There’s lots of talk about hard and soft skills in executive protection, and that’s a good thing. However, some of this talk is ambiguous at best and downright confusing at worst. We’re probably responsible for some of this muddle because we’ve been talking about hard and soft skills for years without always providing a clear definition of what is what, why each matters, and how to develop both types of skills. We hope this blog will begin to clarify things, and we’ll follow up with other blogs on EP training.
Despite the ambiguities, we believe the hard-soft skills discussion is important to our industry. It is part of a larger trend in executive protection that has raised the issue of training, a.k.a. learning and development, to a much higher level than it used to be. Ten years ago, training was more of an afterthought than a priority, something that was nice to have if time allowed, but time was always tight. Five years ago, training was rarely mentioned in RFPs. Today, things are changing. Training, learning, and development are finally getting the attention they deserve in executive protection.
What’s so hard about hard and soft skills?
Distinguishing between hard and soft skills is common in many industries, not just executive protection. Hard and soft skills are on the agenda of every HR director, and recruitment platforms such as LinkedIn and Indeed have spent plenty of ink on the subject.
We won’t go into the weeds on the exact hard and soft skills that EP agents right now. That’s a big subject that deserves a blog of its own, and we’ll cover that in a follow-up blog. Here, we want to clarify how the concepts of hard and soft skills are generally understood, and why we think this makes good sense for executive protection, too.
- Hard skills are technical competencies. Accountants need to learn about general accounting principles and related legislation. Architects must be able to perform structural calculations and use AutoCAD. Hard skills are not necessarily difficult to learn – although they might be. Such skills are called “hard” because they are less squishy than soft skills.
- Hard skills are usually specific to a domain and are not something the rest of us pick up in grade school or high school.
- Hard skills are typically measurable, things you can test. Indeed, many professions and industries develop evaluation and certification schemes to measure how well people master these skills – and whether or not they can hang out their shingle as, for example, an accountant or architect.
- People typically learn hard skills through education, on the job training, and experience.
- Soft skills are more akin to personality traits than to hardcore technical knowhow. They refer to interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities such as emotional intelligence, problem solving, and communication, that are important in social environments that require collaboration. Soft skills are all about how we work with others and on our own. This is the squishy stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant – quite the opposite.
- Soft skills are more universal than specific, and they are transferrable and useful across most any domain. Everything else being equal, accounting firms want to hire candidates who demonstrate excellent soft skills, just like architectural practices, software startups, and McDonalds. However, just like hard skills, the variety of soft skills matter differently in different professions.
- Soft skills are harder to measure in simple tests than hard skills, but they can be evaluated. Personality and other tests predict competences in soft skills with some success, but the real proof is in the pudding: it is when we work with people over time that we get a good idea of their soft skills and how these skills, or lack thereof, affect work performance.
- To some extent, soft skills depend on choosing the right parents. Some folks are just naturally easier to be around and cooperate with than others. But with effort (sometimes a lot of it) and training, anyone can develop their soft skills to at least some extent. And sometimes, even small improvements can make a huge difference.
Comparing skills to rocks is another way to unpack things. Seen in that light, hard skills are actually soft (they are relatively easy to learn but they erode over time and need to be replaced when they become obsolete) and soft skills are actually hard (they can take a tremendous amount of effort to learn but they endure).
Hard and soft skills matter in executive protection, too.
Executive protection agents need to learn a variety of hard skills within close protection, medical/first aid, driving, and more. For example, basic close protection training teaches a variety of protective formations and when to use which – clearly technical competencies that are domain-specific, measurable, and can be learned on or offline.
Similarly, executive protection agents also need to learn a variety of soft skills that have to do with things like emotional intelligence, communication, and resilience. In executive protection, knowing how to maintain a protective formation without getting in the principal’s face requires emotional intelligence, a soft skill.
Both hard and soft skills matter, but soft skills are getting a lot more attention these days
In some industries, it used to be said that hard skills were all that mattered. Software developers, for example, were previously portrayed as introverted nerds who needed to be good at programming but not much else. Fortunately, this stereotype has changed. Today, it is widely recognized that both hard and soft skills are important to success in a job. As it turns out, communication and problem-solving skills, time-, people- and project-management skills, and the ability to communicate are also critical for coders – and practically all other professions.
If anything, soft skills are currently enjoying quite a bit of newfound attention. This is much more than 15 minutes of fame. Robotics and the drive to automate as many processes as possible, the growth of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and even the pandemic-driven “great resignation” all point to one thing: to compete with automation, we humans need to be even better at doing what the robots cannot do. These “human skills” are in demand, and they look a lot like what many people call “soft skills”.
For one example, take a look at LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report. In it, authors list the 10 “power skills” that are currently most in demand across all industries:
1. Resilience and adaptability
2. Technology skills/digital fluency
3. Communication across remote or distributed teams
4. Emotional intelligence
5. Cross-functional collaboration
6. Leading through change
7. Change management
8. Dealing with stress/ being more mindful
9. Time management
For another example, examine the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report. Here, authors predict the 10 skills that will be most in demand in 2025:
Produced by two very different organizations for very different reasons, the two lists look strikingly similar. And with the exception of technology skills, both lists point to the growing consensus among employers, employees, and policy makers: soft skills are at the top of the learning and development agenda. As anyone who recruits executive protection agents knows, these in-demand soft skills are also highly relevant to our industry. These might not be the criteria that get real people hired as EP agents every day, but they sure do play an outsized role in who gets fired. Maybe we should start paying more attention to them? We will in upcoming blogs.