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They’ve been called fluffy, vital, old school, new age… While few people in the world of work disagree about their benefits, many still argue over what to call them, and how to define them.

Next, we hear from Dara Blumenthal, Ph.D., developmental coach and critical theorist, to explore what holds people back from adopting and learning soft skills.

Finally, Damon chats with Richard Taylor, VP of Employee Experience at Nasdaq to learn about how he approaches this, and what listening means at Nasdaq.

Episode transcript

DAMON KLOTZ: Hello, it’s Damon Klotz, host of the Culture First podcast, and do I have a special treat for you. Every episode of this podcast comes with a downloadable asset to help you take action on the ideas and stories that you’re hearing. So far, we’ve provided listeners with examples of questions Esther Perel thinks you should be using when hiring, data reports on scaling culture, playbooks on innovation and an excerpt from Simon Sinek’s latest bestseller.

DAMON KLOTZ: Coaching has been one of the most powerful practices that I’ve implemented to really help me grow and develop, which is why I’m excited to let you know that our special offer for this episode is a chance for you to receive a coaching session from not one, but two of our guests. Claude Silver and Dara Blumenthal are both offering a complimentary coaching session to our listeners. Head to culturefirstpodcast.com/softskills to learn more. All right, let’s get started.

DAMON KLOTZ: I’m Damon Klotz, and this is Culture First.

DAMON KLOTZ: As you heard in the last episode with Simon Sinek, having a bias towards people over profit ends up being really good for the business. To truly have a bias towards people and culture, you need to first understand what really matters to your employees and that starts with actively listening to them. I’d like to think of myself as a dot connector and pattern matcher. When I was writing the script for this episode, I just kept being drawn back into the previous episodes and the aha moments that was really sitting with me from them. In episode four, Simon talks about the power of listening to your employees and understanding that there’s a big difference between leading versus managing. This also reminded me of the quite poignant call to action from Erika Kuhl where she said, “Stop talking, shut up, and really listen.”

DAMON KLOTZ: All of these are what we might call soft skills and that’s the topic that we’re going to be focusing on for the next three episodes. In this episode, we’re going to explore what soft skills really are, debate whether they should be rebranded, go behind the curtains to learn about the feedback strategy in place at a company of over 4,000 employees. To keep this theme going in our next two episodes, we will deep dive into two particular subjects within the context of soft skills: empathy and compassion fatigue. If there’s a particular part of these topics that’s standing out to you, please let me know. You can send a tweet, Instagram post, Facebook or LinkedIn update, and use the hashtag #culturefirstpodcast and I’ll join in the conversation.

DAMON KLOTZ: My first guest today is someone that I’ve been a fan of for a longtime. I’ve spent the majority of my career operating in the space between the people side of the business and the marketing side of the business. When I think of someone who’s also passionate about those two worlds colliding, one name comes to mind: Claude Silver. Claude is the Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia. We started talking about why HR and marketing really need to be collaborating more. But before I spoke to Claude about that, I was doing a lot of research to get ready for my conversation with her, and I just kept coming across articles and videos on her talking about soft skills, why you should be really listening to your employees, and the power of coaching. This is another jam packed episode, so let’s dive straight into it.

DAMON KLOTZ: So today I’m chatting with Claude Silver.

CLAUDE SILVER: Thanks for having me. So excited to be here in this incredible backdrop here of the Bay.

DAMON KLOTZ: So to start, if you were to describe what you do to a five-year-old, how would you describe that?

CLAUDE SILVER: I’m in the people business and I take care of you. I take care of all of your needs and I’m going to grow and develop you. We’re going to work together.

DAMON KLOTZ: So a teacher.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, teacher-coach. Yeah.

DAMON KLOTZ: And there’s one question I wanted to ask you to kind of just set the scene. It’s really important, it’s definitely about business. What song is in your head right now?

CLAUDE SILVER: Gosh, that’s such a good… I always have a song in my head. It’s a children’s song.

DAMON KLOTZ: Oh really?

CLAUDE SILVER: Slightly embarrassed. It’s “Free To Be… You And Me”.

DAMON KLOTZ: I don’t know that one.

CLAUDE SILVER: It’s Carole King. But if you asked me in 10 seconds, now it’s the Counting Crows. Literally now it’s Mr. Jones.

DAMON KLOTZ: After asking Claude a couple of rapid fire questions, I just had to share the story about the first ever business trip I went on and how I may, just may, have had a helping hand in the creation of VaynerMedia.

DAMON KLOTZ: One event that I went to, I was in my first placement as a HR grad, and I applied to go to a conference. I’d never been on a business trip in my life. My dad went on business trips all the time and I thought they were the pinnacle of success because you go somewhere, you fly somewhere, and he’d always bring me back something like a toy or something. And I thought, man, business trips are so cool. So I went on my first business trip and it was really incredible. I went to Sydney, and I went to the first ever social media conference in Australia. Do you know who was key noting?

CLAUDE SILVER: Gary Vaynerchuk.

