Of course managers need both hard and soft skills. One cannot lead an organisation without both. But which are needed more in Africa?
I used to think that we should focus on the hard skills. Education in Africa is often so poor that the basic skills, particularly numeracy, are often lacking. And that then has a knock-on effect in reducing students’ capacity to master functional skills like accounting and finance. So recruits enter the workforce with a poor understanding of how business works and even what the common language of business means in practice.
I like to say that in business, if you can’t add, you don’t count.
That is all true and I still believe that the low quality of education is a very major constraint in Africa’s economic development.
But I have been surprised in recent years to find that HR practitioners are emphatic that it is the soft skills that are most needed.
For example, we heard this in a survey of HR practitioners AMI conducted in Kenya last year. They told us show that 21st century work-readiness skills and management ability are more important than technical and functional skills. This confirmed the views of managers we had spoken to over some years in Nairobi.
I find the same wherever I go. Nigerian and South African managers have told me the same thing, as if their country’s experience is unique. In each country it seems we can find compelling reasons why our history or culture or whatever leads our young people to develop attitudes that do not support performance at work.
It may be that I would find the same if I went to Nepal or Chile or Australia, and this is not a peculiarly African phenomenon. It would be interesting to check.
But here in Africa we seem to be convinced that it is matters like attitude towards work, the ability to manage and motivate oneself, and the ability to get on with and manage others that are most needed.
In part this is encouraging, because it suggests that however lacking our educational institutions might be, their graduates emerge with enough functional skill to be able to perform adequately. But in part it is discouraging, because the soft skills are so much more vague and difficult to train than functional skills.
One can define what a marketer needs to know about marketing and design a curriculum that provides the knowledge and skills required. But how does one train for “attitude towards work”?
These are personal habits that grow when people want to be different, when they have inspiring role models to follow, when they have plenty of practice, and when feedback from others both helps them correct mistakes and keep practising until new habits are established.
That’s not the sort of thing generally covered in a curriculum.
Training is wonderful and needs to be increased; but our growing conviction in AMI is that by itself, training is not the answer. We need to focus on how to transform habits in organisations. This lies in the realm of leadership and change management. It requires inspiration and example and mentorship by respected people who are very likely not in the training department.
I hope to write more about this in future, but would in the meantime be delighted to hear from others whose experience touches on this.
Jonathan Cook is past director of GIBS and currently chairman of the African Management Initiative (www.africanmanagers.org), which is headquartered in Nairobi and recently opened an office in Johannesburg.