In the recent gender parity study produced by Phocuswright for the 2018 Women’s Leadership Initiative, 80% of respondents agreed that "soft skills" are becoming increasingly important to the travel industry. This should come as no surprise.
Almost two decades into the 21st century, the concept of combining collaboration with coding is in no way new.
However, as I reviewed the Phocuswright research, a curious question arose: How much longer will we lessen the importance of crucial business skills by arbitrarily relegating them to buckets labeled "hard" or "soft"?
This criticism is not directed at Phocuswright. In fact, I applaud them for doing this research. My criticism is directed to enterprise in general, which in recent years has developed a strong affection for the S-word.
But in reality, the use of terms like "soft skills" is a disservice to all, particularly to women.
Semantics? You bet it is, for in the words of Samuel Johnson, “Words are but the signs of ideas.”
In order to advance as an industry, we must examine what we say and how we say it - no matter how businesslike the context. Online travel has been at the forefront of so much change in the past 30 years, and this is just another frontier for the industry to explore.
What are soft skills, exactly?
In order to better understand the term as we know it today, it’s worth digging into the history of the phrase "soft skills." It was first coined by the U.S. Army as a way of defining skills that had to do with people and paper, skills that did not involve machines and that could be applied quite broadly in the workplace.
It’s easy to draw a line between this definition and the fact that soft skills have historically been viewed as less important than their harder counterparts.
Hard skills are seen as producing quantifiable output, as coming with certificates of competence and as easier to both teach and acquire, whilst soft skills are hard to measure, often a challenge to teach and can be vague and undefined.
Since the term was first used in 1972, our view of soft skills has certainly changed. Forward-thinking businesses, such as the many that inhabit the travel industry, understand the value of a broad swathe of interpersonal skills in driving innovation, clearly demonstrated by the two graphs below:
Clearly, we know that so-called "soft skills" are critical in business, so why does the term still feel like a pejorative? And what should we call these indispensable skills and attributes instead?
In my 20-year career in the varied fields of film and music distribution, e-commerce and travel technology, I’ve keenly observed where the women I've worked alongside tend to sit within an organization. It has been and continues to be predominately across office operations, brand marketing and promotions, financial operations, customer success and people operations.
In other words, roles in which those with elite-level soft skills excel.
Meanwhile, women in vice president positions and above still feel rare as hen’s teeth. There’s a wealth of data to back this up, with the Wall Street Journal reporting on a 2016 McKinsey study into the “drop-off” point for female leadership - and, spoiler alert, it’s middle management.
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Other studies suggest that while we are making strides in encouraging women into the technical roles crucial for success in online travel, we still have a very long way to go, with women only making up 11% of leadership in tech companies and 26% of the computing workforce.
Why the discrepancy? If you ask me, it plays out like this: Those in hard-skills business units are rewarded with promotions and leadership roles because their output is defined in black-and-white metrics. They are often closer to the revenue lines and as such, deemed of the highest importance.
In other words, it’s easy to justify their promotion. Why be soft when you can be hard? Data is darling, and if it is all too vague then it is optional, unproven and probably not to be trusted.
Soft, meet strategic
So if I had my way, what would I do to effect change? Well first, I’d come back to semantics and replace "soft" with a word that really highlights the value of this broad, company-changing skill set.
Clearly, we know that so-called "soft skills" are critical in business, so why does the term still feel like a pejorative?
Kirsteene Phelan - Rome2Rio
I’d like to propose the term "strategic skills." Such a term provides a new framework for arguing the importance of teaching and coaching talent in the arts of interpersonal interaction alongside the practical tools of implementation.
Secondly, I would urge senior leaders to look hard at their choices when promoting employees. Are you reaching for easy proof of an employee’s contribution?
Third, if you are managing people within your organization who are working to develop strategic skills, encourage them to reflect on their achievements and mark down milestones. Work with them to create their own definitions of success.
And lastly, all organizations would be well placed to consider their performance review process and ensure that strategic skills are given as much space for reflection and feedback as technical skills.
I point specifically to the great work being done in people analytics by companies such as CultureAmp as a good place to start if you are looking to change up practices.
By shifting our thinking from "soft" to "strategic," we will come closer to bridging the gap between intention and action in supporting women into senior leadership and the online travel industry will reap the rewards.
About the author...
Kirsteene Phelan is acting CEO of Rome2Rio