DAMON KLOTZ: Yeah. And this would have been 2011, so he’d just put out Crush It!

CLAUDE SILVER: Wow.

DAMON KLOTZ: I don’t want to talk about correlation and causation here, but I did have a conversation with him where he’s signed my book, we’re chatting about it, I spoke a little bit about my personal brand. But then I said, “What I’m really trying to do is help HR departments and companies better use technology, and better use innovation and to get cross departments thinking about how they can support each other.” And everything that Gary was talking about was telling you to go be an entrepreneur and work for yourself and do all these things. And I’m like, “You need to inspire businesses to adopt these things.”

CLAUDE SILVER: Look at where we are now. That was only a few, what, nine years ago, eight years ago?

DAMON KLOTZ: Yeah, eight years ago.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. And here you and I are.

DAMON KLOTZ: Having this conversation.

CLAUDE SILVER: That’s amazing. That’s just how the world works. And I work for Gary.

DAMON KLOTZ: And I worked in HR then, and now I’m just having conversations about workplace culture.

CLAUDE SILVER: Love it. And I didn’t work in HR then.

DAMON KLOTZ: And then in between all then I worked in marketing. And you actually had a career in marketing, so I’d love to kind of talk about marketing and HR and the overlap between them. And then specifically, how has been a marketer actually helped you in your role at VaynerMedia?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, I love the question because for me it all encompasses empathy, and marketing is the art of storytelling and storytelling to a consumer. So taking a brand, telling their story, finding meaning, purpose, something around it, and affecting emotion and a consumer. And what is emotion? Emotion is based around feeling. Thoughts, feelings, reactions. So what are we doing in the world of HR? Or as I call it, heart or people and experience. We’re taking care of people’s thoughts, emotions, feelings, behaviors. And actually I should say, the end result in marketing, we want a consumer to change their behavior, adopt a behavior, or promote their behavior. So buy my soap, go to my petrol station, stop using that, use this. This is going to give you peace of mind.

CLAUDE SILVER: And so in HR we’re doing the same thing: we’re helping, I believe, helping them find their reason to be, their purpose, their guiding principle. Identifying their own behaviors, the ones that they like and they want to promote, and the ones they want to change. And becoming more self aware. So for me, marketing and HR is all around culture. It’s all around empathy and attention. Really giving someone your attention. So we’re giving a consumer attention when we put a product in front of them and want them to buy it and whatnot. And I’m giving you my attention when I’m working with you as a coach, a guide, HR professional, Sherpa, you name it.

DAMON KLOTZ: One of the ways that Didier Elzinga, the CEO of Culture Amp has always talked about this, which to me sums up why HR and marketing needs to be, I don’t know if you know, singing from the same hymnbook. He says that, “Brand is a promise to a customer and then culture is how you deliver on that brand promise.” And we sort of talk about examples where there’s like, let’s say you do a rebrand and you’d like to tell this brand new story to the world, but you haven’t told that story to your employees. There’s no way that those employees can then actually deliver on that with any authenticity.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yep, that’s so true. And it reminds me of what Jeff Bezos said, I think he said, “Your brand is what people talk about when you leave the room”, and that’s so true. You may think you stand for X, but actually you stand for Z at the end of the day. And you really want to know what you stand for, right? You want to know what people are thinking about you, whether or not we’re talking marketing or whether or not we’re talking the employees in the organization.

CLAUDE SILVER: What do they actually really think about this organization? Is it a paycheck? Is it their life? Is it their mission? Are they only going to be there two years? What do they think? What do they feel? What do they want to feel? And that’s my job is to help guide that but also connect the dots for them. And also grow and change and evolve as an organization, that’s my job as well.

DAMON KLOTZ: One of the other ways that I think marketing departments, or even marketing professionals, can actually help human resource or people in cultural departments is actually better marketing the work that they do. Like adoption, behavior change, all the things that marketers are really good at, I think we’re actually seeing definitely that come into the people space. One of my sort of peers in this industry says if you look at a marketing conference from five or ten years ago, and you look at a people conference five or ten years later, it’s kind of the same topics, they just replace some of the language. So what are some of the ways that you actually increase behavior change and adoption inside the company with the sort of people practices that you’re trying to implement?

CLAUDE SILVER: First and foremost is walking the walk. So you can’t just say something from an ivory tower and expect people to adopt it, especially authentically. You need to actually get in there and show them how it’s done. And whether or not you’re inspiring, you’re leading by example, whatever that is. But more than that, why? What is the why behind when you say, “We are an empathetic culture”, or “We are a culture of collaboration”? Why? “Oh, because when you collaborate, you get to more curiosity and you get to work that is more creative, and you get to work that might be more inspirational because we’re working with other people’s minds and the diversity there.”

CLAUDE SILVER: So you and I have already established that we see things differently and I love that. So we have a connection there. And if we, even in this podcast that we’re doing, it’s going to be that much more creative because you and I think very differently, even though we’ve had some crossovers in life. But it’s the collaboration that we’re bringing here, and the agreement that you and I are going to hang for a certain amount of time and make some magic together.

