In all aspects of human life, there are certain skills that are termed “soft,” but the adjective doesn’t make this set of skills any less important than their hard counterparts. Soft skills breathe life into the work you do and the environment you create which allows you and everyone around you to truly thrive. Dennis D. Doran is a leading expert in the construction industry and the author of the highly praised book, Soft As Steel. Steve Farber talks to Dennis about why, ultimately, people in work settings should be putting rigor and focus into developing soft skills. While hard skills are still, of course, essential to performing tasks essential to the job, soft skills are the oil that keeps the whole machine moving. Learn more about these soft skills from Dennis!
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Soft As Steel: Empowering Growth Through Soft Skills With Dennis Doran
It’s the dirty dozen for us. I don’t know if that’s appropriate or not for our guest, maybe it is. I’d like to introduce you to Dennis Doran. Dennis comes from the construction industry and he’s been teaching the so-called soft skills to construction people for many years. He has a book that came out called Soft As Steel. I had the honor of writing the foreword to this book. Before I take you to my great conversation with Dennis, I thought I would set the stage by reading to you the foreword that I wrote for the book. Not only is it a good setup for the book, which is the idea of a foreword, but it is also a nice setup for this conversation. It will give you a sense of who Dennis is and what it is we’re going to be talking about. What is it that love being damn good business? What does that have to do with the construction industry of all places? Here is my foreword to Soft As Steel.
“Do you know the stereotype of the typical construction industry professional? Hardhat, khakis, steel-toed boots, clipboard, chin stubble because the stereotype is male, maybe a plug of chew in his jaw with a grim, determined look on his face. He stands on a girder high above the city, gazing out over his creation and says, ‘I build buildings. I don’t do that people thing.’ In any stereotype, there are individuals who fit that mold to a tee. If you look beyond the cartoonish trope, a different reality emerges. More women are rising through the ranks to the top of the field. There goes the chin stubble reference. More to the point of this discussion, it turns out that the people thing, the so-called soft stuff isn’t touchy-feely at all. It’s not a distraction from the real work at all. It is the fundamental core material that makes any project a success or failure. As Dennis Doran teaches us in this fantastic book, soft is anything but. Personally, I’m not surprised. I’ve been writing, speaking and consulting about extreme leadership, which has at its core the practice of cultivating love for twenty years. I’ve used a lot of words that have been traditionally written off as soft, squishy, kumbaya stuff by people who think of themselves as hardcore, no-nonsense business types in every kind of industry you can imagine.
Those same people who once turned up their noses at these ideas now freely recognize that the values of trust, love, integrity and humanity are hardcore business practices too. The challenge always comes down to how to apply these ideas and principles in ways that directly impact productivity, efficiency, safety, project management, and all the other critical measurable results that construction professionals have to deliver every day. Ultimately to succeed in the rapidly involving construction landscape, an organization requires its management and labor force to be proficient in both hard and soft skills. Hard skills involve the mechanics of doing the job and soft skills are all about how the job gets done. The recognition of emotional intelligence and understanding of the generational differences in a workforce and a style of communication that delivers stellar results. For construction organizations, getting managers and employees to practice these so-called soft skills, may at times seem impossibly hard.
Entered Dennis Doran who’s been teaching this thing to the construction industry for many years. Although the fantastic ideas he offers herein apply to anyone in any business, they are particularly focused on the construction field and for a good reason. It’s Dennis’ area of experience and expertise. He has drawn not only from his work with countless professionals but on a myriad of fresh new interviews with leaders in the field from management and unions alike. It’s rare to find a body of work that’s simultaneously inspirational and practical, tried, true and innovative, conventionally wise and packed with original research. That is what this book is. Please don’t squander the opportunity to learn from the best in your field. You may still be wondering if the ideas in this book, when all is said and done, are too soft for your rough and tumble world. Let me put it to you this way, my friend. Yes, they’re soft as steel. If you’re ready to do the hard work of the soft stuff, you’ll build success beyond your wildest imagination. No hardhat or steel-toed boots required.” That’s the end of my foreword to the book and the beginning of this great conversation with Dennis Doran.
Steve, thanks very much. Our friendship has been valuable, useful and hilarious at times.
I would reshuffle those characteristics in order of priority with hilarious at the top. That’s from my perspective. Dennis, tell us your recollection.
