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Hard skills versus soft skills

07 Mar 2017
At first glance one might say that career paths in the spa industry are a bit schizophrenic given that the sensibilities and skill set that make for excellent therapists sometimes may not provide the tools needed for a “bottom line” manager.

In fact, there are some believe that these two skill sets are “opposite” and that great therapists, by definition, make less than stellar managers and conversely, the MBA manager, who lives by the spread sheets, may lack the intuition and interpersonal skills to support his or her team of healer-therapists.

At this juncture, I caution the reader not to mix up hard skills versus soft skills, with the tools to be an excellent manager versus the knowledge and talent to be considered a skilled therapist. The challenge of transitioning from “full-time, hands-on” worker to management is experienced in many industries. For example, the skill set that makes an excellent engineer generally does not provide all of the necessary tools for him or her to shift from solving problems to managing those who solve them.

It is important to appreciate that hard skills are technically-based and are generally taught in a structured, educational environment. Soft skills tend to be interpersonal and are reflected in the approach and sensibility that a worker brings to his task. The naive consumers may think of therapists as being mostly soft skilled, supporting their “bed side manner”, yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Comprehensive and integrated hard skills for therapists are essential, and can be exhibited via their manual techniques, product knowledge, understanding of anatomy and physiology, and recognition of contraindications - to name just a few! This knowledge is then “enrobed” in a blanket of soft skills that might include using the client’s name regularly, “reading” their demeanor to see if this is going to be a “chatty” massage or something more “Zen”, and checking to see if the room temperature is comfortable for the client.

If we were to evaluate management’s role in spa management hard skills - like staffing, budgeting, marketing, retail selection, and promotions - all are necessary for successful operations. Some managers are great at promoting revenue at the spa, while others excel at managing expenses. Phenomenal managers do both, and doing both well requires a fluency in the softer skills need to motivate, lead and retain the best employees. Again, we have a situation where hard and soft skills need to work in tandem to achieve optimal results.

Massage therapists, aestheticians, retail specialists, nail techs, and administrators all have necessary and valuable hard skills they bring into the industry. These should never be discounted.

A master aesthetician or senior massage therapist continues to develop their hard skills through clinical involvement with the clients, as well as continued technical training. Similarly, managers hone their technical (hard) skills through on-the-job experience, seminars and possibly reading management books and case studies. In truth, there is no substitute for hard skills. Learning the trade, and not just the tricks of the trade, is a sure fire way to lay a solid foundation on which to build a career. Being able to fully monetize these skills is often correlated to one’s capacity to deploy their soft skills with the stealth of a ninja and the grace of a ballerina.

So the question remains, is there a correct answer as to what is more important, hard or soft skills?

Early in one’s career - be it management or therapist - there is a base level of hard skills, even at the most introductory levels. Skills can be taught and reinforced, whereas attitude (“the soft stuff”) comes from within and is seldom effectively taught in a class. Given a base level of competency, hire on attitude and train on hard skills. While this may feel a bit counterintuitive, it is much easier to teach anatomy or budgeting than it is to teach mindfulness, kindness, and team spirit. Hard and soft skills will develop and be refined as employees’ careers grow. Therapists transitioning to management will need additional hard skills as they take on new and different responsibilities. Resort hotels confronted with a dearth of skilled spa managers have taken food and beverage executives and trained them to run spas. They too, have had to learn new hard skills and modify their approach to the soft ones.

If hard skills are the vehicles of the spa industry, then soft skills are the fuel for those vehicles.

By Peter Anderson


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