Professional development can take many forms. We learn from mentors or from books. We hear from accomplished speakers and participate in classroom training.
What about soft skills? Like the interpersonal, communication, leadership, management skills?
Trying to learn these skills in a classroom can be a challenge. Classroom training is great for learning or reinforcing concepts, but most discussions tend to be theoretical and abstract. Mentors and role models are certainly more helpful when it comes to learning about soft skills. They give you specific advice about to do or avoid, and serve as inspiration for what you want to become. But there is an even better way.
A while back, my cousin and I were working with a personal trainer at our gym. Every time the trainer introduced us to a new exercise, she would demonstrate it for us. And what helped me even more was watching my cousin try it first. Like me, she didn’t have any experience in the routines. So watching her go first and having her give me some tips about what was tricky or easy was very useful.
Yes, using an exercise equipment is very different from running a meeting. But learning from someone who is just a bit ahead of you is often a very effective way to develop a soft skill.
Instead of looking to a very senior leader you admire, find someone who is only slightly more advanced than you in something you’re working on. They may even be at the same “level” or title as you. Perhaps even someone more junior. But if you know they have a head start in a skill you’re trying to develop, like giving a presentation to a particular committee, watch them and talk to them.
They are close enough to you in experience or ability that their tactics and behaviors are directly applicable to you. Observe and take note: How did she present in the meeting? When did she approach a senior manager to pitch her idea? Why did or didn’t that work?
Soft skills are developed gradually. It’s impossible to drastically improve the way you communicate, manage or lead overnight. If you’re just starting to manage a team, trying to emulate a senior partner is not going to work. What you really need are clues to the baby steps you can take immediately and consistently that will make a difference over time. People who are slightly ahead of you are a great source for modeling those steps.
It is not about “copying” so much as it is about leveraging them as relevant case studies from which you can draw ideas and lessons.
Think about the soft skills you want to develop. Now think about who around you is further along in honing those skills, but only by a little bit. You’d be surprised at how many people you can actually learn and benefit from, by using this approach.