One of the stops in my journey was when I was the Vice President for Professional Development for an organization called CMAA or Construction Management Association of America. Prior to joining that, as I was walking through an airport, I spotted a book on a shelf in a bookstore entitled The Radical Leap. The name caught my attention. It looked like it probably had large print and maybe pictures inside. I went and picked it up and I started to read it. I bought it. I took it home and I read it. I began my love affair with the wisdom of Steve Farber. When I was at CMAA, I had an opportunity after that to be involved in identifying potential keynote speakers for our leadership conference, our spring event. It is not our major conference, although a large one in of itself. I suggested Steve Farber and he was invited. He came and delivered a keynote. You’re everything you always are. I had a chance to talk to you and share with you my feelings about your body of work as I understood it. That was the beginning for me.The construction industry is not stereotypically characterized by its softer qualities. Click To Tweet
I remember that vividly. I remember the room, I remember the group, I remember you handing your card. On the flip side of the card it said, “Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.” What year that was?
I would say about 2010 or 2011 probably.
You came through our certification and you’ve been to a bunch of our events and you spoke at our event. From my side, it’s been fun watching you come into your own as a published author, being out there and teaching your approach to what you refer to as soft skills in some stereotypically challenging places. Many of them are union kind of environments and so forth. Tell us a little bit about your approach and what it is that you teach?
My approach is well-documented in the product of the book. As you shared from the foreword to the book, my starting premise is that soft skills are as important or in many regards, more important than hard skills. Everybody in the construction industry understands that it’s about getting the structures built. It’s about getting them done on time, on budget and doing it safely. All that is important. What’s not given much attention to is the fact that all those construction projects are completed by people. People need to work together in an industry, which historically is an adversarial industry within itself. In more cases, owners and contractors do not get along. That’s been the case for decades. The idea of how you are as a person has been something that they don’t want to talk about. My approach to this is to hit them between the eyes. When I do a soft skills program, I use some of the simple information gathering techniques like doing a little mini-personality profile. I try to draw their attention to the fact that in order for them to be successful in doing hard skill work or technical work, they have to do it with other people.
In order to be successful in dealing with other people, they have to have a good understanding of those people and themselves. I get them to understand that before I can be more successful in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s putting together a project plan or putting together an RFP, a change order, all those things that are the jargon of the construction industry. I’ve got to understand myself and how I go about doing what I do, both in terms of my words and my actions. The sum of those two things is how people get to know who I am, what my abilities are, why our relationship is important to their objective and being successful in building a project. My approach is to talk about communication. I use the term the ultimate core competency frequently and help them realize that who they are in their role is the easy part. The harder part is how they are in relating to the people that they have to be involved with every day.
The distinction or connection between who you are and what you are is who you are and how you connect. It’s how you show up and how you are for other people. At the core of all of this ultimately is people build stuff. People construct things. It sounds obvious. Is it not obvious to many people in the construction industry that fundamentally it’s the human beings that are using the tools, designing the architecture and managing the projects? Isn’t that common sense?
One of the things I talk about in my book is that common sense is not all that common. You would think so, but it isn’t. People in the building process need to relate to one another are viewed more as being either problem, things I have to overcome or things that distract me from what I’ve got to get done, as opposed to being people that I have to build a relationship with. Not necessarily for the successful outcome of a specific transaction, but for the successful outcome of the project. In the end, everybody looks at each other and says, “We did a great job.” It’s not as simple. One of the gentlemen that you know well said it nicely in reading my book. He said, “Soft as Steel highlights the paradox in the construction industry. Buildings are still built by people and soft skills are required.” That was about as concise to the point and that’s my pitch. You know me well enough to know that sometimes I go off the reservation. One reservation detour I want to take is to say that in this notion of how a person is with other people.
This is one of the things which is foundational to me and was instilled in me as part of who I am many years ago when I first encountered your body of work. It’s this notion which is much more than a notion. That is one’s approach to how they do what they do in every part of their life follows the Steve Farber wisdom about doing what you love in the service of people who love what you do. I tell contractors, architects and engineers that we are not just people that build stuff, we are in the service business and we serve people. We have to do it in a way that demonstrates that we care about them because if we care about them, they’re going to care about us. Those are all thoughts that I’ve grabbed and held onto dearly from your readings and from our many conversations.
I don’t ever claim to have made up the idea of love and service. This is ancient age-old wisdom. That’s why after having done this work for a long time, it still amazes me. Not just in the construction industry, but virtually every industry. Everything from private enterprise to nonprofit to education that there are still many people have an attitude that says something like, “I wish these people would get out of my way so I can get my job done around here.” They are entirely forgetting why we’re doing this job and for whom. It’s for other human beings. What we respond human to human is that people love us. They care about us. They want us to succeed. They’re doing everything they can to enhance and enrich our lives. There’s no difference in the construction industry other than what I would see as a self-inflicted stereotype. Am I characterizing that the right way or is there some other reason for the resistance?
