The importance of soft skills

This post is dedicated to all of you consultants, and consultant-types out there (i.e. like half of my social circle). It’s a Dale Carnegie type of advice, I would like to give you, for when you leave out your power-point factories and step into the corporate world, where not everything is defined by the consistency of font color schemes and text box alignments.

These days I’ve been working on a very large project at work, that is somewhat conceptual, trying to refine our strategic mindset, incorporating ideas from my MBA classes, and consolidating know-how and opinions of the group (20+ people). A colleague of mine, suggested he made an introduction to some folks in the Toronto office, which I am visiting next month, that could give me some valuable input as well. Of course, I was more than happy to, since I am such a corporate social butterfly. I set up a meeting, and when one of the attendants asked for some background materials, I spent a couple of hours collecting relevant information and sent it to him, just for reference. Three days later, I get an e-mail back, which is about 2 pages long of criticism, of anything and everything I sent. Copying my manager, and the director of that person. Just to give some background he is an ex of a top three consulting firm, who has a name for the arrogance of its employees. Lets call him the Terminator. The Terminator is also new at my company and is not of high rank.

The Terminator went slide by slide telling me what he doesn’t like about each of them – in terms of formatting and content, failing to notice that some of these slides came from the official company materials, recently approved by the board of directors, and were there just as  reference.

His comments read something like:

An intro paragraph starting with saying he doesn’t understand the purpose of the work at the first place, and then followed by 50 bullet points along the line of :

slide 1: blah blah

slide 2: this makes no sense

slide 3: get rid of it

slide 4: I think we’re overreaching with the slide title. It’s very confusing.

slide 5: don’t like this slide

etc etc

Recap moment: I never asked The Terminator for feedback.

Now the conclusion part:

In my adult life I learned a very important lesson. One would meet people who are extremely smart stand-alone and might have all the best credentials in the world, but they can be super-boring, self-centered, immature, and in general with very little emotional intelligence. In the business world, it’s the emotional intelligence that can get you much farther, as you have to build a coalition of supporters that will back you up not necessarily because you finished at the top of your class, or developed the most sophisticated financial model or what-not. They will back you up because they  like working with you, because they can trust you, because they don’t see you as a threat, etc. etc. The Terminator may be a very smart guy who got a lot of praise in his prior over-achieving environment (something I am not too sure about as he is not there anymore, right?), but he completely missed the big picture. He wasted a good chunk of time analyzing irrelevant details (like slide titles), focused on pointing out faults in something he has no background about, alienated myself and the entire corporate strategy department, and embarrassed his friend who was just trying to be helpful in making an introduction. I was telling this story to a friend in another department, who said the Terminator pulled a stink bomb on him as well. Now, whenever the Terminator asks for something, my friend just pretends he’s busy and never helps him.

So, before you run to criticize someone’s work,

*Check the background of the situation and do your homework before you tell others how to do theirs,

*Ask yourself if your feedback was solicited in the first place,

*Think of not just what you’re saying but how you’re saying it (especially to someone who doesn’t know you or your style of communication),

*Do a little risk assessment and think if both parties gain more than they lose from your involvement or commentary and lastly

*Think if what you’re saying is meant to help the other party or is it something you’re just saying to make yourself sound smarter (this particular advice I’ve been really focused on developing in myself )

When faced with such a person, stay cool, be polite and professional, and let them dig their own hole. This is exactly what I did, politely replying and thanking him for his input. Needless to say, I got ample support from my boss and colleague and The Terminator ended up looking like a complete fool in front of all the people he chose to copy irrelevantly.

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