When it comes to investing in the soft skills of your new young professionals, I have good news and bad news: If you succeed in focusing them on building up their performance on high-priority soft skills, then the next questions they are going to ask is, "Exactly what training resources can you provide me for improving in these areas?" That is both the good news and the bad news.

Why is it bad news?

You invest in developing your new young talent to make them more valuable to you, but in the process, you also make them more valuable in the free market, where they are in danger of selling your development investment to the highest bidder. We call this the "development investment paradox."

This is especially maddening with soft skills training because soft skills are broad, transferable skills that never become obsolete and will make your employees more valuable anywhere they go in any job. Plus, if you think of soft skills training as "extra," rather than "mission-critical," then it seems like a foolish investment to make altogether.

What are the answers to this paradox?

First, use it as an important reminder of the wisdom of sourcing new talent by targeting employers with great reputations for building up the soft skills of their young employees.

Second, be prepared: If you become one of those employers known for building up the soft skills of your employees, you are going to become a target for talent poaching. That's a problem you want to have. However, it puts a high premium on retaining the great young talent you are going to be developing.

Third, calibrate your development investment every step of the way so you never go too far out on a limb. But don't fool yourself: High-priority soft skills are absolutely mission-critical. That's why it's so important to know precisely which behaviors are your high priorities and focus on them like a laser beam.

Fourth, you need to get your employees to buy in to the value of the high-priority behaviors so that they really own the learning process and are prepared to share the costs of the investment. That means you need to engage their formidable self-building drive. If their self-building drive is engaged, they will spend lots of time on self-directed learning outside of work and, when they are at work, they will be purposely focused on demonstrating and practicing their growing repertoires on the job.

Fifth, provide them with as many easy-to-use targeted learning resources as you possibly can to support their self-directed learning.

The key to protecting your development investment in your new young talent is making young employees co-investors in the learning process. As long as they are actively learning skills they value -- with your support -- they are much less likely to think about leaving.

 

MAKE IT THEIR IDEA

If you want today's young professionals to buy in to soft skills development, then you have to really sell it to them: Take the time to make the case for why the skills you want them to learn are not just good for you and your business, but are also going to be really valuable to them.

Help them own the learning by giving them a concrete role in the process: How can you get them actively involved in the training? Can they bring some of their own ideas to the table? Can they help you define learning goals? Identify sources of content or create original content? Teach some of the lessons?

Make sure they have opportunities to practice what they are learning on the job and gain recognition and reward and advancement through active participation. Pay close attention to the employees who really get into it, as they are likely the ones who might stay and build careers in your organization.

Remember that today's young professionals are highly accustomed to self-directed learning: If they are eager to learn something, you cannot hold them back in today's information environment. They will go out into the endless sea of information and people online and navigate their own course of links and sources. Before you know it, they will be surprising you with their thoughtfulness, originality and engagement in the learning.

If you can get them to own the learning process, they are going to be thinking more and more about how they do whatever it is they do. Remember, knowledge work is not about what you do, but how you do whatever it is you do. If you help them make whatever they are doing knowledge work by constantly trying to leverage soft skills in their work, they are going to get more and more invested in that work, more and more engaged, and better and better at their jobs.

"As soon as they join my team, I have new team members develop their own individualized learning plan for targeted technical and non-technical learning," said one very smart manager in a large pharmaceutical company. "They need to learn our product line with all the technical specifications. But it's every bit as important that they learn how to show up very professional in their look and demeanor. They need to know how to get a doctor's attention and hold the doctor's attention."

The pharma manager continued, "With the soft skills, that's more like getting in shape. I can't go running and do push-ups for you. You need to go to the gym if you are going to get in shape. So the individualized learning plans are really great when it comes to the soft skills: I have them map out their learning goals in detail. For every goal, I have them go out and do research and create a list of learning resources. Then I have them make a learning plan with concrete learning goals and specific lessons related to the goals. They keep a learning log of the lessons they've done, the work product involved, if any, the learning goals they've accomplished, and how the learning is making a real impact on their actual work. This also becomes a regular part of our team meetings -- sharing learning resources and sharing lessons."

What is the best part about this approach? "They do so much of the work of their own training. Plus they are mining the Internet for learning the resources and usually the bulk of the resources they find are basically free. On top of that, they end up doing such a good job harnessing those resources, organizing them and sharing them, that they are actually building up a great training curriculum at practically no cost to the company. Some of the stuff they come up with is so good and so well-targeted to what we need because they are motivated to find the right material to help them on the job. And they do most of it on their own time."

Bruce Tulgan is the founder of Rainmaker Thinking. This article is adapted from his latest book, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today's Young Talent.

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