Soft Skills Aren’t Hard To Learn

It was 1992 and I was supporting the Motorola Iridium project in Chandler, AZ. There was a project lead named Steve who I was tasked to work with. My job was to get certain elements of our DesignWare library working properly to support his ASIC design team.

Steve was a bit of a control freak. Whenever there were technical decisions to be made, Steve wanted to be the one making the decisions. And once he made his decision, there was no changing it. You see, Steve had a big ego and did not like to be wrong, much less wrong in front of his team.

Unfortunately, his decisions were not always the correct decisions and I had no problem telling him that. You see, I had a big ego too.

As you can imagine, Steve and I did not get along very well.

Fortunately, I had a boss who had dealt with Steve before and who gave me some advice that I carry to this day. He suggested that I bring the relevant facts to Steve and present them in such a way that the decision was obvious. Then, I needed to say these words, “I’m not sure what is the best choice. What do you think?”

As hard as it was for me to relinquish control of these decisions, it turned out to be the right way to handle Steve. Instead of feeling like he was put on the spot to win a debate with the local AE, he felt like a respected authority figure. With this pressure removed, Steve usually ended up making the right decision (i.e. the one I would have recommended).

Steve was happier. I was happier. And we got a lot more productive work done as a result!

__________

The soft skills that I describe in the story above do not come naturally to most engineers. A matter of fact, I’ve often heard it said “he’s a great engineer, but I’d never take him to a client”. So I was very interested when I came across a press release describing how Mentor Graphics and RTM Consulting collaborated to develop a soft skills training class for Mentor consultants. I sent an email to Paul Hofstadler, VP of Consulting at Mentor, requesting to talk to him about the class, and he graciously accepted.

According to Paul, Mentor’s Services are typically focused on deploying to their clients new working processes around the EDA tools that Mentor sells. That is, they are teaching their clients to fish, rather than selling them fish. As you can imagine, it requires a great deal of influence and political savvy to effectively implement these types of changes in a client’s organization. Unfortunately, these skills don’t necessarily come naturally for most engineers. Indeed, when Mentor went back and examined the projects that had challenges, they discovered that the core issues were not technical, but rather involved corporate politics and communication issues.

Paul decided that he needed to increase the soft skills of his consultants in order to be more effective on projects and to recognize opportunities for more business in a tough economy. “More than half the work in consulting is finding and growing people”.  Rather than building a training program internally, or piecing one together from existing off-the-shelf classes, Paul engaged with RTM Consulting to develop a customized class to meet Mentor’s specific needs. “We didn’t want to pull our best consultants off of time critical customer projects to develop the class. They are the ones guiding our customers through complex projects. In addition, we wanted the outside point of view that RTM brought to the situation.”

Most of the course material came from RTM Consulting . The specific case studies and industry specific material came from Mentor. Paul had senior consultants help with the development of the material, especially the case studies which were based on real experiences. The result is a 3 day course that is very hands-on. There is standard lecture time and also several 5-6 person role play case studies. “The collaboration with Mentor Graphics was key to honing in on customization of the training to give the them the best chance at gaining the right skills necessary, and providing a solid return on their educational investment”, according to Randy Mysliviec, CEO of RTM Consulting.

Paul Hofstadler particularly praised the case studies. “The case studies were the most interesting part of the course. I never knew what was going to come out of them. Each group solved the case studies slightly differently using the skills taught in the class.” Even so, Paul resisted the urge to let the consultants bring real customer situations into the class for fear that the entire class would end up working on one real customer case. Instead, Mentor asked consultants to present real case studies after the class, several weeks later, and present them to the internal team. This served as a reinforcement of the material and helped to put the course material into practice.

A 3-day training course for the entire consulting team seems like a big investment. “Ironically, the cost of soft skills training can often be offset by just a single large project overrun or a collection of overruns”, according to Randy Mysliviec. Fortunately, the timing of the class coincided with an end of year lull in delivery, so Mentor was able to implement the training class with minimal customer project impact as well.

Since the training was administered just a few months ago, it is difficult to definitively measure the value. However, there is strong anecdotal evidence that it is working. One senior consultant, who was very skeptical at the beginning, used the techniques in the class to turn around a difficult customer (similar to my story at the beginning of this post). Paul has indicated that “consulting orders this quarter are a lot better than last quarter” and he attributes that in part to the training, particularly the parts that help consultants recognize potential follow-on opportunities for more business.

“In this economy, it is more important than ever to understand the customer’s needs, communicate effectively, and deliver excellent solutions on every engagement” said Paul in summary. “It is clear to me that our projects are running more smoothly after the training. As a bonus, our repeat customer order rate is up indicating that we are continuing to deliver high value to our customers despite the ‘interesting’ times in which we find ourselves.”

Due to the success of the training, Mentor is looking at extending the training to other parts of the consulting organization and to other organizations in Mentor. In the meantime, RTM Consulting is offering the course for other customers, minus the Mentor specific material, of course. “The soft skills needs at Mentor are certainly not unique in the professional and consulting services world”, says’ Randy Mysliviec. “Most technology and pure services companies do a good job of teaching their teams about products, services, and technologies they need to know to effectively serve clients. What is most often missed are the soft skills necessary for consultants to effectively interact with their clients.”

Thanks to folks like RTM Consulting, these soft skill aren’t hard to learn after all.

harry the ASIC guy

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One Response to “Soft Skills Aren’t Hard To Learn”

  1. Jacob Says:

    Nice interview Harry !

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