DAMON KLOTZ: One of the topics that I’m very passionate about and you’re very passionate about it and I feel like together we actually carve a pretty big dent in the universe, is getting rid of the idea of soft skills being soft and fluffy. So when you think about like what makes for a great relationship at work, it’s less about, could you sit there and work on Excel well together, it was more about how did you show up for that person? How do you address them? Do you address them in a way that comforts them and gives them good feedback and is appropriate for them? And all sorts of things that you need to be there physically in front of someone to actually better understand. So, why do we need to actually get rid of the idea of soft skills being soft and why are you so passionate about that subject?

CLAUDE SILVER: Well I think the word itself is demeaning and demotivating. So hard connotes strong. Soft connotes mushy. They’re not mushy skills. They’re necessary life skills and we use them every single day. You use them with your soccer team, you use them with your family, you use them with the people you go to brunch with, you use them on the bus. Why wouldn’t you use them at work? And why call them soft skills? They are life skills. They are what we need to be human beings. And just the word soft. I think partially because I lead with that, I’m much more right brain probably and an empath. And so I noticed that if I’m calling myself soft, well right there I’m taking away my power. I’m taking away something that’s a strength of mine. So I like to call them necessary life skills or life skills and that’s what I do. I want to revolutionize that entire phrase.

DAMON KLOTZ: If only you had access to a huge, incredible marketing advertising agency to maybe rebrand this.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. Oh, wow.

DAMON KLOTZ: Is that something that you think we could do?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, definitely do. Yeah. Huge campaign.

DAMON KLOTZ: One of the most important soft skills is the power of listening. To do this well, you need a holistic listening strategy to really understand the needs and experience of your employees. I sat down with Richard Taylor, the VP of Employee Experience at NASDAQ to learn about how he approaches this. When you first hear the name NASDAQ, your immediate reaction might be, that’s that stock exchange, right? But did you know that it’s actually the creator of the world’s first electronic stock market? It operates more like a tech company as its technology powers more than 90 marketplaces in 50 countries. That’s not the only fun fact I have for you. Richard Taylor has been a customer of Culture Amp at Palo Alto Networks and now NASDAQ, but even more interesting than that, he actually studied Buddhism for 10 years before he entered the people and culture space.

DAMON KLOTZ: I’ve heard you talk about that you’re very passionate about putting employees and culture at the sort of heart of what you’re building. How has that really shown up for you throughout your career to really think about the employees and the culture as actually the customer that you’re building for?

RICHARD TAYLOR: You know, it’s almost an awakening when companies become serious about this, because most companies are really good at numbers, they’re really good at financial numbers, top line revenues, bottom line profits, operating margins, da-da-da-da-da. But there’s an awakening, there’s a certain kind of maturity or maybe it’s a maturity of leadership, where companies realize it’s the people that do all this. And people are either highly engaged and find meaning, or they’re not that engaged and they’re just showing up for a paycheck. And when companies begin to think about this huge asset, and for software companies payroll is most of their expense really, you begin to think, are we really intelligently managing this biggest asset more than just words?

RICHARD TAYLOR: People are our most important asset. Everyone says that. But really getting good at getting the best out of people. And not by being a task master, but by really understanding what motivates people, what drives people, what brings them to work beyond a paycheck? Because you can get a paycheck anywhere. Why here? And when companies really come to grips around what makes us special, unique, purpose driven, motivating, then it really becomes an exciting ride to think through, how do we listen to people? how do we get the best out of people? How you retain people? And when they leave, understand why they’re leaving and also wish them good luck.

DAMON KLOTZ: You touched on the importance of using data to make sure that you’re actually truly listening to what the employees want and need. So what are some of the ways that you’re actually listening to your employees, both from using Culture Amp, but also just from actual listening sessions face to face, to really know what other skills that they need to grow and develop?

RICHARD TAYLOR: So that’s right. I think that there is two kinds of data, categorically: one is qualitative and one is quantitative. And Culture Amp has been a great partner in helping us think through and manage and get really granular around quantitative data. But I also don’t ever underestimate the power of a good story and bringing that story to life with a wealth of data, but that really true, poignant human story. And so in my year and a half at NASDAQ so far, I’ve made it a point to travel a lot and to spend time with our employees. And I hold not focus groups, but we call them unfocus groups, where the topic is really whatever you want to talk about. And my job is to listen and to take good notes. Sometimes people ask easy questions like, what’s my medical benefits? And other times they’re quite difficult or they feel that the company’s not doing all that it could help them. And so I’ve spent a lot of time listening intently, and we have offices all around the world, not just in the U.S.

RICHARD TAYLOR: And I’ll bring them back to our executive team and our CEO. I’ll sit down with her one-on-one and say, “Listen Adena, this is what I’ve heard, and by the way, it’s not just one or two people who are more vocal. Here’s the data that backs up their point of view, and I really recommend we focus on X, Y, Z.” So, bringing both that qualitative human data and that quantitative numerical data really paints a powerful picture of where the company is doing great and where we need to focus to do better.

