Harness soft skills to build the teams of tomorrow

Written by

Patti Sanchez

Written by

Patti Sanchez

Executive summary

New skills will be necessary to thrive in the future of work. Learn how to build the capabilities your organization needs to thrive today and tomorrow.

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Talk transcript

Welcome to the … “NEW?” … normal. I think we can all agree the “new normal”, whatever that means, is pretty different from the way things used to be. In fact, the new normal is decidedly NOT normal.  

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that our previous ways of working aren’t fit for a world that is THIS unpredictable. The events of the past two years have tested our organizations and our people in ways we hadn’t anticipated. We just couldn’t keep doing things the way we used to.  

So we’ve all done a LOT of pivoting lately, right? We HAD to pivot so we could adapt to changes in our environment. And those pivots challenged us. Because we had to build new muscles to meet the moment. I want to tell you a story about how we at Duarte navigated the events of the past two years. And share some lessons we learned that will hopefully help you and your teams meet the next challenges you’ll face.

First, let’s go back to the beginning of this story to set some context. At Duarte every January, we pull our employees together for a special event called Shop Day. That’s what these photos are from. We close the doors to our “shop” for a day so we can reimagine how we serve our customers, our employees and our communities. At the beginning of the day, our executive team gives a vision talk to explain where we need to go, and how we’ll get there. 

So on January 17, 2020, our employees assembled in our town hall to hear Duarte’s vision for the future…

On that day, we laid out a big, hairy, audacious goal for Duarte. This is our moonshot… To transform millions of people around the globe…By giving them the skills and support they need to communicate best. But then we all got hit by this meteor called COVID-19… Everything about our world, and our training business, was turned upside down.

Back in January 2020, this is what the Duarte Academy’s training calendar looked like…It was jam-packed with instructor-led workshops for companies around the world. Our facilitators were constantly on planes, but as COVID began to spread, our customers started calling to cancel workshops… Our schedule went from totally packed to completely empty in a matter of days. But there was still one big program left on the calendar…

In early March 2020, I and some of our top facilitators were scheduled to deliver a multi-day training program for leaders of a global management consulting firm. Everyone was supposed to fly into our headquarters for an immersive, in-person skill-building experience. But just 5 days before that event, the customer called to say… “We’ve been told we have to freeze all travel so we can’t come onsite next week. But we really HATE to cancel the sessions because our leaders need this training SO BADLY. Can’t you do it virtually …. please?”

Well, to give you a little context, our face-to-face workshops are truly unique, hands-on experiences. To help learners build and practice power skills, our curriculum pushes them to articulate their ideas and stretch their minds in a very analog way. They brainstorm ideas on sticky notes, write talking points on foldout StoryMaps, sketch visuals by hand, and then stand and deliver their stories for real-time feedback

And they’re led through it all by skilled facilitators who are themselves powerful communicators. Our facilitators really know how to work the room and they bring the material to life with engaging lectures and demonstrations. So people leave not only knowing how to communicate well to influence others… They’re on fire with inspiration and energy themselves.

But those same teaching techniques just don’t translate well to an online setting. You can’t stream a 2-day, 16-hour workshop to people’s laptops, and still expect them to stay engaged the whole time. That would be draining, and not at all conducive for learning.

So I challenged our team to reimagine our workshops for the virtual world. The experience had to be as good, if not better than, in-person so we could keep online learners fully engaged. But it wouldn’t be easy… We’d have to innovate new approaches to online training at hyper speed. It would take a lot of experimentation, and a lot of trial and error… over days, maybe weeks, definitely not months.

We started by analyzing our options. We evaluated the digital tools at our disposal, like Zoom, Teams, and WebEx among others. We also reviewed feedback from our learners to understand what they enjoyed most about our in-person workshops so we could build on those qualities.

For instance, they really loved the tactile, interactive elements to our training, like brainstorming on stickies and drawing on whiteboards. They also loved the mix of group work and individual work… Time spent working on their own presentations and getting feedback from their cohort and our coaches. 

