Hire the heart and train the brain

Hire the heart and train the brain; this is an axiom that many of us have heard before. Hire for attitude, train skill. Yet, in today’s rallying cry for more technical training, this important message gets lost in the crowd. Soft skills are pushed aside to feed the technical need obsession. There is no quarrel that the need for technical skills is on the rise, however, it’s the soft skills that will push organizations forward.

Let’s reframe “soft skills” as “core skills.”

Perhaps the dilemma is in the name “soft skills” which led some to think, “soft, fuzzy, cuddly, people will make fun of me if I cry”, type of skills. However, I am making the argument that “soft skills” should be renamed “Core Skills”, in that without these skills you will not succeed in the workplace as we move beyond the industrial age to the information age.

Why “core skills” matter

It is without irony that I share this fact: In a Wall Street Journal survey of over 900 executives, 92% reported soft skills, including communication, curiosity, and critical thinking are as important as technical skills. However, we see evidence of how a lack of Core Skills (and values) affects big business in the headlines today. We could all easily name some of the worst corporate offenders, those who draw public shaming on the nightly news, but suffice it to say that the epidemic touches nearly all industries and certainly isn’t limited to the more notorious ones like banking, insurance, automotive, or airline.

The crux of the problem

Let’s face it, it’s much easier to determine if someone can create an app or read a financial statement than if he or she can play nice with others. These types of Core Skills are intangible and have many situational factors. Yet if an individual cannot play nice with others, or display some measure of emotional intelligence, the app may never get built in the first place. One fails without the other.

Still, when discussing top performers, we tend to put technical competency above other skills like EQ (emotional quotient). But let’s face it, as AI and Machine Learning become more and more prevalent, Core Skills are going to become more valuable and key differentiators in the workplace.

As an example, here is a study by Deloitte Access Economics, which predicts two-thirds of all jobs in Australia will rely on soft (Core) skills by 2030. This trend will inevitably make its way across the ocean. This means we must start paying attention and hire the heart and train the brain.

Moving forward

There are readily available, off-the-shelf courses for training Core Skills, but this education should be augmented by leadership and a corporate culture that nurtures and models the behaviors we want to see. Soft skills training alone will not change behaviors.

This means applying levels of accountability beyond the annual performance review. It’s important to note, creating a culture of accountability to Core Skills is not the sole responsibility of HR or L&D. However, as L&D professionals, our job is to provide support to encourage the traits executives are looking for: communication, curiosity, and critical thinking.


Open discussions with leadership about encouraging people to communicate regularly, honestly and openly. How can leadership get the ball rolling? By modeling the behavior they want to see.

Michael Wolfe of Point Nine Capital, states that company leaders should share as much information with their teams as they can, including meeting notes, customer feedback, key data on financials, targets etc.

Don’t worry about overwhelming people with information overload. People have a funny way of deciding what is important to them, and it may not mirror your opinion. The smart leader will make information transparency a priority to make the company better.

How can L&D support better communication techniques?

Create collaborative spaces to encourage learners to share information, to work on projects together and have deep discussions. There are many collaborative tools on the market that make creating a space for sharing a non-issue.

But first, L&D needs to model the behavior. Develop a website that displays all L&D projects with stages of development and allows for questions. Create a blog where people can give input to current ideas, making L&D more human and creating connections.


The organization, HopeLab is a culture all about supporting innovation and curiosity. One way they support the idea is to create meeting agendas in the form of questions. For example, agenda item #1: “How should we prioritize XYZ projects?” or ”What models of engagement might we pursue? Why?”

“Everyone at the meeting is invited into the conversation to help us make sense of an issue, solve a problem or imagine a new area of opportunity,” HopeLab explains. “We expect people to speak up — to ask questions, share ideas and contribute.”

How can L&D support curiosity? 

Create learning programs that support questioning. Not asking questions…but being questioning. When reading is part of an assignment (such as an article review or book club) encourage the readers to debate, explore new paths and challenge assumptions in oral reports. This is not the easiest thing to do, but the outcomes will be well worth the effort.

Critical Thinking

The term “critical thinking” is open to interpretation – so let’s start with a simple definition. In short, critical thinking is about thinking independently. It means formulating your own opinions and drawing your own conclusions, regardless of outside influence. A critical thinker will see the connections between ideas but will be open to other viewpoints and opinions.

But why is this important? The modern workplace is a fast moving animal, placing increasing demands on the ability to analyze information and separate facts from opinions. Further to that then, is examining an issue from all sides to find the real truth.

How can L&D support critical thinking?

Project-based learning programs are the perfect launch pad for critical thinking, forcing teams to evaluate new ideas, selecting the best ones and modifying them as necessary.

But the most important step you can take? Make yourself a more critical thinker. Here are some exercises to begin the process.

To wrap this up

Everyone brings differing levels of Core Skills to the workplace, therefore learning reinforcement and behavior modeling is a necessary budget and time investment to make. Only when organizations start giving Core Skills the influence they deserve, and L&D supports Core Skills in their overall learning strategies will there be true positive transformations.