• Published August 8, 2023
  • 8 Minute Read

Soft Skill Development: The People Skills Needed for Success at Each Leader Level

Published August 8, 2023
vector image of 2 heads with brain and heart representing soft skill development concept

The word “soft” sometimes carries connotations of fragility, but when it’s paired with “skills,” the result is anything but weak. In fact, the U.S. Military coined the phrase “soft skills” more than 50 years ago to improve workflow and learning efficiency. Today, many experts advocate for the term “power skills” to replace “soft skills,” which can be a misnomer. And decades of research have proven time and again that the most effective leaders have highly developed soft skills.

What Are “Soft Skills” and Why Are They Important?

“Soft skills” is a term often used to describe the characteristics needed to form strong connections with others — attributes like empathy, compassion, and authenticity.

With challenges like the global COVID pandemic, widespread political and economic uncertainty, and the recent rise of remote and hybrid workforce models, soft skill development has become even more critical than ever, as interpersonal relationship-building and effective virtual communication are both required to build high-performing, geographically dispersed teams.

At CCL, we’ve discovered that organizations and leaders who prioritize the development of soft skills nurture groups and help co-create cultures that are more adaptive, inclusive, and impactful. By developing their own soft skills, modeling them to others, and providing opportunities for their team members to develop, leaders are not only able to build more effective teams, they’re also better able to retain, engage, and motivate employees.

Soft skills are critical for all managers in supervisory roles, but each leader level benefits from specific, targeted soft skill development to maximize success. Read on for the essential skills your people need to drive engagement and performance across the organization.

The Soft Skills Required for All Leader Levels

Regardless of where a leader falls in your org chart, strong conversational and coaching skills are essential. Why? Because they lay the foundation upon which your organization can build a common leadership language. This fosters a coaching culture, where employees across the organization feel comfortable giving and receiving candid feedback, and supporting and stretching one another’s thinking.

When all of your employees master the following 4 skills, your organization is well-positioned for more personalized or specific development interventions:

  • Listening to understand
  • Asking powerful questions
  • Challenging and supporting
  • Establishing accountability

The good news is, you already have the resources within your organization to instill these skills and create a coaching culture. Learn more in our article, What It Takes to Coach Your People.

Leading Yourself: Soft Skills for Individual Contributors

Do individual contributors need leadership development? Yes. Even when people don’t have direct reports, they still need soft leadership skills. Individual contributors — and by extension, their organizations — benefit greatly from soft skill development.

Individual contributors are ultimately responsible for implementing new technologies and business processes, which drive organizations’ innovation efforts. Many are on the front lines in customer-facing roles or are bringing their expertise to cross-functional projects. It’s critical that these team players communicate simply and clearly and foster connections with other team members so that goals and objectives can be met.

The following 4 skills, which we call the core leadership skills that are always needed, regardless of leader level:

  • Self-awareness
  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Learning agility

Leading Others: Soft Skills for First-Time or Frontline Managers

In most organizations, frontline managers make up almost 40% of the population of leaders, but they’re not always prepared to lead. Having just come from an individual contributor role, many first-time managers struggle with leading projects and people effectively, and don’t realize how influential they are — or can be, with targeted soft skill development.

When employees are leading others for the first time, developing these soft skills can transform their leadership effectiveness:

  • Self-awareness
  • Learning agility
  • Communication
  • Political savvy
  • Motivating others
  • Influencing outcomes

Provide your first-time leaders with frontline leadership skills training, and you’ll develop leaders, not just bosses.

Leading Teams: Soft Skills for Middle Managers

Middle management often lands on employees’ laps at the most stressful point in their lives. Demands from work, family, and community are higher than ever, and many haven’t yet developed the leadership resilience required to juggle heavy loads coming from all fronts. Mid-level leaders must navigate organizational politics and often feel pressure coming from both above and below them in the hierarchy.

Learning the following soft skills will help managers lead from the middle:

  • Thinking and acting systemically
  • Resiliency
  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Learning agility
  • Self-awareness

Learn more about the leadership skills that managers in the middle need to advance.

Leading the Function: Soft Skills for Senior Leaders

Like frontline managers who were promoted into leadership because they were successful as individual contributors, senior leaders are often promoted to head entire business functions because they effectively led a specific area or team. But when they’re elevated into their new executive-level roles, they often find the demands are greater and different.

