When Loredana Padurean, a co-author of this article, shared her concern that she might not have the right skills to co-lead the startup Asia School of Business (ASB), her former boss responded: “The job is easy; the people are not.” While her initial worry was that she didn’t have enough “hard skills,” such as finance or accounting, she realized very early on that her boss was right about the people issues. If Loredana wanted success, she needed to step up her “soft skills,” such as cognitive readiness, strategic and critical thinking, emotional maturity, adaptability, and ethical and cultural sensitivities.
At ASB, established in 2015 in collaboration with the MIT Sloan School of Management, we have expanded on the concepts of soft and hard but eliminated that terminology; we’ve replaced it instead with “smart” and “sharp” skills, with a pedagogical change to reflect the linguistic change.
Dictionaries define the word “soft” with words like smooth, mild, gentle,
quiet, tender, and weak. However, it turns out there is nothing “soft” about managing diverse teams. Navigating competing perspectives and cultures does not come smoothly; pitching and presenting projects is not a tender act; handling and delivering critical feedback often is not mild; and dealing with office politics is certainly not for the weak. So why do we still refer to these skills as soft?
Analogously, “hard” is defined with words like firm, rigid, resistant, free of weakness, unlikely to change, harsh, severe. But should the so-called hard skills required today—such as coding, finance, accounting, statistics, mathematics, machine learning, engineering—be defined by these attributes? Considering the constant changes in technology, and the subsequent need for users to adapt, these characteristics hardly seem fitting.