From the time we wake up, until the time we sleep, we’re surrounded by people. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, whether you like it or not, you have to interact with people. That’s when soft skills come into the picture. Soft skills are personal attributes that enable a person to interact effectively with others.
I’ve worked under and together with managers over the past 20 years. While “hard skills” are crucial for execution, management is impossible – and unpredictable – without the right soft skills in place.
We have promoted less skilled people to management roles if that’s what it takes to be successful. Flawless communication, process management, prioritization, helping staff members through rough periods, navigating unexpected surprises, and coaching other members play a more integral role to executives and managers than being the best at what your business does.
Remember that kid in your school who always got selected as the class representative? That colleague who always gave the best presentations? That party animal friend who is always surrounded by people? Why were these people so popular and liked by others? What was so special about them?
The way we communicate, our personal and professional relationships, the way we carry ourselves in formal and informal situations are all our soft skills.
How are Soft Skills Different from Hard Skills?
In a group of people, it is very easy to decide who’s the best at mathematics. A simple test will tell you that. However, it would be difficult to tell who’s the best at handling conflict. Everyone would react differently in a conflicting situation, and there are no strict measures to decide who came up with the best solution.
Hard skills are specific teachable skills that can be easily measured and compared. Across the digital landscape, we have software engineers, accountants, marketing specialists, copywriters, lawyers. Their core know-how that enables them to perform their job is the high-level definition of hard skills.
However, soft skills are intangible, personality-based traits that are not so easy to quantify.
For overall growth and success, an individual ought to focus on developing both his hard and soft skills. The importance of soft skills cannot be undermined – and since it often is, here’s how to navigate your professional growth with empathy in mind.
Why Soft Skills? The Importance of Soft Skills
The world is filled with talented people who are failures. They’re stuck in the same place for many years. At the same time, there are people who are not as good technically but achieve phenomenal success in a short period.
As you grow professionally, you step from the role of a regular employee to managing teams, communicating with clients, conducting meetings, making impactful presentations, and much more.
And as you keep expanding your set of cross-functional business requirements and expectations, soft skills become paramount to building successful business relationships.
- Job Interviews. Interviews are all about creating that first impression. You might have a degree from the best university and excellent academic scores on your resume, but if you cannot create a good first impression, you might just lose the job you deserved. Interviewers nowadays do not just look at the academic background of a candidate. They observe body language, communication and other skills necessary for the role. And when you have to sit on the other end of the table, you’ll recognize the need for “reading” candidates better.
- Professional Success. You might just be the right candidate for a great on-site opportunity, but you miss it because you lack the soft skills required to interact with clients. Professional success doesn’t solely depend on expertise and work experience.
- Personality Development. Soft skills is a range of abilities including ethics, self-confidence, communication, networking, creativity, etc.
You’ve probably met business leaders taking soft skills training from experts. Just as the best athletes work with coaches, executives and managers can grow faster with professionals who excel at developing critical business skills.
16 Must-Have Soft Skills
In a world of cut-throat competition, people are always looking for ways to get ahead. From school kids to college students, working professionals to housewives and entrepreneurs, everyone is realizing the need to have better soft skills.
There are literally hundreds of essential skills that can help you develop an envious personality, and are critical for career success.
We’ve prepared the 16 must-have soft skills critical to professional success.
1. Body Language and Non-Verbal Communication
Even when you’re not talking, you communicate through your body. As they say, our words might lie but our body rarely does. It is one of the most required soft skills for professionals. Your body language determines the way people perceive you.
The way you lean in during a conversation or crossing your legs sends specific signals to the other parties you converse with. Rolling eyes is a common metaphor for boredom or disagreement. Crossing your arms during a discussion shows lack of agreement, too.
Body language is a complicated matter with different nuances across the globe. While most best practices are universal, don’t neglect local differences when communicating internationally.
You’ve probably been taught to raise your hand at school when you have a question. However, it’s an insult when conversing with Greek.
What about the well-known “heavy metal” sign with your index and pinky fingers up? Most Mediterranean and Latin countries would take this personally on multiple levels.
