Social skills revolution: The rise of outsider talent
A couple weeks ago I picked up a book about the making of the multibillion-dollar Chinese tech giant Alibaba. One of my favorite parts was when Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, gave advice to the author about a career transition: “Find the poorest part of China and just travel through the region. When you find that place, stay for a few days. If you’re comfortable there, then move on and find an even poorer area to stay. If you don’t feel comfortable where you are then force yourself to stay even longer. Then ask yourself, why do you feel uncomfortable?”
Ma, who nearly failed out of college and taught English before founding Alibaba, was trying to teach the author the skills of an outsider: resilience, risk taking, empathy across lines of difference, and the ability to navigate uncertainty.
Ma is not alone in valuing these skills. Many recent reports on the future of work note that the increase in automation and artificial intelligence combined with the shift to a more diverse, global, and flexible workforce are making these “soft skills” in greater demand. This year the director of product management at LinkedIn said “soft skills were featured in 78 percent of jobs posted globally over the last three months.” And another report said the companies seeking to upskill their employees in interpersonal and empathy skills nearly doubled.
The idea of discomfort building softs skills is not a new one to anyone who has operated at a distance from power — like women, minorities, non-degree holders, and immigrants.
Just last week I was talking to two successful women who often find themselves in rooms where they are the minority. They shared stories of how they developed empathy to read a room: “Who will take me seriously? Who is my ally? Who doesn’t even know I am there?” And then they told me something interesting: “This skill is our superpower,” they agreed: “Everyone underestimates us.”
This leaves us with an interesting paradigm for our workforce. For the last few centuries, “outsider talent” has been honing some of the most critical skills for the future of work. Unfortunately, our educational and corporate institutions still handicap talent with the skills of the past.
Take higher education, for example, which historically prioritizes test taking and pedigree in recruiting. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Coddling of the America Mind” highlights the focus of elite parents on de-risking and micromanaging children’s experiences in the name of achievement. “Efforts to protect kids from risk prevent them from gaining experience. Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.”
This phenomenon is explored in a McKinsey study done last year that looked at the correlation between key skills of the future (risk taking, coping with uncertainty, and empathy) and levels of education. It found that these skills are completely uncorrelated to education — meaning it’s possible, even likely, that a person of high intelligence and educational pedigree is totally unprepared to deal with such things as flexibility or uncertainty. These kids may end up at the best schools, but they may not end up with the skills needed to succeed.
This is not the case for another outsider, Kennedy Odede, who was born and raised in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya. He said his greatest skill has been “learning to listen to other people’s feelings” or what leading psychologist and New York University Professor Niobe Way calls relational intelligence, or simply “listening with curiosity.” Professor Way’s research over the past decade finds that listening with curiosity is necessary to building relationships and resolving conflict. This helped Kennedy survive danger at a young age and now it helps him raise millions of dollars to improve life across the slums in Kenya.
Companies need to catch up to this new reality fast. The same businesses that are looking for soft skills and doubling their training in this category are excluding nearly two thirds of American workers because they do not have college degrees. A study published in 2020 by a group of multidisciplinary researchers found that “as many as 30 million American workers without a four-year college degree have skills to realistically move into new jobs that pay on average 70 percent more than their current ones.” The key to doing this? Look at their skills and experience, not their degrees.
The same goes for many “knowledge worker” jobs. These industries continue to hire from a handful of top schools and use interviewing tactics like the long heralded “case study” that reveals very little about a candidate’s empathy, flexibility, and risk-taking skills. They are missing out on outsider talent from key community colleges that have learned the skills of the future from being an outsider, an immigrant, or a minority.
In America there are nearly two job openings for every candidate, and according to reports from companies like Manpower Group, the result is a significant talent shortfall. While this may be true, we are missing something else. Major employers continue to be distorted by credentialism and Ivy League educations, while higher education continues to rely on outdated measures of success like test-taking skills. These all reveal very little about “soft skills.”
To reboot our economy and repair our social systems it is imperative that educational institutions and corporations open their eyes to all the talent they cannot see.
Blair Miller is an executive advisor to Two Sigma Impact and “leader in residence” at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City University of New York. She holds an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia.
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