Knowing what mattered to our learners most, we then set out to create a new virtual workshop experience. We held a series of virtual working sessions with a cross-functional Duarte team. We tapped the minds of our researchers, writers, designers, facilitators, and technical experts. Together, they brainstormed ways to restructure our workshop content, to redesign activities, and to craft engaging online interactions.

That meant we needed to be experts in using the digital medium itself to deliver. So we gave our facilitators a crash course in virtual communication. We challenged them to try new virtual tools in their everyday work and meetings. We also brought on board a new team of producers to help our facilitators wrangle technology and manage the virtual room. Then we ran multiple beta tests of our new virtual workshops, treating them like dress rehearsals for a big show. And after each dry run, the team gave “notes” to each other. They gave feedback on how the experience felt and what needed improving.

This is a typical virtual workshop setup for our facilitators who work from home… The facilitator often has two laptops because it’s always a good idea to have a backup! But they also have two monitors so they can see their slides, their script, and participants in separate windows. There’s also a camera mounted at eye level near the teleprompter monitor with their speaker notes on it. That way facilitators can look into it while speaking without having to glance down at their notes. Another monitor shows the chat enlarged so participant questions and direct messages from the producer are easy to see quickly. 

And this is the same kind of setup in one of the studios at our office. There are different backdrops on three walls to give visual variety for different workshops as well as sound-dampening panels on another wall to keep noise outside the room to a minimum. Of course, technology and equipment are only one component of virtual delivery.

It’s also about building rapport with learners, and creating connections between them. So our team needed to master not only digital skills but also relational skills for a virtual world. They experimented with different ways to interact with learners through online polls, chat, annotation, breakout rooms, and more. And we were surprised to discover how well these digital interactions could create a truly inclusive learning environment. One that calls all participants into the conversation – introverts and extroverts – and creates a safe space to make their voices heard.

Our facilitators also adapted how they deliver to increase the sense of connection that learners feel with THEM. They learned how to make strong eye contact thru the camera lens… As well as how to use their voice and gestures to amplify their virtual presence. Because when your virtual presence is stronger, it makes people feel like you’re right there in the room with them. 

I documented everything we learned in this Duarte guidebook – Presenting Virtually. It explains how to craft great virtual presentations, and how to communicate and connect with online audiences using the Duarte Method. 

The Duarte Method is the proprietary system of power skills that we teach in all of our training. And it’s also the method we apply in our creative work. And it’s based on these four disciplines – strategy, story, visuals and delivery. We see these as the legs of a chair on which a great piece of communication sits.

But in the center of that chair, at the heart of our methodology, is EMPATHY… Empathy is THE foundation of effective communication. When you understand your audience well you can craft communication that resonates with them. And if it resonates with them, they’re more likely to be moved in the end.

One way we practice empathy in communication is by letting this rule guide our decisions: “Never deliver a presentation YOU wouldn’t want to sit through.” Sit with that for a second…  Are you guilty of breaking that rule? I think we’ve all done it from time to time… But we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our audience, to ask ourselves how it feels. Does this communication work for THEM, and not just us? 

The same rule goes for training. So this rule guided us when developing our virtual workshops. They needed to be better than in-person training, more effective, engaging and inspiring.

When our employees, who we call Duartians, attended our new virtual workshops they fell in love with the experience. They really embraced what we learned in our virtual training pivot. And they infused it into everything we do at Duarte. Back in 2020, the biggest brands we work with were planning massive in-person gatherings that suddenly had to move online. So our Agency’s creatives, consultants and coaches dove in to help them do it, reimagining everything about their events… And of course they all did it virtually. But our employees didn’t stop there… They also reinvented the way that we collaborate with EACH OTHER at Duarte. 

They transformed how we run meetings using techniques from our workshops to facilitate better virtual conversations. They even changed how they show up by sharing information about themselves as a virtual background like their SDI personality type. They also transformed how we celebrate each other.

For instance, when somebody does something great at Duarte, other people appreciate them publicly. And they do that by giving them something we call a “giraffirmation”… because the giraffe is our company mascot.

