Teaching employees the 'soft skills'

2008-09-18 00:00

Lungani Zama

Denzil Lakay likens the progress of South Africa to grass growing through cement; tenacious and unflinching in its goal to succeed.

Lakay is on a mission of his own, one that he feels is increasingly vital to the business culture in South Africa.

He is a life coach and, more to the point, an organisational development consultant. What does this entail, you ask. His is a programme that introduces “soft skills” to the workplace, and seeks to empower individuals to perform better in their designated roles, which results in a more efficient and productive organisation.

Originally from Grassy Park on the outskirts of Cape Town, Lakay has lived in Pietermaritzburg for the past nine years. He has been employed in tertiary institutions since 1976, and recently acquired his

Masters in organisational and management Systems from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) campus in

Pietermaritzburg.

When explaining why he chose this unusual yet increasingly critical element of the business sector, Lakay says that he was looking to quash the notion that an academic qualification automatically means an individual is a good administrator, or a sound leader. “That is a myth which needs revisiting, especially in light of the number of young executives in our fledgling economy,” he says.

Not that his programme is for executives only. “The programme also looks to develop employees across the entire organisation. There is no way that one person, the CEO for example, can know how everything works in his company. We look to instil leadership qualities within individuals. Just because your job description does not say ‘manager’, it doesn’t mean you cannot do your job with the mindset of one,” he explains.

Lakay, a member of the local Chamber of Business, embarked on this new career in 2007 and has already started working with companies in Pietermaritzburg and also several entities in Gauteng.

He has started sessions at the local Midlands Medi-Clinic and works with a national group that specialises in women empowerment, called Cifisa.

He says the programme differs from a degree, for example. “Once people have studied, they stick their piece of paper on a wall and on their CV and then that’s often the end of it. This programme, though, requires the individual to constantly check their progress and the onus is on him/her to improve himself/herself.”

Lakay says there is a lack of understanding when it comes to soft skills in general. “We all know the hard skills — how to do our various jobs — but soft skills are more perceptive. They work on the acknowledgement that we are human, and therefore outside forces affect our performance.”

Lakay explains that “soft skills” can be defined as: “the collective behaviours and attitudes which fuel personal progress and organisational development”. Traditional recruitment strategies focus on hard skills only — such as experience, computer literacy, qualifications etc. However, an increasing number of organisations are including the assessment of soft skills competencies to assess the suitability of potential employees.

“To address some of these soft skills, we offer motivational programmes such as life coaching, executive coaching, organisational culture, organisational development, change management and soft systems methodologies,” Lakay says. For example, the life coaching programme teaches individuals how to balance their personal and professional lives, and how to set and achieve goals. One of the aspects which organisational culture deals with is cultural diversity, while the soft systems methodologies develop the skill to deal with “messy” organisational problems. Lakay’s programme also embraces the eclectic mix of cultures in South African workplaces, and empowers leaders to be more intuitive when dealing with different people.

Lakay’s goal is to create a more progressive workplace, and he says one of the biggest stumbling blocks is people’s fear of change. “Change is a good thing, and we must learn to accommodate it and see it as a path for progress and individual success,” he says.

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