Soft Skills, Hard Results

“The tongue is the only tool that gets sharper with use.” – Washington Irving


Since HP was founded in 1939, it has made lots of money in the highly technical business of computer hardware.  But when the HP board recently made the decision to hire Meg Whitman to replace CEO Leo Apotheker, it placed a bet on that softest of soft skills — communication.

Ray Lane, HP’s executive chairman of the board, explained the decision: “The board believes that the job of the HP CEO now requires additional attributes to successfully execute on the company’s strategy. Meg Whitman has the right operational and communication skills and leadership abilities to deliver improved execution and financial performance.”  Not surprisingly, Whitman agrees.  In a recent interview with All Things Digital, she said: “What HP needs now more than anything else is management skills, communication skills, and a commitment to executional excellence, all of which I know well, and are sort of core competencies from my 35-year career in business.”

Research validates the connection between communication and a company’s ability to execute its strategy.  Global consulting firm Booz & Company, in their report The Dominant Genes: Organizational Survival of the Fittest, established that good communication (or what they call “information flows”) creates “strong execution, high agility” organizations.  Companies that have a communication-related “genetic disorder” suffer from behaviors that promote a silo-mentality.  With limited information to work with, managers make the wrong choices for the organization as a whole, optimizing results for their units rather than the enterprise.

Good communication matters because ultimately a business is composed of people trading information (or not) about the internal and external environments. As Robert Kent, former dean of Harvard Business School has said, “In business, communication is everything.”  Communication is everything because it creates a situation where managers spread best practices across segments and geographic regions and make decisions that enhance enterprise competitiveness.

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina described HP as the land of “one thousand tribes.”  The current HP board hopes that Meg Whitman can use her verbal prowess to make all those tribes work as one.  It may be time to find another name for those “soft skills” that hard-nosed corporate boards value so much.

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