And now in our online meetings people pass a virtual giraffe to their colleagues… One of whom might even be wearing a wig BTW, if your meetings don’t involve wigs, don’t feel bad… That’s just a typical day at Duarte. We have found that playful moments like those help lighten the mood and boost energy during a week filled with virtual meetings. Moments like this leave people feeling something special, a phenomenon sociologists call “collective effervescence.” It’s a shared experience that uplifts and aligns people.

As a result of these pivots, we’ve fundamentally changed our ways of working. This year’s Shop Day event was completely digital from the vision keynote that kicked it off… To a virtual classroom hosted on Miro where everyone could  sign up for and participate in online classes. Classes, incidentally, that were created and taught by Duarte employees themselves… We also had a virtual art gallery space that displayed the hidden talents and creativity of our employees.

In the process of reinventing the way we train learners, serve customers, and fuel our culture… we developed new skills that fundamentally changed us as an organization and as people. I’m sure the same is true for you. But we’re not done pivoting. None of us are. Not by a long shot.

Because the world around us is still evolving in ways we can’t even imagine. Our picture of the future is hazy at best. Yet we still have to get our organizations ready for it…without knowing exactly what tomorrow will look like.

What we DO know is it will require many people to change their line of work. A report by McKinsey Global Institute stated that 375 million people globally will need to change jobs by 2030. But those are just the jobs we know about…

A 2017 study by Accenture predicted that… 65% of our children will hold jobs in the future that don’t exist today.

That explains why the World Economic Forum found that most companies plan to upskill or reskill their staff by 2025. And 44% of the skills their employees will need in the future will be totally different than skills they have now.

We are clearly entering a new era… An era that will look a LOT different than the one we just came from. An era defined by continued disruption, caused in large part by digitization, automation and transformative technologies like AI and Machine Learning. But technology won’t be able to do EVERYTHING humans can do… At least not for a while.

A partner from McKinsey Global Institute put it this way… “Demand will be high for skills machines aren’t good at: social, emotional, creative, and high-level cognitive functions.” These skills are what make us human. So you could call them ‘human’ skills. To be more specific, the future success of our organizations will depend on humans’ ability to …

Analyze data and information and spot patterns in it quickly…

Create novel solutions to emerging problems or opportunities…

Relate to other people in an authentic, inclusive, and empathetic way…

And to act with agility and speed in a digital world. In our organization we call people with these skills ‘quadruple threats.’

And they seem like rare creatures indeed because they basically need to have the…

Insight of an eagle…

Creativity of a unicorn…

Heart of an elephant…

And the agility of a cheetah…

…with wings…

…wearing roller skates!

This may sound like a mythical being, a chimera that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. But I think they actually do exist in the world, even inside your organization.

In fact, they’re probably in a virtual meeting right now, getting things done like they ALWAYS do. Because people with these skills actually helped you get to where you are today. To get to this place, we ALL had to exercise a lot of these skills… Analytical insight, creative ingenuity, relational intelligence and digital agility.

At Duarte we believe these capabilities can be learned with a comprehensive approach to power skills development. And it starts with these fundamental disciplines I’ve talked about before – strategy, story, visuals and delivery. These disciplines can help your people and your organization get ready for the future of work. How?

Well, take strategic thinking for instance. When creating a communication strategy, people need to use analytical skills to DIAGNOSE their audiences’ needs. And to analyze why their communication approach is, or isn’t, working. And when crafting a message strategy, people need to FRAME messages in a creative way that audiences can not only understand but connect with. A good communication strategy also makes information relevant to audiences, by ORCHESTRATING how that content is delivered using the right format, at the right time, to best meet their audience’s needs

What about storytelling? Well, storytelling at its best is an artful form of communication that holds audiences in thrall. But it’s not just about entertaining people.

Story is also a method for ORGANIZING information and structuring it into a persuasive argument. Plus it’s a method for SYNTHESIZING insights into a compelling and memorable format. And more importantly, it is a very powerful way to build emotional CONNECTIONS between people.