There isn’t any good reason. This is not unique to the construction industry, but it’s visible in the construction industry. The emphasis in construction has been built around the notion that you learn a skill, you practice that skill and you get better at that skill. Whether it’s wielding a hammer, putting together an estimate, putting together a budget, whatever it is in our industry. Those are the basic skills. Everyone starts as an apprentice. Since I work in the world of unionized construction, the notion of the apprenticeship model is visible.Soft skills are as important, if not even more important, than hard skills. Click To Tweet
The whole idea is there and I talked to them about, “Why can’t you see that it helps you to get better at doing something by practicing it? If you’re not good and making sure you understand what a person has said to you, that you should practice how to be a better listener. It’s important to you. You should practice that.” There’s something that can be practiced because it in itself is a skill. To describe someone as a good listener, that’s describing them in terms of soft skill or quality. That’s what soft skills are in my view. They’re the qualities, traits or behaviors of a person. If someone’s a good listener, that means they understand the skill involved in listening and they do it well. That’s a good thing.
If I want to get in the apprentice model in a real super simplistic way, I want to learn how to build things. If I’m your apprentice, you’re going to teach me whatever skills are involved. I’m going to get to see you do that. You’re going to be my mentor. I’m bringing this down to the basics of basics. You’re going to teach me how to hammer a nail. I need to be taught how to hammer a nail. It does not come naturally to me. I think it’s a fact to say that if I practiced hammering nails with the technique that you taught me, I would get good and fast in hammering nails. We think of the construction industry or any skill or trade as learning the basics and getting good at them. The better you are at that, the more complex projects we can take on and eventually mastery comes. The problem is we don’t apply that same rigor to what do you call the soft skills. Listening, for example, how many people practice hammering nails and at the same time, put the same amount of effort into practicing how to be a good listener? It doesn’t happen.
Listening is a component of the process of communication. How many people practice what’s involved in communication? The listening part, the talking, the use of questions to confirm understanding, the use of paraphrasing and all those skill-related aspects of what communication is, so that they can arrive at a point where someone would describe them as being a good communicator. Virtually, any study of leadership talks about the qualities of leaders. Almost invariably, in the top three on the list of qualities of great leaders is a good communicator. It ought to make some sense. When you talk about leaders and get into a whole side discussion about the agreed-upon view of what leadership is and that leaders aren’t just at the top of organizations, in the construction industry, there are still people at the top. There are people in the middle. There are people at the bottom.
The people at the top aren’t learning stuff about soft skills. They think they know what they are. I got a glimpse of what their level of understanding is in connection with the research I did for this book. It was a positive discovery, but not across the board. If someone gave you a book, that would be a good book to use and try to teach someone something about soft skills. You would think that they would try to get that book in the hands of every person they could possibly think of. That’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote the book because of the message of the importance of being a better person in the context of your role in the organization, to help them be successful in terms of financial performance.
There is a connection between people with better soft skills and profitability. You talk about in your body of work, the direct connection. You’re a business guy. I’m a business guy. When I think about these things, I say to people in my workshops, “I’m spending time talking about this, not just to fill the time but because I believe this is important that you don’t have to accept my word for it. I’m talking about it because you’ll run work for your contract organizations. It’s a good idea to produce a profit in doing that work.” One of the ways you can produce a profit is by being a better person working with other people.
One of the compelling things about Soft As Steel is the research that you referred to. Tell us a little bit about the research that you did around characteristics and qualities.
The way I share what’s in the book is to say that these are the things that I learned from people. My methodology was I wanted to focus on this whole notion of soft skills being the qualities, characteristics and traits of people. The first thing I did was identify a cross-section of people in the construction industry at the age of 24 all the way up to 74. People that were in various segments of the industry from a market standpoint. Various roles from engineers to architects, to project managers, to union executives and union leaders. These are a whole cross-section of people. I devised a simple little survey and I asked them to take the survey and force rank what started out as a list of 40 words that describe a character trait or quality of a person. They went through that activity. Some of them wind complaining about it but they all did it and did a terrific job. That’s how I come up with one aspect of the research, which is the twenty most frequently mentioned qualities, traits or characteristics of people.
When you say qualities or characteristics of people, you’re saying people. You’re not saying good people, leaders. You’re saying human beings. What were those top twenty?
