In an era where digital upstarts are disrupting long-established companies out of business every day, and in which the jobs of tomorrow haven't even been invented yet, the traditional skills taught in business and engineering schools are already proving insufficient. In addition to these conventional perspectives, so-called "soft skills" will take on paramount importance in enabling entrepreneurs and executives to thrive in any environment, no matter what the future may bring. There's a revolution brewing, and we're already seeing the signs of it.

To find out exactly which of those skills are most imperative for the leaders of tomorrow, my colleagues and I at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism did what any good communications school would do: we asked the experts. We spent four years interviewing thousands of business leaders across the United States and in a dozen foreign countries.

Their response was unequivocal. They identified five attributes of successful leadership that are in short supply in today's workplace:

  • Adaptability
  • Cultural competence
  • Empathy
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • 360-degree thinking

Taken together, these traits constitute a "Third Space" that is every bit as critical to success as the conventional perspectives of engineering and finance.

"Third Space Thinking" is even more important for fast-growing entrepreneurial companies than for larger, more established firms. A big company can always swap out an employee who is deficient in these key attributes. But a startup with just a few team members all working closely together doesn't have that luxury; if just one of those people lacks soft skills, he or she can be toxic to the entire enterprise.

Adaptability is the first rule in today's economy, where new ways of problem-solving are upending entire business models and rendering five-year plans obsolete. How do taxi and limousine companies compete with car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which have no cars and only a handful of full-time employees. How do hoteliers respond to Airbnb, which owns no property? Only those business owners with the mental agility to shift on the fly to meet the needs of tomorrow's customers will survive.

"Move fast and break things" was for many years Facebook's unofficial motto. In its early years, the company rapidly unveiled a succession of new tools and features, even if they hadn't been completely debugged. As Facebook matured, however, it has modified even this mantra of adaptability; today, the company moves more deliberately to ensure that it gets things right the first time.

Cultural competence doesn't require learning to speak Chinese, but it does necessitate understanding the way Chinese consumers may be different from their Western counterparts so you can devise specifically targeted marketing strategies. The need for cultural competence isn't limited to companies doing business overseas. Even within the U.S., there are a myriad of communities and cultures, each with their own perspectives that make them anything but typical consumers.

"You need to read culture to make culture," says Mauricio Mota, co-president and executive producer at Wise Entertainment, the production company behind the Emmy-nominated Hulu series East Los High. "If I, as a 30-something Brazilian man, am going to make a show that appeals to female African-American Millennials in the South, I need to understand their fears, desires, aspirations, what they think about police brutality. They think completely differently than I do."

As America's diversity continues to increase, the need for fluency in all of its cultures will become more acute.

Cultural competence is just as critical within the company, especially for entrepreneurial businesses where employees wear many hats. The design team can't just innovate in a vacuum; it needs to know what kinds of products the manufacturing team is capable of producing, and what the sales team is equipped to sell.

Empathy is perhaps the softest of these soft skills, but Fortune 50 executives we interviewed said it's the most important of the five attributes we unearthed. Upon closer inspection, this revelation isn't so surprising. In the 2015 Global Empathy Index, an annual survey of 160 companies by the LadyGeek consultancy firm, the 10 most empathetic businesses generated 50% more income than the 10 least empathetic firms. Empathy is sometimes perceived as a weakness, but to those that employ it, it's a strength. They're thinking twice as much, anticipating the needs of their customers, their colleagues, and their collaborators.

An exercise at Ford Motor Company, for example, requires newly hired engineers to strap on an "empathy belly" that helps them to understand the needs of pregnant drivers, and a "third age suit" that mimics many of the physical limitations of being elderly. This innovative practice has led directly to ergonomic improvements in the doors, seat belts, and the buttons on the dashboard in all Ford vehicles.

Businesspeople with a natural intellectual curiosity are constantly pondering the world around them, not just the bottom line or the goals of a particular project. Companies and teams have a way of becoming insular in their thinking, assuming they know everything about their field, and relying on time-tested strategies. Intellectually curious people, on the other hand, exhibit a deep hunger to learn--and to re-learn. Their intellectual curiosity isn't just a hobby to be indulged; it's job security. The willingness to experiment allows intellectually curious people to learn from their successes--and more important--from their failures.

360-degree thinking is the quintessential trait of third space thinkers because it combines all the other characteristics. The most efficient managers aren't the ones who check off tasks the fastest; they're the ones who devise strategies designed to evolve in case Plan A and Plan B don't work out. They're the ones who can think holistically, recognize patterns, and make imaginative leaps based on those patterns. And because they're constantly scanning the entire horizon, they're the ones who are quickest to spot the openings and opportunities that nobody else has detected yet.

Taken together, the skills of Third Space Thinking add up to proficiency in communication. In the era of Big Data, communication entails more than just sending messages, adding to the rich treasure trove available to anyone with an Internet connection. Today, it means distilling that vast sea of information, analyzing it, interpreting it, and sharing it. The business leaders who already understand the importance of Third Space Thinking are thriving; those who fail to do so will be left behind.

Published on: Nov 25, 2016