RICHARD TAYLOR: So, fortunately Adena makes this pretty easy. She’s a great listener and a great leader. That’s one reason I joined. But she has made clear to me that the culture piece is not, one, separate work stream to do just because we think it’s fun, it’s part of our business strategy. We’re becoming more of an organic growth company, more of an innovative tech company, and our culture has to reflect that. And frankly, in some ways, we don’t think it’s fully there yet. So, she makes it easy to sit down with her one-on-one and also prepare for our global town halls, which are a video broadcast around the world. And I will bring her stories of employees. I will bring her data, we do the People Pulse, a very short version of the Pulse, just 25 or so questions, quite a few times a year. And I will roll up in a few slides for her the data, but also point out things I think are important, like big changes in a certain location or a business unit, big advances where we put a lot of focus, and then saw progress and where we maybe put focus and didn’t see a lot of progress or things that are emerging.

RICHARD TAYLOR: We’ve added a few questions recently around bureaucracy and red tape, and can we get things done with agility at NASDAQ? And in some places people say, “No, they can’t.” They feel like it is highly regulated, and they’d like us to make progress on that. So, I will tell her some stories. I’ll tell her what I heard in Stockholm, what I heard in Bangalore, and then I’ll also bring her data from the latest Pulse. I also make it a point to meet with leaders and get their point of view, as well as the actual employees who do most of the work. And I will paint her a picture, and we meet fairly regularly. We met just before Christmas to review all of last year and look over the progress we made, which was a lot and where she wants to go next.

DAMON KLOTZ: So, we’ve spoken a lot about, in this episode, the idea of is the term soft skills actually not helping employees use them because it does sound a little bit soft and fluffy? So, I’d love to kind of just, one, hear your take on whether you feel like soft skills need to be rebranded, and then, two, what are the skills that you really look for from your employee base?

RICHARD TAYLOR: Sure. So, I don’t love the term soft skills. I don’t know that I have a huge allergy to it, but it does make it seem like Fluffyland, old school HR, be nice to people, or somehow political. So, I prefer to use the term leadership skills, and I use it for people whether they are actually in a direct managerial role or whether they’re self-leading. They’re thought leaders. They’re technical leaders. They may be individual contributors, but they still very much have the choice to choose to be leaders. And so, I prefer leadership skills, and we think about things like excellent communication, we think about things like are you able to organize your projects well? I don’t know if that’s a technical skill or a leadership skill. Are you able to convey ideas very, very concisely? How do you present? We talk about presentation skills a lot, whether this is internally or for customers.

RICHARD TAYLOR: People may think it’s a soft skill, but I think it’s a leadership skill. Are you able to influence people with your good ideas because you’re clear, you’re articulate, you’re organized, you stand well, you speak well, your slides are not cluttered. That may seem soft, but I think, in a way, it’s very much results driven, so we might use, in air quotes, the “hard skill” of getting results but a lot of that comes through interpersonal interaction. Another whole category is just around respect and how we treat people with respect. We have an increasingly diverse workforce. Being respectful to everyone. That includes different ideas. Somebody may come to us and say, “I have a different idea about that. Is it okay to talk about that?” versus, “Oh, the big boss wants X. We better go do it.” Well, I have a different idea about that. Again, isthat a soft skill or a leadership skill, thought leadership, that we could maybe think about this differently, and is it okay to introduce something possibly disruptive, possibly different?

DAMON KLOTZ: I asked Richard about the drivers on employee engagement at NASDAQ. Driver analysis, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is a statistical method used to assess the relationship between different variables. The questions that are identified as top drivers, are the questions that are most likely going to have the biggest impact on improving employee engagement. So, what you’re saying is, Damon, driver analysis helps me as a leader focus on the feedback that will have the biggest impact specifically for my culture?

DAMON KLOTZ: Correct.

DAMON KLOTZ: So, let’s find out what is the top driver of engagement at NASDAQ?

RICHARD TAYLOR: We could talk briefly about our top drivers, less about NASDAQ, but because our leaders were so fascinated that are very number one top driver is, “I feel I belong.” And I don’t know if every company asks that question. I myself was surprised it was so high up, but it’s been consistent now. We’ve had three of these Pulses since I joined. It’s the number one driver for our employees is, “I feel I belong at NASDAQ,” which raises the question, how does one drive belonging? What does a leader do to make people feel included, to feel that they’re valuable, that their point of view matters? To actually tease to your point earlier, call on them for ideas versus tell them what your ideas are. Get the value out of your team by saying, “I brought you here because you bring something new, and you’re a culture add, your culture value for us.”

RICHARD TAYLOR: So, how do you get the best out of people by helping them feel they belong? And there’s the tactical things we’re doing, like bringing back our old company store, but doing it differently now, and mostly online, to help people feel that they’re wearing NASDAQ swag and they get to have a NASDAQ water bottle or straw or something. We’re looking at all the ways we can drive belonging because it is our number one engagement driver. And many leaders, again, saw that kind of as something soft, as something squishy like, “Oh, people want to feel they’re part of the club,” but I think it relates to psychological safety. I think it relates to collectively feeling part of something bigger than yourself, and I think companies would do very well to pay attention to belonging as a really important category of the employee experience.