I don’t know if I want to disclose that. It’s in the book, Steve. I’ll give the top quality, which was the quality of being trustworthy. Probably it shouldn’t be a surprise, but I wanted to do the survey to find out if that’s what people said. That was followed by honesty and integrity as a quality. That was followed by ethical. Do you see the pattern already? This was from a cross-section of people. I didn’t know what the result was going to be until I was done. Number five was authentic as a quality of people.
I may be getting into the weeds a little bit too much for some people, but I like the weeds sometimes. I’m fascinated by the nuance here. The setup, the actual phraseology of the question when you ask people to respond, what was the question?For some reason, there's barely any rigor applied to learning soft skills. Click To Tweet
The first part of the book starts with the survey itself using the same instructions that I provided. These are what I call my conversation partner. That’s how I described the people that I spoke with. I said, “There were four groups of words on each of the next few pages. The words described a person’s soft skills, their habits, qualities and attributes. If you’re not sure of the word’s meaning, take a moment and google it. I do this often. Please follow the instructions for each word group 1 to 4 in order. All you have to do is force rank each group of words.” I went on to say, “Please force rank these qualities in each of the lists from 1 to 10, with one being the most important to you and ten being the least important.”
That’s what I was going for, Dennis. You’re not asking people to describe the characteristics of people. You’re asking them to describe the most important characteristics of people. It’s a different distinction. This is why I wanted to go into the weeds on this. If you were to say to people, “Please describe people in general for me. Describe human beings.” I don’t know if trustworthy would be at the top of the list. When you say, “What are the most important characteristics of people?” Then you see trustworthy. In other words, I think what’s powerful about this research that you have is you’re starting with what’s important to your reader, participant, industry executive and then seeing what emerges. The punchline is, “Don’t you think you should emulate this for other people?” If everybody says that these are important, including you, then how good are you at exhibiting these qualities to others? That’s where you’re going with this.
It was important to me not to devise questions that are your standard survey research questions. I wanted this book to produce content that would be conversational. People would be able to read it and relate to it, whether they were an apprentice at the age of 19 or 20 or someone who is 65 to 70 years old. When the survey was completed and I compiled the results, I then interviewed approximately 36. I surveyed about 60 individuals across the industry, across North America. One could argue it was a great random sample. I wasn’t worried about the statistical considerations. I didn’t feel that would add any value, but when I had the results, I arrange an interview for each of 36 individuals. I told them at the beginning of the interview that the conversation will be confidential. I would not disclose their names in any regard as part of this book that I was writing. I would only refer to the material that I gained from them. I would quote them without edit. I would simply attribute the quotations to the generation they belong to. I introduced a generational component into this discussion, but I asked them all the same questions. For example, some of the answers to those questions are contained in the book to share it with people. That was the whole idea.
For example, one of the questions I asked, “If someone were to ask you what soft skills are, what would you say?” Notice I didn’t say, “Define soft skills or what’s your definition of soft skill?” The way they answered was conversational. To me, there was no black and white consistency, but there was a jelling of critical elements of thought from the people in different generations that I’ve found to be exciting and remarkable. I then went on to ask them questions about, “If someone were to ask someone that knew you well to describe you using words that we’ve been discussing, what words would they use to describe you?” That forced them to think about, “What would somebody else say about me?”
They’d done the first step, which was to come up with what they thought their twelve most important qualities are, the ones that are the most important to them. That was interesting to see how they responded to that. I asked them to talk about people that were great leaders that had a great influence on them in life. What was it about them? A series of questions that produced some terrific content. I asked them wherever possible and talking about several of their top qualities individually. Try to give me an example using a story to illustrate why the quality was important in a given situation. The stories that are in here are also terrific.
Some of them are short at one point. There’s one story in there that was offered to me by a glazier. It is a person that works in the industry where they install the glass you see on the outside of buildings and inside the office. He’s a glazier with over 43 years in the industry. He’s in a very senior position. I asked him these questions and one of his stories takes up several pages in the book is. It was such a great story. Anybody that would read that in the industry in particular would immediately be able to relate to it. The common wisdom that storytelling is a viable way to connect with an audience and give them a greater impact is certainly is true. Without trying hard to do it and by asking them to use stories, I was able to get some terrific content.
The approach in the book reflects what you described. You took a conversational approach to your research and the book is written in a conversational way. You’ve got this great combination of the research, the top qualities, here are the stories that I learned from people when we have deeper conversations. Ultimately, you’re giving us things to do and to try. There’s a workbook element of the book as well. It’s not simply a passive reading experience. In terms of people who are reading and may or may not ever pick up the book, assuming for a moment that I’m not, what’s one thing that I can go back and start doing to take myself further along the path of mastering the soft skills?
