Skills: The word on every business person’s lips
Currently the Sheffield City Region (SCR) is doing a lot of work to find out exactly what skills employers need. It’s coming through loud and clear that whatever hard skills are in short supply, a lack of soft skills is widespread, here and nationally.
The SCR report into the skills situation is due out shortly and will help shape future provision in the region. Meanwhile, one commercial legal practice in the region has already introduced its own intensive and highly successful programme to instill soft skills at all levels.
Sharon Beck, for four years managing partner and now chief executive of Taylor Bracewell which has offices in Sheffield and Doncaster, regularly takes on groups of apprentices. They have many different backgrounds and levels of aptitude, and frequently they develop into huge success stories for the firm.
Much of this, Sharon feels, is down to building confidence in young people. She suggested, and has a three-line whip on, monthly group meetings at both the Doncaster and Sheffield offices where everyone in the firm from the senior partners down have to speak about a theme they’re given with a minute’s notice.
“The senior partners found it more difficult than the youngsters at first,” Sharon recalls. “We’re asking them to step outside their comfort zone. I can remember going bright red when I made my first attempt. But you can see the effect after just a few weeks – the apprentices blossom and they feel much more part of the whole practice.
“People surprised themselves and realised it could be a lot of fun. And a couple of the secretaries have been the best and most entertaining speakers. Among the apprentices even things like eye contact improved.
“And there are other benefits – it helps the teams to bond.”
Public speaking aside, there are other soft skills Sharon finds ways to instill.
“I am very clear what I expect from apprentices. I expect them to take responsibility. So we give training and provide a script for answering the phone, and I expect even apprentices to make sure no phone goes unanswered. I get very cross if they sit there and do nothing while it rings. We also make sure they tell a caller when the person they want to speak to will be available, if that’s not immediately.
“I’m hot on young people getting into work on time – it’s no good them saying they’ll make up the time at the end of the day. And I am adamant that apprentices walking through reception greet clients sitting there and make them feel welcome. When clients come to see us they are often going through a stressful time – going through a divorce, buying a house, sorting out a will. We want to do our best to make it easy for them.”
During the first couple of months of apprenticeship Taylor Bracewell organises weekly breakfast meetings where the young people can talk in a relaxed setting about any issues they have, and they go to business networking events with an older colleague so they are introduced gently into what can be a daunting situation. Once a year some of the best performing junior staff are treated to a black tie do. They are given a grounding in negotiation skills, and how to make or deal with complaints confidently.
“I always spend time with our new starters. I want to them to have high aspirations – perhaps even to tell me they want my job one day. I started my career as an office junior with British Coal and studied hard – I tell them that.”
Fostering social skills is not just a nice thing to do. It’s had a positive effect on the bottom line for Taylor Bracewell which has tripled in size since Sharon became Managing Partner. It has 73 staff, has just moved into new offices in the Georgian Paradise Square in Sheffield’s Devonshire Quarter, and has adopted the new ‘alternative business structure’ allowing for investment in the practice.
Sharon adds: “It is important to come to work and enjoy what you do. I want that for everybody, from senior partners to apprentices.”