroids and if those children had supercomputers attached to them at all times.

Monster: That's a weird crossing of historic moments there to try to imagine that.

Tulgan: Yeah, my wife's a historian and she sometimes says, "Let me think about that."

Monster:  Yeah, exactly.

Tulgan: I think at least it gives people the idea.

Monster::  Right. In that way, you're saying the helicopter parents have invested a lot in their children. You're advocating or saying that employers need to do the same with their millennials and gen Z workers. They need to invest in them to keep them engaged.

Tulgan: That's a very powerful insight on your part. What I try to say to business leaders is, it's your problem. If you employ them, it's your problem. You have to fix it. Maybe it shouldn't be your problem, but you have to fix it. I think I like the way you put it. 

I'm suggesting to them is that they need to make this investment. The problem is that business leaders say two things. They say I shouldn't have to teach young employees to show up on time, to dress appropriately, to say please and thank you, to take notes, to respect deadlines, to dot their I's and cross their T's.

I shouldn't have to tell young people how to puzzle through a problem. I shouldn't tell them how to be a good team player. These are things their parents should have taught them or their baseball coach or their piano teacher, someone other than me. They should have learned this in college and university. Now that they're here, I shouldn't have to worry about this anyway. By the way, it's not my area of expertise teaching this sort of thing. 

The other thing business leaders say is as soon as you invest in these young people, they leave. The argument has to be made very tightly based on a business case. The business case is return on investment, return on investment.

Monster: I want to get to that, but let's step back a bit because it really starts obviously with your hiring process and identifying a candidate who has some aptitude, if not immediately has the soft skills that you're looking for. In your book, you talk about a 6 step hiring strategy to help identify that. It seems like it starts with knowing what the soft skills are that your business needs the most and prioritizing those, put them in your job description and really adhere to them throughout that whole hiring process.

Tulgan: That's exactly right. Partly because of the technical skill gap, employers often don't build the soft skill requirements into every step of their human capital management. Our advice to our clients is, you've got to know which of these soft skills are the high priority soft skills for the roles you're filling in your organization. 

Sometimes employers go, oh, maybe that's a luxury, the soft skills. If I'm running a hospital, I need health care professionals with the technical training. If I'm hiring software developers , I need people who can write code. If I'm hiring engineers, I need somebody who can design a circuit and so on.

What we've learned is that most employees, they get hired because of their hard skills. When things go wrong it's almost always because of their soft skills. The cliche is people get hired because of the hard skills, they get fired because of the soft skills. The problem is, a lot of times managers don't have the guts to fire people or they feel like they'll be so short staffed they don't fire them, so they put up with the soft skill gaps. 

Our advice is, in your staffing strategy, in your hiring process, the traction, selection, on boarding, up to speed training, you've got to emphasize the high-priority soft skills. Then you've got to make it part of your performance management system . If you measure it and you reward it, then people are going to focus on it.

I see business leaders all the time say yeah, we value that. If they don't measure it and they don't reward it, people take those cues. 

That's a big part of our advice, at least if I'm in the boardroom or I'm talking to HR leaders. When I'm talking to management on the front lines, what I emphasize with managers on the front lines is you've got to be a teaching style manager. You've got to take this on, you've got to make it part of your regular coaching to teach your new young employees how to conduct themselves properly in the workplace with your vendors, with your partners, and maybe most important with your customers.

Monster: You say in the interview process, it's best to use a behavioral interview process approach, use behavioral questions to best assess if a candidate has the soft skills you need.

Tulgan: That's what we advise. I'm sure of course the folks at Monster know a lot about behavioral interviewing. It's certainly considered the best practice. What we emphasize with our clients is, if you're going to do behavioral interviewing, then you need to build some good questions around identifying where people fall in terms of these higher priority soft skills. They are different for different organizations. You could say customer service, that one's always important. We recommend drilling down a little more, trying to get more to the core underlying soft skills that make somebody good at something like customer service.

Monster: If you take a targeted approach as an employer, it will give you better results. That's always held true I would say as part of a hiring process.

Tulgan: That's right. We always focus on return on investment when we're focused on these issues with our clients. Look, I don't have the luxury of telling employers you should do this just because it'll be good for your young employees. My advice is always based on what's in the best interest of the business.

Some of the other red flags that you mentioned in trying to assess soft skills during the hiring process seem to harken back to the old fashioned basics that we talked about at the very beginning of our conversation. Things like if the candidate shows up late for the interview, all bets are off, or if there are typos in the resume and they're going to be doing a communications role, again, that's a sign. Watch for the signs. Those are signs that have been around for a long time.

Tulgan: That's exactly right. The problem is that nowadays hiring managers are so desperate to hire people with the requisite technical skills. You look at that and you think, kids today, they don't learn how to write a proper letter. 

For kids today, resumes are old fashioned. Being on time, that's old-fashioned. Please and thank you, who says that anymore? We convince ourselves to overlook red flags when we're hiring, especially when we're hiring for a tough to fill position that requires technical skills. 

My advice to our clients is, just think about what every bad hire costs you. You're much better off leaving a position unfilled and being rigorous about that selection process. The reason you need Monster is to have a sufficiently large applicant pool that you can be selective, right? That's for starters. I know you offer a world of resources.

