Using soft skills to help women close the leadership gap

By Robert Half on 20 March 2023

Executive leadership skills are evolving as younger generations start their careers, and hybrid working moves into the mainstream. As part of Women’s History Month, Karina Perez Galindo, Noëmie Cicurel and Vanessa Sproedt-Graef from Robert Half explore why soft skills often associated with women are becoming pivotal to modern leadership.


Which skills are traditionally associated with women?


Karina Perez Galindo Men and women naturally possess different soft skills, and their personality and experience will also influence how they perform an executive role. Women are traditionally more empathetic but often question their knowledge and experience; men can display more self-confidence and belief in their ability. The reality is more nuanced, but people-focused skills are certainly more important today.


Noëmie Cicurel Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is often championed by women. I also see more women engaging with learning and development opportunities, adopting a growth mindset, and using collaboration skills. They are good at seeing the bigger picture, alongside the details of a situation, and working across teams.


Vanessa Sproedt-Graef I grew up in a working environment that allowed me to develop my career: I realised quite quickly that being myself and authentic was important. When I came to Frankfurt, some people called me a ‘feel good manager’ because I wanted to observe the business, and understand what was driving people. This was a natural process for me: if employees understand why they are doing something, it’s more likely to engage them.


Why are these soft skills important now?


Noëmie Businesses want to attract young people, who trust what they see, not what’s presented on a website. When DEI is actively communicated, for example, but evidence of diversity is lacking during an interview process, candidates will see through it. Millennials and Generation Z are asking about DEI, environmental impact, and work-life balance; they also want to know how their careers will develop.


Karina The workplace has been changing for many years, but the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated certain trends: remote and hybrid working have highlighted the importance of soft skills, and provided candidates with more choice. Flexibility, emotional intelligence, and communication are more important now because they help executive leaders to work better with distributed teams; understanding people’s values and motivations also helps to retain them in a competitive market.


Vanessa When I started my career, I gained experience through internships before getting a job. I worked 12-hour days, driven by constant achievement, but we are in a different place now. The younger generations are showing us the way on mental health, feedback and training, and flexibility. The pandemic accelerated these trends, as Karina says, but loyalty and engagement now come from developing a culture that reflects these priorities.


To what extent are executive leaders adopting these skills and can you share any examples?


Karina Businesses are doing their best, but they want to be fair to both men and women. If any agenda is pushed too hard, it can have the opposite effect. Progress can start quietly, with each of us in leadership positions helping colleagues to learn something new, or to give feedback on their skills. Behaviour change doesn’t always need a policy, it needs action.


Vanessa If we live and breathe these soft skills, it will impact our behaviours; once we understand how these skills influence culture, and develop a range of diverse candidates, the more we can help clients to do the same.


Karina When I worked in Chile, I met two chief executives who were very people-oriented, and both were promoted to senior international roles. Businesses usually thrive because they are run by people with a good balance of skills. But I would say people skills are the difference between executive candidates at the moment.


Vanessa I’ve seen a business in a male-dominated industry appoint its first female chief executive. She began by developing the whole board. In the search process, she asked for truly diverse shortlists, and would keep a vacancy open for a longer period than usual to find the best person, with the right skills and mindset. She changed the culture step by step, improving diversity and commercial performance, too.


Noëmie Creative businesses want to attract neuro-diverse people because they benefit from different thinking styles. But they recognise the need to adapt their leadership style to recruit and retain these people. I’ve seen a business in France appoint a head of diversity and inclusion to improve the attraction and retention of neuro-diverse candidates. They also provided managers with the tools and knowledge to work with them effectively.


What would you say to executive leaders who want to develop their soft skills, or recruit a broader mix of people onto the board?


Vanessa Take a broad view, be patient, and don’t make short-term decisions. First, have a look at the culture of the business, and the one you want to create. Then bring the right people on board, no matter how long it takes, and make sure the values are being demonstrated by the current executive team. Businesses need to have a vision, and by following that vision, they will engage the right people. That’s the key.


Noëmie It’s important to challenge bias. French writer Olivier Sybony co-authored ‘Noise’ with Daniel Kahneman and Cass Sunstein, which explores flawed decision-making. It’s important to have a group of people who disagree with your views, he says. In addition, executive leaders should consider people’s ‘mad skills’ – developed through their hobbies and life experiences – because they can influence the development of soft skills.



Short Bios Experts

Karina Perez Galindo has been the managing director of Robert Half Executive Search in The Netherlands since March 2022 and moved to Europe after more than a decade building the firm’s operations in Chile.

Noëmie Cicurel started working at Robert Half in 1999. After successfully building the firms business in France for over two decades, she became the director of learning and development for France, Germany, Benelux, and Switzerland.

Vanessa Sproedt-Graef is managing director for Robert Half’s operations in Frankfurt, Rhein-Main and Mannheim. She joined the business in January 2021 with over 15 years in advising companies across the entire HR value chain.

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