Soft skill development for more experienced leaders is often overlooked because there doesn’t seem to be time for personal goal-setting and self-reflection. If your organization can help your senior leaders hone the following soft skills, however, you can improve their capacity for strategic thinking and planning, which will have a positive impact on the bottom line of the business:

  • Collaboration
  • Influence
  • Forward thinking
  • Driving results
  • Creating engagement
  • Identifying innovation opportunities
  • Leading globally

When senior leaders receive the soft skill development they need to succeed at this level, they are better able to collaborate across boundaries, form important alliances, and drive business results. Organization-wide goals are met.

Read more about the common challenges faced by senior executives and the senior leadership skills they need to excel.

Leading the Enterprise: Soft Skills for C-Suite Executives

At CCL, we’ve identified 4 keys for reaching the C-Suite: experience, personal readiness, network readiness, and relationship readiness. Achieving success in these high-pressure, big-picture roles requires several critical soft skills — and they aren’t always reflected on a resume.

Big-picture challenges require C-level leaders to develop these soft skills:

  • Articulating a vision effectively
  • Influencing
  • Inspiring
  • Agility
  • Communication
  • Integrity
  • Self-regulation
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Executive presence

Soft Skill Development: Methods for Delivery

Perhaps you’re a team manager or an HR or talent leader looking to upskill your workforce. Or you’re an association or higher-education institute seeking to include soft skills training and a leadership development curriculum alongside your industry-specific certifications. Either way, be sure to match soft skills development to your unique needs.

6 Ways to Upskill Employees in Leadership Soft Skills

Consider these options:

1. In-person leadership development.

Many providers offer leadership programs specifically designed to tailor soft skill development according to the participant’s leader level.

2. Online leadership development courses.

Select courses that are human-centered, dynamic, and collaborative. The benefits of online training are expansive, and courses are typically available in a variety of virtual delivery formats, ranging from moderated online courses to self-paced learning.

3. Workshop kits.

With all-inclusive, prepackaged workshop kits, you can upskill employees with a scalable, modular leadership development plan, and facilitate your brief, targeted trainings for small groups either online or in-person.

4. Licensing leadership programs and solutions.

On an as-needed basis, you may want to supplement your in-house leadership development by licensing content from a trusted provider to get effective soft skill development targeted to address certain leader levels or specific needs.

5. Becoming an authorized reseller.

If you’re providing leadership development to association members, students, or clients, you may want to become a CCL Channel Partner, giving you access to proven solutions and content to easily expand your leadership offerings.

6. All-access solutions.

With comprehensive solutions such as a leadership subscription like CCL Passport™, you can take advantage of a robust collection of research-based leadership course content, programs, and tools to customize and scale development for your leaders at every level.

Best Practices for Soft Skill Development

Regardless of the approach you take, start by defining the soft skills that are needed to foster your desired organizational culture, and hone in on those skills.

If your gap areas are unclear, 360-degree assessments are helpful in unlocking and prioritizing the soft skills employees need to work on. These assessments are highly personalized and ensure areas of strength and opportunity are addressed with relevant development.

In conjunction with soft skill development, take steps to strengthen your organization’s learning culture. While some skills will come easily to some people, soft skills can be developed by anyone over time, especially when you have a coaching culture that reinforces candor, trust, and soft skill development.

Finally, don’t overlook the importance of fostering empathy and an inclusive environment where all employees can experience psychological safety at work — feeling comfortable practicing new soft skills, making mistakes, sharing reservations, and being vulnerable with one another. These outcomes are especially important to develop for leaders working in today’s new hybrid workplace environment.

Use Soft Skill Development to Strengthen Your Workforce & Attract New Talent

Providing equitable access to development opportunities is no longer a “nice-to-have” employee perk. In today’s competitive talent economy, employees expect organizations to offer ample opportunities for them to learn and grow.

Soft skill development allows your organization to stay competitive on 2 fronts. By upskilling your current employee base with the tools they need to work closely and well with one another, your people are better able to navigate the increasingly complex challenges they face together. And by investing in the development of your leaders at every level, you are signaling that your company values the growth of each member of the organization, enabling you to attract and retain more talent.

Continue building a workforce of confident, capable, and empathetic employees who can collaborate effectively to help grow your company’s mission and future, by providing them with the support they need to excel — including soft skill development.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We have a number of leadership solutions to help you upskill your talent with soft skill development, in the format that’s best for your unique situation.

  • Published August 8, 2023
  • 8 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Written by

Leading Effectively Staff
Leading Effectively Staff

This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.