Monster: To target your talent from the get go so that you're not having to comb through hundreds of resumes, most of which may not be applicable at all for your selection process.

Tulgan: Listen, I'm a person of faith and I say thank God for Monster.

Monster: It's interesting, you talk about one of the strengths of today's younger workers is that many of them are self-directed learners. That seemed to me to really fold into the premise of the book, which is the many lesson plans that you provide for employers to help cultivate soft skills. Was that a correlating factor in developing that approach?

Tulgan: Yeah. It was huge. When I had a first draft of the book and I ran it by a bunch of our clients, they said, "I don't want to teach all these young people all this stuff." Who's going to teach them? Could you arrange the book so that the lesson plans for teaching these soft skills, sure they could be done in a classroom, but they could also be worked into 15 minutes of a weekly team meeting. Or even better, I could just give it to the young person as a worksheet. 

That's how the structure of the book, the reason there are 92 lesson plans, what each of those lesson plans is a series of exercises. They are laid out so that they can be used by a manager in one on one coaching, they can be used in a team meeting, they can be used in a classroom. Or they could be given to a person of any age to do some self-directed learning.

Beyond that, what I encourage managers to do is get young people excited about the self-building aspect of building these soft skills. Get them excited about the value proposition for them. Get them excited about, hey, this will make you valuable anywhere you go. Get them curious about it. When they get curious about something, they go out on their own and you never know what they'll find. They go on to the Internet and they'll find all kinds of learning resources they can use in their own self-directed learning to dig much much deeper and own the process.

Monster: You talk about curiosity. That is the core ingredient I think you need to find in that candidate. Do they have that enthusiasm for curiosity and self-development?

Tulgan: I think you're exactly right. That's one of these, if you're into the character movement which, character used to be something that we all wanted to teach our children. Now it's a movement because it's so rare. Curiosity is one of those core character traits that separate the winners from the losers. One of the great exciting things is it turns out, you can teach people to be more curious. It's not just that they're born curious or not. 

My advice is, you've got to make young people aware of these soft skills and maybe their blind spots in relation to them. You got to make them care. Then you need to engage their self-building and engage their self-directed learning. Absolutely you've got to spark their curiosity so that they are energized to go do this.

Monster: Do those efforts end up paying off in terms of retention, better employee retention  rates?

Tulgan: I think they do. Look, you always have to worry that the more valuable any person becomes in today's labor market, the more there is a danger they're going to go out into the free market and sell your development investment to the highest bidder. It's very frustrating. 

We call it the development investment paradox. When they become better at self awareness, when they learn more about personal responsibility, when they start to appreciate what it means to have a good attitude and to develop good work habits to improve their people skills, it's not just that your employees will get better at their job. They have a much better experience. They get into an upward spiral. That does aid retention.

When young people feel like they're getting into a downward spiral, they're not succeeding, they're getting disapproval, they're not getting rewarded. This is one of the ways to turn somebody who might be excited about a job into somebody who's either leaving or leaving without leaving, which is even worse. They leave in their head, they just don't do you the favor of leaving yet. Whereas when they're in an upward spiral, when they're learning and growing, if they're learning and growing, they're not going anywhere.

Monster: It sounds to me like maybe some of the older generations will learn a thing or two along the way as well in this process about management, which might have become a little more passive in these last couple of decades where baby boomers, Gen X were all cranking away and doing the do more independently than perhaps these younger workers do now. This engagement  it sounds like to me it's going to make for a better workplace in general.

Tulgan: My view is the days, just like the days of one size fits all career paths are gone. One size fits all rewards, one size fits all schedules. One size fits all doesn't work anymore. A closely related fact is that hands off management doesn't work anymore. Disengaged leadership doesn't work in today's environment. There's no time to waste, and everybody's trying to take care of themselves and their families. Leaders need to be highly engaged. They need to provide support and guidance and direction. Absolutely that's not just for the young upstarts, that's for everybody.

Monster: I had a wonderful opportunity a few weeks back interviewing some of our Monster summer interns. We featured some of their comments in our podcast called the Millennials in the workplace. It was really fascinating, they shared their career aspirations. Many of them voiced this desire to reinvent the workplace as a place where fun and camaraderie can coexist with hard work. Do you see that manifesting out of this whole movement?

Tulgan: My view is that it depends on what you mean by fun. I think one of the biggest disturbances we can do to young people is to give business leaders the idea that young people are not serious, that they want to be humored. If by fun they mean learning valuable skills, working with people whom they respect and appreciate, tackling not just grunt work but interesting challenges, working in an environment that's comfortable and where there is a strong sense of mission and connection to the team, that's the kind of fun that we try to help our clients build. Not the kind of fun that's a break from work all the time. Not a pizza party, but the kind of fun that's the way you get the work done is engaged and engaging. 

My view is that the key to that is a strong, highly engaged leader who keeps everybody on the same page and everybody focused and moving in the same direction.

Monster: Bruce, it's been really great to talk to you, thank you so much for your time.

Tulgan: Thank you so much for including me. It's an honor to be on your podcast.

Monster:  Author Bruce Tulgan's latest book is Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today's Young Talent, published by Wiley. 

Read an excerpt from the book: A Six-Step Hiring Strategy to Identify Soft Skills   

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