Soft Skills Sharpen Supply Management, But There Can Be a Gender Imbalance

January 17, 2023
By Melanie Stern

Supply chain leadership is finding value in attributes formerly considered secondary: empathy and interpersonal characteristics known as soft skills.

Irrespective of the push toward increasing data and technology investment spend, applying soft skills in the supply chain can bridge communication gaps between data received and the relationships needed to understand it.

Los Angeles-based management consulting firm Korn Ferry’s recent research showed women overwhelmingly possess more soft skills than men. However, women supply chain professionals, on average, were paid 23 percent less than their male counterparts last year, according to findings in the Institute for Supply Management®’s (ISM®)’s 2022 Salary Survey.

Perhaps career placement and pay disparities underscore an evolving supply chain gender culture and a disconnect between desired soft skill attributes and the compensatory value placed on them. The term “soft skills” is an antithesis of its capabilities in action.

Uncertainty Supports Soft Skill Development

Data-driven technologies can assess real time supply and demand, as well as forecast what’s to come and when to change expectation, processes and corresponding spend. But in the face of imminent disruption, numbers and spreadsheets seldom tell the whole story nor provide the empathy needed to keep supply chain heads cool. There is value in chaos, identified and applied through soft skill integration.

Of 55,000 professionals from 90 countries participating in the Korn Ferry study, women scored higher than men in emotional intelligence proficiencies — though men and women showed equal emotional self-control. In addition, women were 86 percent more likely to practice emotional self-awareness consistently on the job compared to men. The study also stated women outperformed men in coaching, mentoring, influencing, inspirational leadership, conflict management, organizational awareness, adaptability and teamwork — all essential to effectively manage and resolve supply chain chaos.

Coveted soft skills assisting in many levels of the supply management profession, from entry-level through C-suite, include acuity in communication, flexibility, teamwork and collaborative learning. Many studies show that these attributes enable open, dynamic and scalable ideation amid converging thoughts, processes and goals. Employees that hone motivation, people and stress management, complexity and change management, negotiating and leadership can provide internal and external resources to hedge loss.

Soft Skills Aren’t Learned but Practiced

Misnomers about emotional intelligence have been echoed by men and women. Some believe soft skills are part of DNA; either one is born with them or not. Others embrace soft skill talents as female-based assets not readily available to men. California-based human and financial management SaaS (software as a service) consultancy Workday Inc. partnered with New York professional services company Bloomberg Next on a 2018 study, in which participants from 100 education institutions and 100 U.S. companies noted an emphasis on technological and scientific prowess from students and emerging professionals, with soft skills being amiss.

Even for people earnest in acquiring soft skills, sustaining teachings cannot be found in a two-hour webinar, textbook or downloadable PDF. Soft skills, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, come from a willingness to change, practiced through learned behaviors. Similar to a life coach, a soft skills expert brings the study of emotional intelligence impacting career and personal life. The process of soft skill learning, indicated in a recent Indeed article, helps identify outdated, self-limiting behavioral patterns, replacing them with new ones put into day-to-day practice.

Over time, perceptions of people, obstacles and opportunities expand. Daniel White, an organizational development consultant at Kansas-based AGH, highlighted six steps to improving soft skills, enabling greater collaboration and problem-solving. However, soft skills proficiency comes with an honest acceptance for change and a continued commitment to its application per individual, teams, departments and across genders, he said.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Chattrawutt)

About the Author

Melanie Stern

About the Author

Melanie Stern is Manager, Communications at Institute for Supply Management®.