Written by Marc Bolick
The next chapter of South Carolina’s success and opportunities for growth lies in soft skills—particularly creative problem solving and empathy.
The state of South Carolina is the country’s largest producer and exporter of tires, largely because of Michelin’s decision in 1973 to locate its first US production facility in Greenville County. That decision was due, in part, to the state’s long history and leadership in the textile industry, a complementary technology for tire production. The Palmetto State also exports more completed vehicles than any other state from manufacturers like BMW, Volvo and Mercedes Benz.
This growth of an industry that had no traditional roots here into a veritable global powerhouse is one of the great success stories of our amazing state. It was driven by the long-sighted vision of leaders from state and local governments, businesses, and institutions of higher education coming together for a common cause. It has been an incredible story of growth and recovery from a state hard hit by globalization and the decline of the textile industry. So, what is the next chapter of South Carolina’s success and where will we find our next area for growth? The answer lies in soft skills.
Excelling in Creativity
Creativity and creative problem solving are at the top of any list of desired skills for today’s demanding workplace. It doesn’t matter if you are working on the manufacturing floor troubleshooting a new robotic assembly process or rearranging a booking for a large group at a coastal resort, solving problems on the fly with the resources at hand is essential. Even with the aid of so much technology—perhaps because of so much technology—being able to take initiative and come up with creative solutions to challenges is critical to getting work done.
How might we build creativity as a critical work skill into the curricula of our K-12 and university systems? There has certainly been a recognition of the need for technical skills with the emphasis on STEM. The addition of the ‘A’ for the Arts (i.e. STEAM) needs greater emphasis and an effort to communicate the reason for it. It’s not only about providing more programming for typical creative arts programs. It’s about educating a more well-rounded workforce that is equipped with the tools and emotional intelligence needed to solve the squishy problems requiring collaboration and mastery of the spaces between technology, people and process. We need to elevate the importance of creativity at a state level and share success stories of people using their human creativity to solve complex problems.
Empathy at Work
Have you ever had an experience where someone anticipated your needs before you were even aware you needed something? Apple’s iPod, Nest thermostats and even Twitter are examples of products that people generally didn’t know they needed until they were brought into the world. The ability of organizations to execute on ideas born from insights about their customers is a true source of innovation capability. This comes from a deep understanding of people’s needs that is the product of the our human ability to empathize.
How might we become the Empathy State? Just think of South Carolina’s largest industry, tourism, and how well that industry serves the many millions of visitors to our beautiful state. We have a natural understanding of other people rooted in our Southern hospitality. That cultural legacy of friendliness and community spirit can be turned into a competitive engine for South Carolina in more ways than simply how we greet visitors. It can be woven into how we compete. We just need to decide to own empathy as part of our state’s competitive advantages.
Not only can we use empathy as an innovation superpower, it also has incredible advantages as an element of business culture and the ability of organizations to attract and retain top talent. Entrepreneur Magazine recently wrote about the “4 Reasons Why Empathy Is Good for Business” outlining how empathy touches sales, innovation, competitiveness and employee engagement. A combination of stresses over the last year—including COVID, amped-up political division and social justice protests—has raised stress to unprecedented levels (see Gallup statistics on engagement and well-being here). Empathy at work can be something that our business, education, community and political leaders embrace as a positive antidote to these stresses and a long-term, unique competitive advantage for our state.
Making It Happen
Embracing the soft skills of creativity and empathy as our state’s secret sauce of competitiveness is a bold idea. The fact is, we have a head start: we already have a wealth of both of these characteristics thriving in our state. We have emerged from the downturn in the textile industry to become an automotive industry powerhouse, and we have survived numerous natural disasters that challenged our state’s tourism industry over the years. The question is, are we ready to carve out a unique competitive position that resets the landscape from simply competing on costs, skills, capital and geography? Are we ready to take those characteristics and add a state-wide commitment to nurturing creativity in our people and to spreading a culture of empathy? If we’re ready, then we certainly can embrace soft skills as our secret sauce of competitiveness!
This article originally appeared on scribblesc.com, South Carolina’s content toolkit for the pursuit of innovation.