DAMON KLOTZ: Thanks to Richard Taylor for joining me. Richard shared great stories about the power of a holistic employee feedback strategy, as well as giving us a sneak peek behind the curtain of NASDAQ and what makes it ticker. Yep, that was a very poor attempt at making a stock exchange joke. I apologize.

DAMON KLOTZ: So far, we found two people who aren’t really a big fan of the term soft skills. Claude calls them life skills, and Richard calls them leadership skills. We thought it was important to hear from someone who was in support of using the term soft skills. Does the term soft skills need rebranding?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: I don’t care. I mean, I don’t know. What’s the goal? I just think there’s a real lesson that this is even a question. The fact that like we’re at a point where we’re so challenged by the word soft, it sort of just goes to show how far we are from just being whole, full, alive humans.

DAMON KLOTZ: This is Dara Blumenthal. She has a PhD in sociology, is a holistic life coach, and professional facilitator. Dara has worked with a bunch of companies that you’ve most likely heard of including Claude Silver’s own, VaynerMedia. Her observations on both how the individual and community can actually meet the needs of the organization are deeply insightful for anyone who’s aspiring to create a culture first team and a culture first organization. When I even just say the word soft skills, what immediately pops into your head?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Well, not in my head, but when I hear you say soft skills, literally I have a sensation in the center of my chest, like in my heart space and even sort of down into my solar plexus. So, there’s something very tender, I think, about soft skills, and I think that’s like sort of a vital quality of soft skills is that there’s a softening, there’s a tenderness, that is vulnerability. That’s sort of central core to what that is. It’s about communication, it’s about interpersonal dynamics, it’s about interpersonal dynamics, it’s about how we praise each other. It’s about grief, it’s about all that sort of stuff. But sort of more immediately it’s just this tenderness in the body.

DAMON KLOTZ: Bringing your whole self to work has been something that has been talked a lot about the last five years. I don’t think we ever then followed up with and the collective trauma, or the trauma that you might be experiencing, based on the intersectionality of your demographics and your experiences before you even turn up to this workplace. Right?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I can talk at length about, or maybe not, maybe it’s actually very simple, but about that concept of bringing your whole self to work. It’s a beautiful aspiration, and in no way do I believe that most workplaces are equipped for that.

DAMON KLOTZ: What happens when they’re not equipped?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: It’s like a double bind. Well, I think things would be really different. I mean, I work as a facilitator, right? So, if there were facilitators running around and helping people have conversations and helping people understand what they’re experiencing and all of that, I think it would be different. It might work. But one person might think, “Oh, bringing my whole self to work means I’m going to shout and I’m going to scream, and I’m going to like get my way. And that’s what it means to be who I am. I need to stand up for myself.” And I think it’s a little naive. I think, until we really know how to listen and speak thoughtfully with one another and generate co-regulation, so our nervous systems are calmed down and we’re not in a defense mode all the time, then I think we can start talking about bringing your whole self. But it’s tricky because it’s like, “Bring your whole self to work. Oh, we don’t know how to deal with that part of yourself, so actually, put it away.” It’s a beautiful aspiration, but I think it’s really tricky.

DAMON KLOTZ: In your opinion, what is the relationship between mindfulness and soft skills?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Mindfulness is the ability to calmly observe what you’re experiencing, and mindfulness is neutral. So, mindfulness can help you arrive at a place in which you can start to just sort of, not even go as far as understand, but just to really be with your experience. And the more that you can be with your experience, the more that you can actually develop the skills to generate more intimacy, to be more intimate with your experience, to be more intimate with others, and what I mean by intimacy, it just means having real, honest, true conversations and interactions. So, actually being able to develop better, more skillful communication skills to become a more skillful communicator or to not be so reactive. So, mindfulness can give you the baseline, can raise the status quo, or it can raise your sort of threshold so that you can start to develop skills in that domain.

DAMON KLOTZ: What do you think is some of the things that are keeping people from actually developing their soft skills at work?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Trauma. Attachment disturbances. By that, I just mean, attachment is the ways that we can be in relationship. And fear. I guess from a sociological perspective, you can talk about the context and whether or not people are incentivized. I think that’s important. And incentivized not only sort of in a financial way or sort of being rewarded or sort of performance, but also culturally, if it’s acceptable. But I think a lot of what gets in the way, there’s a lot of really unskillful leadership out there, and I think the more that we can… We don’t have a lot of great leader role models in our society. I think Obama’s is maybe one. Michelle Obama’s maybe another. I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time in like mainstream pop culture, but there aren’t a lot of great leaders. We don’t have models. So, I think it has to start with leadership, and the more that leaders can model, the more employees can start to learn to develop their own skills, too.

