“Business Is Easy; People Are Hard”

The title of this entry comes from a client of mine, discussing the challenges he faces as a leader of people. And it got me thinking about why that seems true.

I’m always bothered when people discuss “hard skills” (task stuff) and “soft skills” (people stuff). I find that most people find the so-called “soft skills” the hardest to learn and implement.

I was on an airplane once, and a very well-dressed gent sat next to me. It was the end of a long day, and I was looking forward to putting on my ear buds and reading until I fell asleep. I rather admire those people who can create fast friendships that last for the duration of a flight. I have a good friend who can learn more about the stranger sitting next to her than I know about many of my relatives! I tend to doze.

On this particular flight, my new seatmate had other ideas, and immediately struck up a conversation (completely ignoring the ear buds and book: both well-understood signals for “Sorry, but I’m not up for chatting.”) It wasn’t long before I realized that all I really needed to do was listen, because he had a lot to say…mostly about himself. He was a mid-level manager for a large multi-national firm, and he regaled me with stories of his organizational exploits. I nodded, made the appropriate comments and listened (sort of) as he rambled on.

After what seemed like hours, he paused. I thought we might be done, but then he surprised me by asking me a question about myself: “So, what do you do?” I explained that I worked with organizations to improve their cultures, enhance their leadership and develop their people. To which he replied, “Oh…soft skills.”

Now, nine times out of ten, I’d let that slide. But I was feeling a bit snarky, so I said, “Let me ask you something. Have you ever fired anyone?” He said, “Sure.” I asked, “How was that for you?” And he said, “Hardest thing I ever have to do.” To which I replied, “Well pal, there’s your soft skills.”

I suspect that the reason many people (especially business leaders) tend to focus on tasks is because they are measurable, predictable and finite. They have a beginning, a middle and an end.

On the other hand, people are difficult to measure, unpredictable and infinite in their thoughts, words and deeds. As my friend Steve Kloyda puts it, “We are all children in large bodies.”

There’s no question that the soft stuff is challenging. In my experience, it’s the source of more drama and more failure than the hard stuff. But it is also where great opportunities reside.

More problems are created by miscommunication and misunderstanding than bad strategies. Leaders often spend endless hours coming up with perfect business plans, then spend minutes on ensuring that the people who will have to execute those plans are squared away.

I’ve never seen a strategy that was head and shoulders above any other. But I have seen many perfectly good strategies fail for lack of focus on people skills. I have seen brilliant communication plans fail because leaders didn’t heed Mark Twain’s advice: “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”

Soft skills take courage, patience and persistence. Tasks often have clear success pathways. People aren’t so clear-cut. What works for one doesn’t work for another. And what works one day doesn’t work the next. Where tasks get completed, people never do. And that difficulty and uncertainty leads many of us to avoid soft skills.

I once worked with a guy who said, “When something scares me, I pull it closer.” I try to apply that advice in my life and with my clients. I recommend that leaders lean into those areas where they aren’t comfortable. When they do that, they often find that small efforts with people lead to large improvements. And the hard stuff gets even easier.

When it comes to people skills, it’s less important to be perfect than it is to make the effort. The hard stuff is important. But we ignore the soft stuff at our peril.

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