And visuals? They’re not just a container for ideas. Visualization is also a technique for INNOVATING ideas themselves… As well as a way to describe PROBLEMS and SOLVE them using design thinking. Of course, visuals are a potent way to make ideas clearer so people can understand them. Because when people can see what you’re saying, they’re more likely to ALIGN with your ideas. And that can happen even faster online when visuals spread virally.

And how about delivery skills? Everyone needs to be able to speak clearly and confidently to get their ideas heard. But it’s also important to ADAPT your delivery to meet the changing needs of your audience. And to vary your communication style to effectively influence them. Great delivery also HUMANIZES speakers by helping them express their ideas to others in an authentic way. Finally, strong delivery skills also help people effectively INTERACT with audiences, online and off, by listening to them, engaging with them, and ultimately moving them

Taken together, these create a foundation of power skills that will be essential for humans to thrive in the future. For us, they’ve become part of how we operate as an organization.

So, I think of these as a power skills ‘operating system’. When you wire them into your culture, as we have, people become stronger communicators, and better able to evolve as you need them to.

Now, building those capabilities into your organization will take effort and time. Because change is a journey in and of itself. To cause a lasting shift in beliefs and behaviors, you have to understand what it feels like to go through change, from the perspective of the people who are experiencing it. And that takes empathy.

Five years ago Nancy and I set out to write a book that would help people navigate change, and we called it Illuminate. We wanted to know if a transformation journey follows a common pattern. After 3 years of researching movements in business and society, we found it.

This is what it looks like. We call it a VentureScape because it traces the path of a transformation journey, which is like an adventure into new territory. It’s made up of five stages grouped into three acts… And it actually follows the structure of a story.

The beginning of the change journey, Act 1, is made up of the DREAM and LEAP stages. This journey begins when you declare your vision, your DREAM. But that’s just the start of the journey for everyone else. The next step is the LEAP stage, where people choose whether to join you or not. If you communicate well, they’ll jump in with you…

And that’s where things get really interesting AND REALLY HARD. Because the middle of the change journey, Act 2, is made of the FIGHT and CLIMB stages. We call this the “messy middle” because this is where the TRANSFORMATION actually happens. Because people have to FIGHT obstacles of all kinds, external and internal ones. But as they do, they build new muscles that help them conquer the dragons in their way. And each time they overcome obstacles, they CLIMB closer to your end goal.

The journey ends with Act 3, the ARRIVE stage. That’s where you either achieve the dream or fall short. Either way, it’s time to celebrate your wins AND learn lessons from your failures. And gather stories to tell and re-tell.

At each stage, people have different emotional needs…

In the DREAM stage they need a moment of INSPIRATION…

In the LEAP stage they need a moment of DECISION…

In the FIGHT stage they need a moment of BRAVERY

In the CLIMB stage they need a moment of ENDURANCE…

And in the ARRIVE stage they need a moment of REFLECTION.

The way you communicate throughout this journey can make or break how well people cope with change.

I said before the heart of effective communication is EMPATHY, a concept that’s more important than ever. Empathy is crucial if you want to motivate people to embrace change on any level. With the right training, support, and encouragement, people can develop new skills, overcome obstacles, and emerge transformed but they can’t do it alone… they need help.

Every hero has a mentor. Just like Yoda was to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Yoda brought experience and insight to help Luke get unstuck when he needed it most. You play the same role for people in your organization. You are a mentor to your employees,  as well as partners, customers… all your stakeholders. You need to adopt a mentor mindset to give them the help they need to get unstuck to help them keep going and to help them keep growing.

So I want to leave you with this quote from MY mentor, Nancy Duarte, who said… “The future isn’t just a place you’ll go. It’s a place you will invent.”

I can’t wait to see the places you go… And to live in the future you invent.

Take the next step

We offer flexible, individual and team training to help build critical communication skills as well as hands-on, one-on-one coaching and full-service strategy, consulting and presentation design support. Learn more below:

Take the next step

We offer flexible, individual and team training to help build critical communication skills as well as hands-on, one-on-one coaching and full-service strategy, consulting and presentation design support. Learn more below:

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