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Success comes from soft skills, not a hard sell

Matt Pais

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Look beneath technical knowledge in new hires and yourself.

The funeral for a client Darin N. Reed, FICF, has never met is an hour away and requires him to travel on a lot of dirt roads. In the middle of nowhere. During a snowstorm. And the 10-year MDRT member from Ellis, Kansas, is still two miles from the church when his car spins and rolls over onto the driver’s side.

Reed, thankfully unhurt, crawls out the top of the car in his suit and walks the rest of the way — again, in a snowstorm — to the event.

“Just as I got to the church doors, two of my bigger clients happened to be the ushers. The fact that I went to those lengths to go to the funeral of this client, who had just been assigned to me when I started this new job, was not lost on them,” he said. “That’s the mentality that I am instilling in my agents: to go above and beyond.”

Sheesh, how can you possibly hire for that?

Clearly the type of character that causes someone to push through adversity is entirely different than technical knowledge. It falls under the ironically named umbrella of soft skills — less quantitative traits such as work ethic, adaptability, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, body language and communication — that are arguably harder to master and even more important when differentiating your practice from competitors.

Soft skills can’t be measured, but they can be felt.
— John Koh

In fact, a 2018 LinkedIn study identified that 57 percent of senior leaders surveyed valued soft skills over hard skills. With that level of importance, and the notion that advisors stand out not because of what they know but how they emotionally connect with others, it’s clear soft skills must be a priority while hiring and running a practice. But how?

Paying close attention

In many ways, it starts with knowing how to perceive subtle cues about people’s emotions, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a behavioral investigator and bestselling author whose “Science of People” courses help improve soft skills like communication and body language. This was clear when working with a financial advisor who had all the knowledge and education he needed but couldn’t build the rapport or trust to convert leads into clients.

“You have to show great competence and that what you do works, but that’s only one step of the journey,” said Van Edwards. “In a really good client relationship, a client needs to feel like they can share their feelings, stories, desires and fear of risk.”

Sure, you may say. I know how to do that. But reading between emotional lines can be challenging on a case-by-case basis. With this advisor, Van Edwards helped him break down the meeting to leave more room for questions that address client needs while identifying negative micro-expressions like contempt, anger, surprise, disgust and sadness.

“So when an issue came up that sounded OK but the client flashed one of those expressions, he’d know, ‘Uh oh, something is not working out. Let me dig deeper,’” Van Edwards said. “It made the client feel so heard to know the advisor was listening.”

That is the essence of soft skills — they are traits that are easily taken for granted but are critical for strong relationships. John Koh, MS, BSc(Hons), a four-year MDRT member from Singapore, summarizes it beautifully: “Soft skills can’t be measured, but they can be felt,” he said. “There is no right or wrong in soft skills, only better or more effective, and it depends on the context, the environment and the people.”

Marcus T. Henderson Sr., RFP, MRFC, saw this when he suddenly had a role to fill on his team and found a candidate who seemingly checked all the boxes. His instincts said this was not the right person, but the prospective hire had the necessary experience, and the 26-year MDRT member from Brentwood, Tennessee, felt short on time to find a new paraplanner.

“Have you ever gone somewhere to buy a car or a TV or a life insurance policy and it just felt right? Well, my clients were not receiving that,” Henderson said about this new hire. “They felt uncomfortable when she was in the room. When clients would say something about their personal or financial life, you could see in her face she was thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you guys did that.’”

It extended to staff interactions as well. When the TV was on in the lunchroom, she’d snidely dismiss what people were watching. “The natural social graces that you would think would be there were not,” Henderson said. “Many times we put out these personnel requests and ask for data entry, but we never talk about, ‘By the way, you need to be a nice person.’”

He ultimately had to let this person go after less than three months, teaching him not just to stick with his “Hire slowly, terminate quickly” mentality but recognize that soft skills can derail relationships if not given the necessary importance.

Open discussion

For John P. Enright, the soft skill of accountability is crucial. The 19-year MDRT member from Syracuse, New York, often works away from the office and needs to make sure his team can conduct themselves responsibly and communicate effectively if there are problems. The office is set up so each member can see and hear what the others are doing, both so they can help each other with client needs and so they can’t, for example, waste time on the internet or their phone without a colleague holding them accountable.