DAMON KLOTZ: If you’ve listened to previous episodes of the podcast, you might have picked up that I’m a big fan of using language to create a stronger container around the work that we do. Something that I learned from Dara is that there’s another way to think about soft skills and hard skills. We can reframe them as vertical versus horizontal development. Dara and I dove into this idea, and thenI actually revealed the subject line of an email that would immediately have me approve an employee’s learning and development budget request.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. So, what I would like to be prioritized are the skills that lead to a vertical development, not horizontal development.So, horizontal development, that’s the stuff that’s just like a technical thing, you’re going to learn how to do a thing, and then you’re like, “I know how to do this thing.’ Like my husband is doing a AWS training. He’s a creative technologist, right? So, that’s horizontal development. You’re learning how to do a specific thing. Vertical development, which comes more from adult developmental psychology or spiral dynamics, people are talking about Teal organizations, it’s that… So, a vertical development is, you’re just putting new tools into your toolbox. Horizontal development is that you’re actually changing the shape of the container. So, it’s much, much more complex and sophisticated learning, and that’s, for me, let’s say…You could just say, like a holistic model includes mind, body, spirit, community, and environment. Those are the five domains that I include in a holistic model that comes from the lineages that I’m a part of. So, it’s like, if you want to do something more complex, you need to include at least a few of those in anything that you’re doing. So, if you want to include the neurobiology of the l the physiology of how it is to have a conversation, the actual words that you’re using to communicate something, right? So, it’s involving multiple domains, and then actually tracking what your experience is sort of as you’re going. So, I know I’m being a little vague, but I would say the short answer is, we need more of that vertical development and less horizontal development.

DAMON KLOTZ: I think there’s a beautiful line there that if I saw that at the top of an email from an employee asking me for training and development budget that said, “I don’t want to just add new tools to my toolbox, I want to actually change the shape and sizeof that toolbox by going on this course or learning these skills,” I’d be like, “Yeah, let’s do this.”

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, yeah. Nice.

DAMON KLOTZ: I love talking about the vertical development points that employees and managers can actually develop, so can you give some examples of what some of those ones actually are?

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. So, I think a really, really important one in our society, based on the statistics that I can’t remember right now but there’s data on this stuff, and it’s helping people transition in the way that they orient to the world. So, one that’s really important at work is a movement from orienting to an authority outside of yourself as sort of the complete way to do things versus including that in your experience so you can orient to an authority outside of yourself when it’s important, when it’s necessary, but also fundamentally being able to orient from your own authority. So maybe you’re a new manager or you’re a manager and you have a new employee and you give them something to do, and they’re going to own that task entirely, and they just flounder. They self-sabotage or they procrastinate or something’s going on and they just can’t seem to really do it. They can’t take ownership and they can’t run with it and they keep asking questions or they keep coming back for help. And it’s like, “This is your moment. Own this.” That could be a developmental challenge because they may not have developed the ability to really fully orient from their own authority so that they can actually author, they can self-author how things should get done. But instead, what they know is that they know to look outside of themselves.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: I think there’s a lot of frustration in workplaces around stuff like that. To say a little bit more about the soft and soft skills, I like the soft because I think it’s important. It’s sort of vital that we are able to soften into our experiences and to sort of tenderize our environments, not so that everyone feels good, right? I think the challenge is that so often this stuff can just get written off like, “Oh, well, isn’t that sort of nice to have?” But it’s more like life or death. I feel like I’ve walked into so many organizations where everyone feels dead, and that’s because we’re so focused on the hard stuff all the time. And even this idea that life has to be hard and work is all about working hard.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: It’s the way that we are continuously striving to get to the next place or to the next thing or to prove ourselves or to feel worthy. And all of that striving, all of that hardness, to a certain extent, is a form of resistance, and we’re resisting our own experiences. So I like the soft because the soft and soft skills is a call to drop the resistance, to say, “I’m not going to resist anymore. I’m not going to sort of shut down my experience.” There’s a whole world of information in our experiences that we’re just missing all the time. This is why we can’t innovate. This is why we have so many issues in solving really complex problems, is because we’re shutting parts of ourselves down all the time. So the first step is just to sort of melt, is to soften into our experience.

