Forget about hard skills, companies today prioritize soft skills and culture fit when assessing whether a potential employee could be an asset or a liability. Read on to learn about the interpersonal skills development system that's designed to help people and organizations thrive.

I was catching up on a few blogs I follow recently, and one caught my attention because it dealt with the focus of my consultancy: Leadership, Management, and Interpersonal Skill Development. The blog, in part, said this:

'One of the biggest transformations in leadership over the past 100 years is that companies prioritize soft skills and culture fit, rather than focusing primarily on hard skills,' says Clarke Murphy, CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates. And hiring a leader that doesn't fit the culture can be disastrous for a business – which is why the best skill would-be leaders can develop is adaptability.

My work, a delight to develop and deliver, is a challenge to sell. Soft Skills are all the rage these days. Its close relative, Emotional Intelligence or EQ, is what hiring managers demand, first-rate business rags attempt to explain, and around which consultants like me develop and deliver training programs. Still, when push comes to shove, companies send their employees to training programs where skills acquired can be instantly measured, unlike soft skills or EQ, which take time to develop and apply. Nevertheless, employees who do not possess certain interpersonal skills and EQ levels quickly move from the status of asset to liability, and create more work for their managers and peers, putting the company in jeopardy of missing key performance benchmarks.

Most of us in business are familiar with S.M.A.R.T. Goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) and employ this goal-setting framework regularly. Recently, I set out to develop a method for interpersonal skill development and, borrowing from the S.M.A.R.T. Goals framework, I created a program called S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Skills© designed to help people and organizations thrive.

  1. Solving Problems. The ability to solve problems, and its fraternal twin, critical thinking, are essential to our survival—not just professional but also personal, community, and global survival. It seems younger employees enter the workforce with strong research and memorization skills. They also are eager to complete tasks (and be rewarded for it, or at least acknowledged). However, when asked, “What do you think?” or, “How might you approach this?” they keep quiet; problem-solving skills were not reinforced in their educational and personal experience. There is much written about this skill vacuum, and I encourage managers and business owners to research and address it.

Problem Solving 101. A Simple Book for Smart People. Ken Watanabe, 2009.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, 2016.

  1. Modeling. As a training consultant, I use role-playing techniques to underscore a point, method, or skill. For example, I explain to participants that it is difficult to acquire the skill of negotiation without practicing negotiation. Unless you are a negotiator by trade, the opportunity to practice this skill rarely arises. As a former regulatory attorney who negotiated multi-million-dollar settlements, I utilized this practice with my colleagues for weeks before we stepped up to the negotiating table. I emphasize the importance of role-playing and modeling in every course I teach and seminar I facilitate.

A Manager's Guide to Improving Workplace Performance. Roger D. Chevalier, 2007 ed.
Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable. Lois J. Zachary and Lory A. Fischler, 2014.

  1. Accountability. I am an accountability junkie. I follow trends, read the latest articles, and enjoy late night discussions, stale coffee in hand. It is an elusive thing, accountability. Searching for a definition yields little more than alphabet soup garnished with the root word. Yet, we all agree it is an important thing, vital even. So, what is it and why do employees lack it? Accountability is a “three-legged stool”—a combination of skill, discipline, and belief structure. It is not easily taught. Rather, the necessity of accountability must be underscored, and employees must not only learn how to sit on the stool but also balance it on their fingertips, a true demonstration of mastery!

QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life. John G. Miller and David L. Levin, 2016 ed.

  1. Resourcefulness. My mother used to say, “Be resourceful!” after a typical childish rant about being bored. My siblings and I did not have a choice; often she would lock us outside. (Just for a minute or two, the time it takes to make a serious statement!) Later, when I joined the workforce, I would be instructed to “figure it out”—thank goodness for Mom! I grew up in an age where resourcefulness was expected, not something for which teachers or bosses hoped. Teaching resourcefulness is difficult. Like language and music, if not learned early, developing the skill of resourcefulness later in life is challenging. Companies ought to think about resourcefulness in the context of company needs, expectations, processes, and regulations. Then, they can determine how to cultivate it among their employees in a sustainable way.

Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice. Brené Brown, 2017. (An older article, but one of my go-to resources.)

  1. Trust. If it is true that “trust is a two-way street,” then who—employer or employee—starts the engine? Who yields to whom? It is the classic “chicken and egg” scenario, which can be argued ad nauseam and to no end. Here, I submit to my upbringing and say the person with more authority steps up first and sets the “trust meter” at 100%. I would tell the folks I managed that until I had a reason not to, I trusted them completely. My approach is counter to the “trust is earned” model, where the meter is set at 0% and hopefully grows from there. When you believe in someone entirely, it is amazing how productive, innovative, and loyal they can be. Worth, it turns out, is valuable.

The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. Steven M.R. Covey, 2009
Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them.

  1. Excellence. When I was plugging away at Saturday morning chores under the stern direction of my father, I doubt I was thinking, “Wow, I'm developing skills that will transfer to the workplace 20 years from now!” Nope, I was counting the minutes to the end of the torture session, anticipating freedom from the chains of cruel and unusual treatment. Nevertheless, my father's insistence on excellence in the midst of hard work paid off; I excelled academically (high school notwithstanding) and professionally, setting the bar higher with each job I acquired. One of my challenges as a manager was the inability to understand how some employees had no interest in high-altitude bar setting. How, for example, could they be satisfied with “satisfactory?” Learning to let go of expectations set by personal experience and desire is something managers must do to fully understand their employee pool and the potential of individuals and teams. When managers can begin to think of excellence as a continuum where each point along the band has its own value and application, they are able to execute projects and initiatives with precision.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling, 2016 ed.
Chasing Excellence: A Story About Building the World's Fittest Athletes. Ben Bergeron, 2017.

  1. Respectfulness. This skill should be a no-brainer. Sadly, it is not. Most companies I work with have or are in the midst developing their core values. Of the companies that do have them, respect (or something similar) is nearly always present. Nevertheless, I continue to attend meetings where people talk on top of each other, raise their voices, and demonstrate other disrespectful behaviors as though these caustic characteristics were written into their job descriptions. Core values, along with mission and vision statements, are the foundation upon which a business is built and later, the adhesive that holds it together, particularly during rough times. Incorporating respect (or, again, something similar) in your core values cultivates effective collaboration and teamwork. Placing core values front and center will not only make a workplace an enjoyable place to be but also results in measurable outcomes.


While the list of interpersonal skills and elements of EQ is lengthy and often varied, S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Skills© capture “umbrella” skills under which associated, or “sub skills” can be found. When you master these seven essential skills, others fall into place and interpersonal skill development becomes a way of life.

About the Author: In addition to her work in Leadership Development and S.MA.R.T.E.R. Skills© Training, Megan works with small businesses to help them boost their operational and organizational performance through tailored strategic planning programs.