It’s an openness that stems from prioritizing emotional intelligence with his team.

Enright recently had a situation in which an employee of a client gave her phone number to a member of Enright’s team. Dating this person was not officially against the rules, but Enright wanted to make sure his team member recognized the problems that could exist if any professional issues resulted from this personal relationship.

“I just wanted him to see it from my perspective and recognize what could occur,” he said. “He said, ‘I get it. I never thought about it, but I get it.’”

It’s certainly not difficult to imagine how a less grounded person would have felt more defensive in that situation or been more difficult to talk to.

Talk, don't lecture

According to Tom Green, an organizational consultant and professional coach with 25 years of experience in leadership and team development, avoiding and addressing defensiveness comes from understanding how to start a dialogue, not a lecture.

“If a person’s struggling and you need to hold a difficult conversation with them, the key is to not drive it into the ground as much as open it and hand it off back to them,” said Green, the president and owner of the Discussables Group. “I encourage people to say, ‘For the sake of our discussion today, I encourage you to recognize the reality that others see this situation differently.’”

Listening should be at the top of the heap for soft skills, Green said, or else people try too hard to assert expertise and don’t do enough to establish a conversation. “The most powerful part of a question is that the asker stops talking,” he said.

Working with staff

That kind of communication and learning has also been a point of emphasis for Jenny Brown, FChFP, CFP, an 11-year MDRT member from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

It’s why weekly Friday meetings with her team include addressing which clients to put on the list for a call to follow up on previous conversations and listen to what clients are doing and feeling. To ensure staff is attuned to these priorities, Brown asks questions like, “What sort of animal would you like to be and why?” during job interviews.

“That can be a very telling question, and one that has helped us make good decisions in the past,” she said.

The soft skills are what take our firm to the next level. If you’re only dealing with facts and figures, you’re not dealing with the truth.
— Marcus Henderson Sr.

Van Edwards values that sort of questioning as well, particularly asking, “What’s something that you used to believe but no longer believe?” She wants to make sure people are willing to adjust their behavior after gaining new information, and that question identified a major red flag while interviewing an otherwise high-quality candidate.

“It took her a really long time to answer it. That was worrisome because people who are willing to change their opinion say, ‘I’ve been wrong so many times,’” Van Edwards said. “When she finally answered, she said, ‘Well, I used to believe in the Easter Bunny, but I don’t believe in that anymore.’ That’s not a good sign.”

That’s why Van Edwards has developed 10 behavioral interview questions to ask in job interviews (see sidebar) and why she recommends that once people are hired, managers encourage staff to identify and discuss all of their strengths and weaknesses regarding soft skills.

“Think about what those strengths are, and build the business around those strengths,” she said.

For Henderson, those strengths literally are what makes his business tick. “The numbers are easy. Five plus five is always 10,” he said. “The soft skills are what take our firm to the next level. If you’re only dealing with facts and figures, you’re not dealing with the truth.”

As Green puts it, “There’s no substitute for a human connection. People really want to know that you care, and they will look for that human element a lot earlier than they’ll look for that mastery or expertise or brilliance.” 

10 questions to ask in a job interview

Behavioral investigator Vanessa Van Edwards offers questions to reveal candidates’ motivation, personality and values without having to give a personality test (read explanations at

  1. What’s something that you used to believe but no longer believe?
  2. Who were the competitors at the last company you worked for and how did your company differentiate itself?
  3. Tell me about your best and worst days at work.
  4. If I called your current boss, what would they say about you?
  5. Are you working on anything exciting outside
    of work?
  6. You have two teleportation devices. Where do you place them and why?
  7. Wait ... do you remember all of our names?
  8. If you didn’t have to work, why would you come into the office?
  9. Describe the last significant conflict you had at work and how you handled it.
  10. Is there something I didn’t ask that I should have asked you?

Attending to personality-related problems in your practice

If a previous client of his says he is still experiencing problems with staff, organizational and leadership consultant Tom Green asks the following questions:

  • What feedback have you asked for?
  • What problems have you not made room to discuss?
  • What are you doing to help people discuss things openly?
  • How regularly are you opening up these conversations?
  • What are they bringing up, and how are these issues logged?


Jenny Brown at

John Enright at

Tom Green at

Marcus Henderson Sr. at

John Koh at

Darin Reed at


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