Soft Skills – Working on the How not just the What

Working at London Business School as a coach on their Executive Education programmes has taught me a lot about soft skills training in the leadership development context. The key to being a good leader is taking responsibility for YOURSELF as that’s the only thing you can truly control. What are you bringing to each interaction? As a leader you will be setting an agenda – whether that’s the vision for the company or a task for an individual. You can also control how you set that agenda with other people – how do you interact with others to get them to live the vision or do the task.

The What – Deliver Results

The WHAT is the work you are wanting done by someone else – the vision, the task, the project. It could be as specific or simple as a meeting you are running tomorrow.

Most people and organizations focus on the what. The language of THE WHAT is: to-do’s, project updates, status reports, key performance indicators (KPIs), timelines, next steps, analysis, telling someone how to do something, making decisions, following up, evaluating, delegating, measuring and managing risk to name a few.

The How – Emotional Intelligence

The HOW is how you influence someone else or get people to do the work/the what. Great people skills consider how you engage other people or interact with them. The objective is to build the relationship (or at least not harm it I guess) with someone while having them do what you need them to do. If this sounds like manipulation, it is by definition – handling in a skilful manner to influence. We do it every day with our kids, friends, colleagues. My assumption is that it’s for the betterment of the organization and individual. This is usually where my Executive Coaching clients need to focus the most; their awareness of others and how to manage them is a big part of emotional intelligence.

The language of THE HOW is: empathy, trying to understand, listening, collaborating, inspiring, coaching, celebrating, learning from mistakes, giving feedback, sensing, inclusion, curiosity, empowering, caring, joking, supporting, being vulnerable yourself and being present with them to name a bunch.


Trump and Obama have both led the USA as President. They handled military interventions, foreign diplomacy, budgeting, etc – the what. How they have done that is quite different.

Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have both led Apple. How they did/do it is quite different. One obvious example is that Tim Cook might not be a household name, whereas Steve Jobs probably is. Tim leads more from behind while Steve was more out front.

Now What?

The following article for the Association of MBAs explains how soft skills relate to emotional intelligence, why soft skills matter and expands on the notion of THE WHAT and THE HOW.