Human resources departments – and their championing of the ‘soft skills’ of empathy, problem-solving and resilience – entered into a new era during COVID as business leaders sought new solutions to tackle the upheaval facing their operational structure, strategy and people. And those HR leaders basking in the rather novel glow of such appreciation are not putting this newly recognised importance to waste but rather are tapping into every opportunity to keep it front of mind.
Joanne Wright (pictured), people and culture director at Specialist Risk Group (SRG), emphasised this full-circle moment as leaders look to engage with HR as a service function. It used to be that HR was seen as something quite “fluffy”, she said, but there’s a changing recognition of the power of soft skills in maximising both the performance and retention of great talent.
“One of the things that we’ve seen significantly from a people and culture perspective is the shift in how we’re supporting managers and leaders since the pandemic,” she said. “That has developed really well [since COVID] and has now evolved into us supporting managers in utilising their soft skills to be able to manage and lead effectively.
“What we’ve spent a lot of time doing is encouraging our managers and leaders to use their ‘people and culture lens’. Being a manager isn’t just about monitoring tasks, it’s really about connecting with people. So, we emphasise getting to know people, understanding how they feel, how they’re motivated and what encouragement they need to be happy and productive.”
In essence, SRG is underpinned by three core behaviours – to be kind, to be positive and to be thoughtful – and in order to implement these behaviours correctly, the business has made it a key metric of its success. To propel the development of this ‘people and culture lens’ across the wider group, Wright and her team have developed a career-level framework that sets out which behaviours are required at each level across the business.
“It underpins all of the soft skills we expect colleagues to display,” she said. “None of it’s heavily technical but rather it’s about those soft skill behaviours that can drive performance, engagement and productivity. It helps managers reflect on their own behaviours but it also provides them with clear examples of what’s expected of their teams.
“The shift that we’re seeing is that managers are now much more aware of when they’re exercising these soft skills, and how it helps shape the culture in their teams – and the impact that’s having on their team’s productivity. And I think it’s relatively new across financial services to see that link being made but it’s been a joy to see how it’s connecting with people.”
SRG has two shared objectives across the whole group, she said, those of being a good colleague and hitting the numbers. And the group is clear that being a good colleague has to come first. Constant monitoring of these two critical metrics is about future-proofing the business, not just in terms of supporting existing leaders and their teams but also in helping aspiring leaders and managers create the necessary skills to succeed early on.
To enable this, SRG has created a high-potential development programme which is designed to fast-track the learning of future leaders. The majority of that programme focuses on soft skills, she said, whether that’s personality profiling or learning around communication styles, how to be an effective leader, how to create greater engagement and how to connect with colleagues. So, it’s not about textbook learning or generic ‘top tips’ for management but rather genuinely engaging with how future leaders will be expected to heave.
“People are able to use their core skills to progress to leadership which has been really important for them as I feel it brings more of a sense of belonging, and allows better engagement,” she said. “We’re empowering [our future leaders] to express different soft skills like empathy and kindness and it’s been a really nice top-down and bottom-up way to engage every level of the business in conversations around how beneficial these skills can be.”
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The rollout of this high-potential programme, which has already supported its first cohort of colleagues, has been a great success to date. So much so, Wright said, that the group is now gearing up to launch its second cohort. This comprises 17 colleagues from all across the group, including people coming in from businesses acquired by SRG, who are interested in exploring how to build and leverage their soft skills to lead and communicate effectively.
“We ask everyone to apply and it’s a formal application process,” she said. “And we look at their leadership qualities, their performance and whether they’re an ‘over and above’ type of achiever and performer. And of course, their potential. What does their trajectory look like at SRG and are we confident that they’re one of the future leaders of the group?... It’s quite a tough process, we get more applications than we have places but I think that’s actually a great sign of the willingness of our people to take part in the programme and commit to their careers here.”
What’s been interesting to see from Wright’s perspective is how SRG’s focus on creating the right culture and atmosphere, and its willingness to engage with holistic conversations around the future of talent is tying in neatly with its evolving diversity and inclusion (D&I) focus. SRG’s D&I pathway is developing significantly, she said, and one of its key objectives for this year is to foster ongoing healthy conversations about both diversity and inclusion.
“Tapping into our soft skills has really enabled us to do that,” she said. “We have a D&I SteerCo and earlier this year, we had discussions with over 300 colleagues, in small groups, about how we feel about D&I. Being able to talk and connect with over 300 colleagues about what D&I means to them as individuals and what D&I means to us at SRG was wonderful and very meaningful.
“That has completely shaped our journey and our priorities for next year. It was an incredible exercise for our SteerCo to do because they’re a committee made up of volunteers, of people who have put their hands up to say they’d like to drive D&I activities within SRG. So, it goes back to those soft skills and empowering people, and finding ways to help them and coach them in utilising their own soft skills of kindness and positivity and thoughtfulness in order to drive future conversations.”