How smooth are your soft skills?
The hefty folder lands on Darren Smith's desk

How smooth are your soft skills?

Darren Smith

Slam, went the hefty folder onto my desk. Yes, HR had been at it. I was a buyer and here was the latest personal development folder that ever so neatly tied into the up-and-coming, once-a-year appraisal. My face lost its colour as I thumbed through the three inches of sections, coloured paper, and fancy art. Written in a language that was going to take a training course on its own to understand! Add to this that once we’d completed our appraisal forms and assessed ourselves no one would look at it again for 12 months. ‘Pointless’ did spring to mind. How was I going to do all this work and find the Herculean hours it would take to comprehend and complete this lot whilst trying to make myself look good and remember what the hell I was supposed to have done from last year?

‘How is your spatial awareness?’

Said my boss, the buying manager, in our appraisal, tapping on the six pages of the competency and trying to get me to think harder. “Well, I see space around me. I don’t fall over too many chairs, or walk into too many cabinets, so all in all pretty spatially aware methinks.” Not the answer he was looking for. We get into the detail. “I think you’re a level 4.5 on spatial awareness,” he says. I was a hair’s breadth from saying: “I’m a buyer. I negotiate. I’m pretty good at it. When do we get to the numbers?” But we carried on through the 26 competencies across 12 levels identifying where I was, where I wasn’t, and what I was going to do about it.

I believe that you can learn as much from people that do stuff well as from people that don’t. This particular manager taught me to focus on the 80:20. Identify a person’s single strength and encourage them to improve it even further by sharing it. And identify a person’s single weakness and encourage them to improve it by learning from others. During my tenure as fruit-buying manager for one of the big four UK supermarkets I had a strawberry buyer called Michelle. Michelle had a million ideas, but struggled with focus. We made this transparent together across the team. If we were brainstorming she was there. If we had to ‘just get on’, no one responded to her want for gossip and banter. After a while she had no choice. It worked.

The world has moved on

Working with suppliers to the big four UK supermarkets we still see some element of the corporate, personal-development brick and the once-a-year appraisals. Though, most have turned to being clearer, more succinct, and supporting their employees to develop in a more streamlined way.

For those without access to an infrastructure of forced personal development, competency frameworks can really help. Competency frameworks can you give you an understanding of what great looks like, where you are, and what you need to do to get there. Rather than 12 levels ours have five, and rather than working with all the competencies we suggest picking just one and starting; maybe Time Management, Negotiation Skills, or Influencing Skills.

A roadmap to improve your skills

Many category managers simply grew up with their skill. They learnt it from others and from just wanting to do it better. They’ve done some research, but never really known what great looks like. The category management competency framework can help. My own skill of category management was largely self-taught and guided by a few excellent category management in the supply base that gained my trust and very delicately up skilled me knowledge. A competency framework would have helped me see the end game and be able to work from here to there.

A skills scorecard, or competency framework, helps you to measure yourself. Each of the 16 soft skills uses one page, split across five levels. Each soft skill uses the same model so it is easy to work with each page. There are seven essential qualities of each soft skill. For example to be a better negotiator the seven essential qualities of Negotiation Skills are; (A) Preparing in a structured way, (B) Able to explore the arena, (C) Know your opponent, (D) Finding common ground, (E) Having confidence, (F) Being persuasive, and (G) Seeking clarity. If you are achieving three of these essential qualities regularly then you are at skill level two. To achieve skill level four, you aim to add two further essential qualities to your way of working.

Download the 16 soft skills competency frameworks, pick three, and see where you are here.

To understand how to combine your skills assessment with a personal development plan check the Competency Framework.

Darren Smith is the founder of Making Business Matter, a training provider to the UK grocery industry. It helps suppliers to the big four supermarkets to develop the soft skills that will secure them more profitable wins.



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