DAMON KLOTZ: You mentioned that you’ve walked into a space and actually felt like it’s not alive, and when we actually talk about a culture first company and how we think about it is we talk about it in three ways; that it’s foundational, which means that it’s there whether you want to be nurturing or growing it or not, but it will have an impact. It’s a foundational part of the company. It’s relational. So there’s this part that actually means that there’s stuff happening in between the spaces, in between the teams, in between how we talk. That means that culture first is relational, then, ultimately, it’s alive. It’s something that needs to be nurtured and you need to grow with it and you need to understand it and you need to know that what has served you at moment X might not necessarily serve you at moment Y, and that a culture first company is one that is alive and grows. So it was just really fascinating to hear you say that you’ve walked into a space and actually really felt a lack of that.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Totally. Too often, then, it’s acceptable, really. It’s people’s lives. I think something else that gets in the way of people developing soft skills, that is sort of, there’s an intelligence there, there’s a wisdom to maybe want to avoid difficult conversations because they’re uncomfortable. I think, ultimately, in many cases, what soft skills bring you closer to is having more difficult, uncomfortable conversations more often. So there’s wisdom, right? We don’t like to feel uncomfortable. That’s a real thing. There’s a great quote about this that I can’t remember, but it’s that you have to actually move through the thing. If you don’t move through the thing, it’s going to be there. So if that’s a difficult conversation, the way to get through the difficult conversation is that you have to actually have the conversation. And it’s difficult because it’s uncomfortable. We don’t like how it feels.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: That’s real. That’s a true thing about becoming a more skillful communicator, is that once you have the skills, you’re going to probably have to use them, and using them means you’re going to have to make yourself, and probably other people, uncomfortable sometimes. So, yeah, there’s wisdom there. And the other thing that comes to mind in terms of what gets in the way… Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if if it’s a matter of know people don’t identify with it. You were talking about masculinity and how maybe it’s uncomfortable for some people to sort of step into that domain because they don’t know what it might mean about themselves. And the way our identities develop, it happens in different ways at different moments, and so much of identity development is about context.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: So the more that someone is surrounded by a context in which these skills or these ways of being together are normalized, that it’s okay to show up in these ways and to have these uncomfortable moments and to not know and to be uncertain and to learn how to deal with all that stuff, the more that someone is surrounded by that context the more likely they’re going to develop that… their identity will develop sort of in accordance with that.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: The thing about soft skills… and I say this in a lot of different contexts, whether it’s in meditation or if it’s in coaching, you can’t do this conceptually. It’s not a concept. So, you might walk into an organization and they’re like, “Yeah, we love our values. We live our values.” But then when you actually spend some time with them, you’re like, “Wait, actually, this goes against your value of X. Right?”

DARA BLUMENTHAL: So we’re so good at concepts and we’re so good at being in abstraction, so a lot of us, in our daily work lives, we’re way abstracted. We’re not in first person experience. We’re out in the ether, right? We’re in numbers or we’re in concepts or we’re in prototypes. We’re in the future. We’re really good at concept. We’re really good at abstraction. We’re really not good at living it. You can’t do this conceptually. If you’re going to get better at being a communicator, you’re going to have some really hard conversations along the way.

DAMON KLOTZ: Yeah. And not just with yourself.

DARA BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, totally.DAMON KLOTZ:Dara’s last point really hit home for me. In order to get better at using soft skills, you need to take action and do the work. To bring this idea home, I ask Claude Silver, what was her advice on how to chin up your soft skills? We’re also going to get a sneak peek into what the physical office space of a Chief Heart Officer looks like and why it’s designed intentionally to help VaynerMedia employees find their guiding principles.

DAMON KLOTZ: You mentioned the word empath, and that’s probably not something that’s not too familiar to people, but it’s something that I’m actually learning a little bit more about now. There’s a whole bunch of skill sets and different things, life skills, things that you can train yourself in to be much better at these. If you were to give some advice to someone who’s actually trying to tune up those skills that have been called soft in the past, where would you recommend someone to start?

CLAUDE SILVER: With themselves. Self awareness. Self awareness is the key to unlock everything, because once you start to get an idea of who you are, how you think, how you behave, you can then see that in another person. And there’s this old phrase that’s, “Spot it, you got it.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it?

DAMON KLOTZ: No.

CLAUDE SILVER: But if you see something in another person that either you like or you don’t like, it’s most often because you have it, because we’re mirror reflections of one another. That’s the beauty. So figure out who you are, what makes you tick, what pisses you off, what makes you jump for joy. Figure that out. And that’s where I would start. And that opens up the door to empathy, gratitude, generosity. You asked me, what are my guiding principles? I’ve thought about them for a long time. So I know. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring this person out.

CLAUDE SILVER: Because, a long time ago, I didn’t like my behaviors. And I was like, “Okay. Let’s figure out why I’m doing that.” Figure that out so I can then change and morph be the person I know I’m supposed to be.

DAMON KLOTZ: What role do you play in actually helping some of your employees pick their guiding principles or their values that helps them show up with more authenticity in the workplace?

CLAUDE SILVER: So I would say that’s what I do 100% of the time. When I moved into the office I’m in, I asked for four chairs, no desk, and a huge whiteboard. And I do what I call whiteboard exercises. It’s just coaching. I’ll ask someone specific questions in terms of like, “What does their team think their strengths are? Okay. Okay. Okay.” And we’ll dig into that, especially when someone says, “Strategic.” I’ll be like, “Cool. What does that mean? What do you think your strengths are? What are your values?” And I’ll ask them to get about five values. “What did you want to be when you were a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up? Who are you, today, when you’re standing in front of the mirror brushing your teeth and you’re just in your most Zen moment? Who are you? What is that person like? What is your beat?”

