The Importance of Soft Skills in Business: An Interview with Dr. Tommy Karam

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By: Bridget Conrad, LSU Flores MBA Program Assistant Director of Communication & Alumni Affairs

As workplaces become more virtual and collaborative, there’s now a bigger emphasis on soft skills, or interpersonal skills, training in the workplace. Here at LSU’s Flores MBA Program, we not only teach our students the importance of technical business skills, but we also show them why it is critical to have a likeability factor and to build relationships in and out of the workplace. We recently sat down with Dr. Tommy Karam, who teaches Negotiations in our program, to get his take on why he thinks businesses are now putting a stronger emphasis on soft skills training in the workplace.

In years past, business leaders assembled their teams mostly based on things like technical expertise and work experience, but now soft skills training is recognized as a critical component to a successful team. What do you think caused this shift?

Karam: I’m not so certain it’s a shift in thinking as much as it is just a little more emphasis on interpersonal skills. I think businesses have always valued the importance of interpersonal skills, or as we talk about in the Flores MBA Program, likeability. With likeability, its not just being cuddly and cozy, it is that emotional impact you have on others and you have to have these skills to be able to have that. I think there’s always been an interest in these skills, but now with competition being where it is, interpersonal and personal branding skills can separate individuals in meetings and outside of meetings.

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Why do you think soft skills are sometimes undervalued?

Karam: I think it depends on the situation. In some situations, these soft skills mean nothing. In a crisis or in a critical situation, you have to focus on the data. I don’t think these skills have a great importance at that time. But, there are other times when soft skills are absolutely vital and individuals need to know that they matter. I think the way people dismiss it is to say that it doesn’t matter because they aren’t good with interpersonal skills, but that’s sidestepping a great opportunity.

In the Flores MBA Program, we talk about warmth vs. competency. Everyone is going to be competent to a certain degree, but it’s this warmth that all the ivy league schools talk about and that LSU also discusses. Warmth is a factor that makes you more persuasive, more influential, and it helps you be a better negotiator; it’s just a skill you have to have even when the stakes are high. Warmth gets you in the door and then makes your message a little bit more powerful.

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What do you hope Flores MBA students take away from your negotiations class?

Karam: I hope if I’ve done the course properly they learn not to be like me! Throughout my class, I give students all the great failures I’ve had, and I hope they walk away learning from them. The second thing I hope learn is that their personal brand is going to have more impact on their ability to negotiate effectively and that they don’t destroy a relationship today that may prove to be very valuable tomorrow.

How has the role of soft skills in business evolved since you’ve been teaching?

Karam: It’s always been critical, it’s always been important, but I think now people are recognizing that these skills are vital. In my speaking engagements outside of LSU, people are always searching for another angle to go a little bit deeper and gain more insight. They crave useful ideas on how they can improve their interpersonal skills.

It’s not just about being persuasive in a business presentation though; these skills are also useful in relationship development, and in developing a culture for an organization. And, its not just for the workplace- interpersonal skills become an extension of your everyday life.

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What role do you see soft skills having in the future of business?

Karam: In the future, soft skills will probably have the same role that they do today. I don’t think it’s going to get much more critical than it is right now. I think people need to get comfortable with these skills, but they will never trump the importance of technical skills in business, and they shouldn’t. But, soft skills should have a very important place at every table, in every business school, and in all companies. I don’t see bigger conversations about these skills in the future, but I do think there should always be a very serious emphasis on interpersonal skills.

For more information on LSU’s Flores MBA Program, visit mba.lsu.edu

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