The Makings Of 'Wow'
Dressed in a tailored black pinstripe suit and perfectly coiffed, executive coach Roz Usheroff stands at the front of a presentation room in a downtown Toronto conference centre addressing 31 women who hold mid-to senior-level positions at Canadian companies. She admonishes them to stop apologizing when offering their opinion. It's an ingrained habit and a difficult one to break -- many of the women catch themselves doing it during Ms. Usheroff's two-day Art of Wow conference. But it's worth trying to change. As she explains, this behaviour can make an employee appear less confident and competent.
It's also just one example of a comprehensive program that teaches women how to improve their soft skills. Ms. Usheroff addresses a range of challenges, including self-limiting beliefs, communication style, dealing with aggressive employees gracefully, hosting a meeting, creating a favourable image and "branding" yourself.
The first part of the conference focuses on bridging the gender gap with regards to communication. Women have a tendency to explain; men prefer to get to the point, Ms. Usheroff says. So it's important women get to the heart of the matter quickly in meetings or during a presentation to men, especially those at senior levels.
Later, Ms. Usheroff urges participants to face some ugly truths about the workplace. She explains that in a 30-minute job interview situation, interviewers typically make up their mind about a candidate within the first four minutes. She says, first impressions are formed mostly on a visual impression (appearance, body language, eye contact). What the person says (reflecting their competency) doesn't weigh as heavily. Substance comes into play later --if there is a later, she says.
Guest speakers include Terry Szwec of executive recruiter Korn/ Ferry, who provides advice on how to break into "the old boys network." Hint: It involves golf clubs and fishing rods.
At the end of two days, participants go away with an overwhelming amount of information. But the real test comes in applying what they have learned.
Julie Harwood, director of network production at CBC Radio, says she is often the youngest and only female in meetings. When she took the Art of Wow last year, she realized she had adopted self-limiting beliefs, including perfectionism and the imposter syndrome. "I wouldn't be very vocal at the table [in meetings], like my stuff won't be interesting to everybody," she says.
Now, she speaks up: "I say 'this is what I'm working on,' which not only helps with communication, but also puts me at the table."
Nancy Morgenroth, manager for sales, internal operations at Schneider Electric, had a different challenge. Working in a male-dominated industry, she felt she had to be "very professional" so colleagues would take her seriously, but she came across as unapproachable and intimidating. She learned a technique Ms. Usheroff calls hosting, where the meeting leader hosts the meeting as if welcoming guests into her home.
"People are more comfortable with me [now] and I get greater buy-in on projects," she reports. As a result of modifying her approach, she's been given more leadership opportunities.
Sounds like the Holy Grail. However, one must ask how often soft skills are the deciding factor in a promotion. Recruiters and human resource professionals interviewed say that happens sometimes, but not always. When two candidates with equally strong technical or area expertise are up for a promotion, the one with stronger soft skills will almost always land the job, especially at a senior level.
"We start to worry about their [a management candidate's] impact on groups around them and on clients," says Alan Booth, associate partner, human resources at professional services firm Deloitte.
However, if an individual wants to advance by moving to a new company, cultural fit will trump every other consideration, according to both Greg Boyle, partner at Stone-Wood Group, an executive recruiter in Ottawa, and Kerri Thompson, partner at executive search firm Carmichael Birrell in Markham, Ont. If, for example, an individual expects to put in an eight-or nine-hour day, but is interviewing at a company where employees typically log 12 or 14 hours, that individual will quickly burn out or become disgruntled if hired. "It doesn't matter how great your soft skills are, if you're not engaged," Ms. Thompson says.
Even when an employee wants to progress internally, how well she fits within the organization has a huge impact on her chances. Of the five factors that are key considerations in a promotion at Intuit Canada: business acumen, execution, building strong teams, leading change and how people fit and operate in the Inuit social framework, cultural fit is the most important, says Sue Melik, Intuit Canada's talent acquisition manager.