CLAUDE SILVER: Anyway, we’ll write some sentences on the board based on the patterns I’m seeing. And then they’ll go away and they’ll come back with a sentence or two. That will be their guiding principle. And so the most amazing thing and the pattern I’ve seen is almost everyone, and I’d say 98% of people, it’s all about being a teacher. And that, to me, is why being alive is the best thing in the world because, actually, we all want to help each other.

DAMON KLOTZ: And what I love is that’s a very nontraditional way to think about, “What is the role of the head of HR or the head of people and culture?” But it actually allows the employees to show up with a very different relationship to you and your function.

CLAUDE SILVER: Oh, yeah. So, yes, do I oversee HR or people and experience? Yes. But I have an incredible team from SVP on down that really runs the HR, the compliance, the benefits, the insurance, the talent, recruiting. Those types of things. And then I’m able to speak to every single employee, that’s my job, and create curriculum, learning and development curriculum, bring in pilot programs, bring in more D&I training, those types of things that I get the feeling, because I’m spending so much time with people, what this culture needs to thrive, to pivot, to rise. Those types of things.

CLAUDE SILVER: And part of that is the coaching I do. And I don’t immediately say, “Oh, hey. It’s so nice to meet you.” I do my normal 15 minutes with someone, and in those 15 minutes I can see, is there an invitation here for me to push? And if there is, I’ll set up an hour with them the next week, and we’ll do something and I send a pre-read. But I love that. That, to me, is why what I do feeds me every single day, and it doesn’t sap my energy. It gives me more energy because I’m doing something that I love and I believe they will appreciate and will take with them into their lives, and return the favor at some point to someone.

DAMON KLOTZ: I think one of the things that I love about this is that for someone who is listening to this who might not typically have had a relationship like this with the HR people and culture team, it actually shows that a very different type of relationship can exist, and it’s not one where it’s actually… there’s a very positive thing that you can actually have with this department.

DAMON KLOTZ: What are some ways that… obviously, you’re trying to do this at scale and doing it with a lot of people, but what are some sort of principles or ways that someone who’s listening to this who’s just a manager could maybe show up in the same way for their team?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yep. So that’s a great question. Understanding how to give feedback and observations and not holding back, not coddling. That’s an enormously important skill right now. And so figuring out how to give feedback in a way that a person can hear it. Number one, I think. So listening, active listening is another one.How many times are we listening and we’re ready to jump in? So manager training around listening, giving feedback, understanding the difference between mentoring and managing, making sure that the people on your team know what is expected, or when we have a one-on-one, this is what we’re going to talk about. So those types of things, I think, all we need to do is scratch a little bit deeper, just beyond the surface, and develop a relationship with the people on our team. A real relationship. Like, “I’m here. I got your back and I’m going to grow you. I’m going to grow and develop. We’re together.” So anything that encompasses that.

DAMON KLOTZ: When it comes to listening to your employees and making sure that their voice is heard, you really need to ensure that there is open and honest two-way communication. When I say this question, I want you to stop and think and then give yourself an answer out of a hundred. Are you ready? At my company there is open and honest two-way communication. Okay. So, how did you score? Well, to give you some context on how you rated your company, we actually asked this question to over 855,000 employees in our 2019 Culture Amp benchmark. The result? 63% answered favorably.

DAMON KLOTZ: If you’ve listened to this podcast, you’ll know by now that I like to use the companies in the tech industry as a bit of a guide post to look at what some of the best companies are doing when it comes to actually building a great employee experience. So, for that same question, I actually wanted to see the difference in score from the companies in the top 10% of that benchmark, and then the bottom 10%. When it comes to the top 10% of tech companies, 85% answered favorably, whereas in the bottom 10%, only 54% answered favorably.

DAMON KLOTZ: So there is a 26 point difference in this question between the top and the bottom. So if you’re wondering what is one of the ways that actually separates the top 10% and the bottom 10% of tech companies, you now know that there’s a 26 point difference in open and honest communication between those two companies.

DAMON KLOTZ: So we’re driving down the most populous highway in every country in the world, and you’re running for office, but you’re running for office to create a more human workplace. What’s on that billboard?

CLAUDE SILVER: Vulnerability rocks. Show up, be heard. Take up space. Be big in the room.

DAMON KLOTZ: I love that.

DAMON KLOTZ: Thanks to our guests, Claude Silver, Richard Taylor and Dara Blumenthal. A reminder that both Claude and Dara are offering a complimentary coaching session to listeners of this podcast. Head to culturefirstpodcast.com/softskills to learn more. I’d love to hear from you about what resonated from today’s episode. You can use the #culturefirstpodcast on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and you can tag @cultureamp or @DamonKlotz. That’s D-A-M-O-N K-L-O-T-Z. I’d love to hear from you and start the conversation.

DAMON KLOTZ: Finally, if you are enjoying this show, I’d really appreciate if you left a review on whatever platform you’re using to listen to this episode. Why do I keep talking about this? Well, reviews help us skyrocket up the charts and land in the ears of new audiences so that together we can all be building a better world of work. We’ll be back soon. We’ve got episodes focused on empathy and compassion fatigue. And until then, I want to say thank you for listening.

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