A banker, a telecom executive and a mechanical contractor walk into a diner. At first, it seems they have little to talk about, since their occupations are very different. But then the banker mentions an associate who keeps rubbing co-workers the wrong way. From there the conversation gets mighty lively as they all describe their own “problem employees” who lack the social-emotional skills they need to succeed.
If you think that kind of conversation wouldn’t really happen in real life, you should take a look at a new Zogby poll of 300 top business leaders. It showed 64 percent know people who have lost a job or a promotion because they didn’t have these skills. In other words, regardless of how talented or smart these employees were, they had a tough time listening, managing emotions, being empathetic to customers and co-workers, and working well on a team.
These skills really are needed across several industries. As my friend Pamela Lackey, the state president of AT&T South Carolina, tells me: “We’re a communications company that thrives on people who know how to share expertise and insights and respond to our customers as a unified force. That’s what happens when people value collaboration — and it won’t happen if they aren’t wired to do that.”
Jim Reynolds, the CEO at Total Comfort Solutions, has a similar view. “Imagine it’s the hottest day of the year,” he suggests. “You’re up on the roof of an office building to fix a problem no one else has been able to deal with. You need built-in persistence, the ability to control your emotions as you struggle to get it right, and the good sense to communicate effectively with a co-worker calling the shots from the electrical room inside.”
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While all three of us are happy that people at our companies possess these types of skills, we’ve all learned how difficult it is to magically instill them once workers are on the job. As members of the non-profit business leader group, ReadyNation, we’ve come to realize that these abilities are actually rooted in children’s experiences during the first five years of their lives.
Nurturing guidance during these years has a demonstrable impact on these abilities, which is why teachers in preschool and kindergarten classrooms spend so much time helping children learn how to play well together, how to listen to and respond well to other kids, and how to manage their emotions.
Adverse childhood experiences — such as witnessing domestic violence or living with someone who’s mentally ill or abusing drugs or alcohol — can have a negative impact on children’s social and emotional development. And unfortunately, the National Survey of Children’s Health found that 13 percent of kids in South Carolina have dealt with at least two of these adverse experiences.
For many employers, this is a bottom-line issue. As noted in a recent ReadyNation report titled “Why business executives want employees who play well with others,” a 20-year study that examined the character skills of 800 kindergarteners found strong positive correlations between these skills and earning a high school diploma, attaining a college degree and having a full-time job by age 25.
Indeed, 60 percent of the business people polled by Zogby say they’ve had more trouble finding job candidates with adequate character skills than with adequate technical skills. And they’re spending more to recruit candidates with these abilities than they used to. More than nine in 10 business executives surveyed in a Wall Street Journal poll believe these abilities are even more important than the basic technical skills required for their occupations.
For these reasons and more, I’m a strong advocate for high-quality early learning and child-care experiences that immerse children in nurturing environments that develop positive behaviors toward other kids as well as early academic skills.
That’s why I encourage parents who are searching for child-care and preschool programs to spend time with providers and teachers to understand how they’re developing these character skills.
I likewise hope that preschool and kindergarten programs place as much emphasis on developing children’s social-emotional strengths as on pre-literacy and math skills. Because the ability to play well with others today will have a big impact on success in the workforce in the years to come.
Mr. Brenan is S.C. president of BB&T; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.