2. Public Speaking and Verbal Communication
Glossophobia, or the fear of speaking in public is one of the most commonly known fears. Many professionals, including entrepreneurs and CEOs fear public speaking. People lose opportunities because of the fear of public speaking, and lack of verbal communication skills.
Overcoming the fear of public speaking takes practice and some executives may always get the chills before getting in front of a crowd. And yet, public speaking and presenting are often required to perform your job as you climb up the ladder.
Public speaking skills, as a branch of soft skills, are not limited to presenting a talk during a conference. Internal meetings, product demos, webinars also fall into this same category.
3. Social Skills
Many experts believe that growth in one’s career depends a lot on good relationships. Your social skills determine the way you get along with your colleagues, friends, clients, and acquaintances in formal and informal situations.
Think about the chit-chat during conference breaks. Or the water cooler talk at the office. How about other social gatherings such as cocktails with people you don’t know?
Evolving social skills as a medium to engage in small talk, meet new people, react to unexpected reactions during conversations is a powerful tool in the soft skills arsenal.
4. Negotiation Skills
Negotiation is not always about winning. It is the ability to arrive at an agreement where both parties benefit. It is your ability to sway people into your way of thinking.
And it’s not just about selling.
Conveying your ideas during meetings and outlining the key selling benefits are forms of power play. Abusing this power can harm relationships. Underusing it leads to lack of opportunities. Understanding how to navigate negotiation skills requires training upfront.
5. Handling Conflict
It could be internal conflicts within the organization, or with a client, or competitor.
The way you handle a conflicting situation impacts your personal as well as organizational success. Listening carefully, placing your opinion smartly and thinking logically will help you resolve many conflicts effectively. Resolving conflicts at work is one of the key managerial skills that every organization looks for.
Giving and receiving feedback often escalates when either party fails to handle the context in the best manner. Excelling at handling conflict is a crucial skill that all managers should improve over time. Any conflict that is unresolved builds up – which can lead to workplace incidents or a sudden wave of resignations.
Many talented people fail at job interviews and even when hired, they remain unnoticed at work because they lack self-confidence. People usually have low self-esteem because they have a fear of being judged. This fear of being judged, and the lack of self-confidence can inhibit your growth.
As with other soft skills, self-confidence is a balanced act.
Shy managers can fall victims of Imposter Syndrome, self-doubt and the feeling they haven’t deserved all the praise.
Overconfident managers are endangered by the Dunning-Krueger effect – a cognitive bias revolving around extreme levels of confidence beyond the capabilities or accomplishments of the individual.
7. Time Management and Productivity
Lack of time management skills leads to poor productivity. Your productivity is one of the most important factors to determine your performance at work.
Productivity is getting more done in less time. I’ve compiled a list of the best productivity frameworks I’ve tested over the years (and I still use).
Improving your productivity skills has an accumulative effect on your job as a manager or executive.
- You excel at accomplishing more at work
- Your staff picks up the best practices you teach them
- You start to notice flaws in execution and activities that take longer than needed
- Your mind shifts to “automation” mode. What repetitive activities can be optimized?
8. Stress Management
Most of us juggle with our personal and professional lives and end up being stressed. Stress is one of the biggest hurdles to success, as it brings down your productivity, and kills your motivation. Too much stress could affect your health adversely.
Exceeding levels of stress lead to burnout. Unlike a regular sickness, burnouts are hard to track down and last a very long period of time.
It’s not unlikely for an employee to perform poorly for weeks – or even months – due to external factors like stress or troubles at home. Aside from the notable business impact, recovery may take months as well – and this is a business consequence you don’t want to deal with post-factum.
9. Business Writing
Written communication is one of the most important forms of business communication.
It includes several forms of writing, like emails, reports, fax, advertisements, proposals, documentation, contracts.
In today’s world, most people read your emails or some form of written communication before they meet you. A well-written communication makes a lasting impact on a person before they even meet you.
It taps into different areas of business etiquette, personal writing style, conveying the right message, structuring your ideas in a comprehensive manner, avoiding insults or any form of discrimination, adhering to grammar and lexical rules (among others).