The thought that jumps into my mind is to recognize that they matter. How you are and how you present yourself to people in your life, both in your words and your actions is something you need to be much more interested and much more aware of. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss opportunities. You’re not going to make that good first impression. You’re not going to resolve a problem because problem-solving is part of every day in the construction industry. This all starts, and I say this in the book, it is one of my closing mantras and that is this whole notion. It’s about how you are with yourself, your friends, your family, with the people you work for and with. This ‘how you are’ thing is important. I connect it to your body of work at least in many regards. One specifically is you need to be self-aware. That’s a given. Some people don’t even understand what that means. To say to someone, “Do you think you’re self-aware?” They would look at you like, “Sure.”
It’s another way of saying no.
That’s a long, whiny kind of no, but it’s fundamental. You’ve done a tremendous amount of reading in the industry. You know that I’m dancing around this whole notion of something, which has been topically talked about for decades, but not widely and certainly not accepted as being incredibly valuable on this whole body of knowledge around emotional intelligence. It’s a big fancy term but it makes sense to say that you need to recognize how your brain works. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on with you, something can go wrong. It could be a simple distraction in the construction industry. A simple distraction produces an accident.
There is a direct correlation between the presence of mind, presence of attention and literal physical safety, which is not a connection that we can draw on every industry.
It is a strong tangible business case for something that people continue to resist. That is a notion of this part of who we are as people. I said this in an article I was privileged to write for ENR or Engineering News-Record back in November. It is a publication read widely in the construction industry. I sent him that article that soft skills are the difference-maker. There’s a difference between getting the job done well and just getting the job done. There’s a difference between a good relationship and a bad relationship. There’s a difference between happiness and unhappiness. In business, there is a difference between being successful and not being successful. Soft skills are part of the difference-maker. I feel strongly about it that I say it often.
You should be saying it to the point that it annoys people. That’s another one of your qualities.
It’s not one of my more endearing qualities that I have been described as annoying by people.
Quality number 21, repetition to the point of annoyance. It didn’t make it into the book. That’s fantastic. Dennis, we are more than kindred spirits in this endeavor of bringing what’s already there to the forefront, which is the human element of the business. This idea that love is damn good business is true. If we could understand what care, attention and love, what would those things look like in the way that we do business, handle projects, build buildings? It’s going to make a huge difference, not only for the quality of the work that gets done but for the quality of our experience in doing that work. When we bring both of those things to the forefront, that’s magic. That is something that is worthy of the term success. Thank you for spending a little bit of time with me in talking this through. I invite everybody to check into Dennis’ work. What’s the best way to get ahold of you, Dennis?
I have a website, DennisDoranSpeaking.com and my email address is DennisDDoran@Gmail.com. Those are the easiest ways. If somebody is inspired to look into buying my book, you can order the book on my website. I will personally package it, take it to the post office and mail it to you. It’s called self-fulfillment. I’m delighted to do it. I hope that I will be able to do it at least a few times and that I won’t do it as I did when I was doing this thing, which was to leave my wallet sitting in the outer lobby of the US Post Office in Savannah, Georgia.
Next time, put your credit card in the book, then wrap the book and send it that. That is what we call value to add.
That is possible, given my advancing age.
If you’re doing the fulfillment on the books through your website, I’m assuming you’ll sign it from people too. It’s going to skyrocket the value of the book.
It will certainly change it and somebody will say, “Somebody wrote this book.”
To tease that a little bit, your signature is even less legible than mine, so congratulations on that.
It’s one of the most important accomplishments in my life. Thank for the invitation to have this conversation. I hope it finds its way into the ears of people. I’m looking forward to being at your Extreme Leadership Experience for the third time. I’m excited about it. You’re teasing descriptions of what’s going to happen. It is exciting to me. It’s me going back to the mountain. I’m delighted to do that. I appreciate your interest in me and my work. I look forward to continuing to try to do what you told me I needed to do through your words years ago. That is to follow my calling and do what I love in the service of people. Hopefully, they’ll love what I do. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Dennis.
- Dennis Doran
- Soft As Steel
- The Radical Leap
- Extreme Leadership Experience
About Dennis Doran
Dennis D. Doran, a leading expert in the construction industry with more than thirty years of experience, is the author of the newly released and highly praised book, Soft as Steel. There are two words that have continued to follow Dennis and capture his passion: people and service. Dennis’ message on the vital importance of developing and valuing soft skills is the leading topic of his seminars and the very essence of the message in Soft as Steel, written to equip readers with the tools to be successful, not just in business, but in life and relationships.