10. Telephone and Meeting Etiquette
Most formal business communication occurs over the telephone or during meetings. It’s hard to achieve great results if your calls are not impactful or when you avoid the contextual expectations of business meetings.
Attending a business meeting at a restaurant comes with different expectations around ordering food and consuming it with the right silverware. Office meetings in different locations may demand small talk ahead of time or a different protocol by both parties.
How to behave when you show up earlier? How much earlier should you arrive? Should you request coffee at all times? Studying meeting etiquette will help you excel at this, leave a great impression, and scale your meetings.
11. Personality Development Skills
Everyone wants to build a charismatic, and magnetic personality. You cannot achieve great success if you’re never noticed.
Developing this soft skill is all about creating a brand for yourself. Personality development is an essential life skill. It includes several aspects, like the way you talk, the clothes you wear, the way you carry yourself, and more.
When it comes to online presence, building your personal brand may increase the success rates of your meetings, lead to more strategic partnerships, and a number of inbound inquiries for work or consulting. Learning how to position yourself and understanding your strengths and weaknesses play a role in the final formation of your brand.
12. Personal Creativity
Creativity is the ability to come up with original ideas, and think differently. Many business problems require a unique, and creative solution. To think creatively, you must let go of the barriers in your mind.
Take time to relax, pursue your hobbies, discuss your ideas freely, and make creative thinking a habit.
But this has to be a focused effort. And the most effective way to accomplish this is developing your critical thinking skills.
Reviewing a business problem from different perspectives, accounting for extreme opinions, understanding the landscape, taking into account data and statistics can actually unleash your creative skills as well.
And as a simple exercise, write down five ideas daily in a notebook. Allocate the time for creative thinking and let your mind do the work. You don’t have to implement anything at first – but once you build the habit, you will excel at implementing it at work.
13. Developing Good Habits
The ability to break set patterns and replace destructive habits with constructive ones is a skill we must learn. It helps us succeed both professionally, and socially.
As your responsibilities grow, you may be asked to teach a class at a university. Or probably engage more in public relationship activities – TV, radio shows and podcasts, other interviews online.
Both students and adults will look up to you. What does it take to be successful? Are your hobbies a prerequisite to follow your steps?
Rock music is known for partying, alcohol, and other extreme habits. Top level business executives occasionally join country clubs, sometimes with golf corts.
Consider the individuals you want to network with and those you will influence indirectly. Building good habits will have a significant impact in the grand scheme of things.
14. Customer Service Skills
Most successful businesses are a result of happy customers. Giving your customers a happy experience should be one of your top priorities.
Customer service professionals must have a clear knowledge of their products, patience to deal with the customer, and the ability to make quick decisions.
If you are about to start a new business, you may as well have to deal with customer service yourself over the first months. In critical situations, your staff will need your help. Great customer service will facilitate conflict resolution and prevent escalating conflicts.
15. Sales Skills
Everything in this world is selling: from your college essay or landing an interview to handling performance reviews or successfully receiving a promotion.
Sales skills, along with negotiation skills, business writing, meetings etiquette and productivity, are a powerful combination that scales in any business context. These soft skills are integral for building a reputation of a successful business leader.
Even if you are not a salesman by craft, this skill is an absolute must-have. Top sales people have the freedom to land sales director or CSO jobs across all industries, launch side ventures bootstrapped by themselves, and consulting businesses struggling with lead generation or closing blue chip clients.
16. Leadership and Management Skills
Leadership is about inspiring people to perform to the best of their ability. Creating a positive atmosphere, motivating people, the ability to delegate work, exhibiting trustworthiness and credibility are some important leadership skills that you should own. Management on the other hand is about getting things done.
Soft skills are often undervalued in comparison to hard skills. They are much harder to master than technical skills. Top performers understand their values and work on them consistently.
We live in a world of constant competition, where success is not a choice; it is a need. And, soft skills are necessary for success. Unfortunately, the need for teaching and learning these skills are not given as much priority in formal education.
Soft skills are not just good to have anymore. They’re a necessity. And the only way to develop them is by working on them, with the help of professional trainers and coaches.