“Soft Skills” are Just Skills

LinkedIn recently shared its list of the job titles it says will be the most promising for those seeking new work or advancement in 2019. Some of those are more…substantial than others as there are a few “consultant” type titles on the list, while others are very tech-focused and detailed.

Also offered by LinkedIn are lists of the top five soft and hard skills employers are looking for in new recruits. The difference between the two seems to be that “soft” skills are fuzzier and are about conversation and relationships, while “hard” skills are more quantitative, the kind of thing you can show off and demonstrate to someone you’re trying to impress.

Soft skills are often derided by many, particularly in this day and age of AI and data visualization. They are the second-class citizen of capabilities someone is seen to be in possession of, representative less of what you can do and more about who you are, which isn’t as important. But let’s look at the kinds of skills LinkedIn includes on its list:

Creativity

Let’s start out by not giving short shrift to creativity. It’s not everyone who can think about the problems and situations they face in the workplace – whatever kind of environment that is – and offer unusual or innovative thoughts and potential solutions. Business leaders see it as incredibly valuable and something that can greatly benefit their operations.

Creativity requires curiosity, though, and that’s not something many companies encourage in their employees. Someone who’s going to offer a new way of thinking has to first test that thinking against what’s come before, so they’re going to do some probing and exploring. It also requires bravery since they’re going to be going out on a significant limb, sticking their heads up over the parapet, which in the corporate world is a good way to get it shot off.

Persuasion

Once that creative and innovative solution has been developed and offered it takes persuasion to actually make it happen and push for implementation. That requires someone to be able to effectively communicate the value proposition they’ve developed and achieve the kind of buy-in needed to have it adopted. Even if it’s a relatively simple thing, you still have to convince other stakeholders and coworkers that they should go out on their own limb.

Even if it’s not something all that new and original – if it’s just “the data says this and we should do that” – the art of persuasion is unique and something not everyone is capable of. A persuasive individual is capable of tailoring the pitch to each audience, presenting the best message that’s most likely to achieve results.

Collaboration

Because most professional environments are so competitive and cutthroat, working together isn’t always the best way to advance one’s own career or maintain their status within the company. When it comes time for a performance review or if positions are being eliminated, individual productivity is more often a determining factor than the ability to play well with others.

But collaboration is how society functions. We all work together to move toward a common good. Everyone for themselves is anarchy, but business requires groups all doing their part to achieve goals that are bigger than themselves and their individual responsibilities. Someone skilled in the practice of collaboration has to be able to put their ego to the side and trust that the group’s success is their own. The problem is in getting managers to recognize that and assign value to that.

Adaptability

Closely tied to creativity, this one is focused on being able to roll with the punches and think on your feet. Most all employees are asked to adopt processes and tools that may not be ideal for them as individuals because it’s what someone else has decided is best for the whole group. Not only that but those are likely to change without much notice as acquisition managers come and go, CEOs sign new vendor agreements and so on.

Particularly for those in the middle of a job search, adaptability is important. If someone has used X technology for the last 10 years in their previous position but a potential employer uses Y, they have to show they can use it without a problem. It’s not just tech, either, it’s also different office environments, management structures and more. They have to be able to prove they’re comfortable in most any situation and setting and can pivot on demand.

Time Management

This one can’t be overstated. Time management is an essential aspect of the employer-driven push for employee productivity. Everyone has their own system, but they have to show they can deliver on (or ahead) of schedule, prioritize what’s important, make time for what’s not and keep moving forward at all times.

That’s no easy task when the modern workplace is ill-designed to actually produce results. Time management has to account for a good chunk of the workday being taken up not by actually working on a project but by an endless string of calls, emails, Slack messages and more asking for updates on the project, making adjustments to its scope and so on. They have to manage around all the distractions of modern life plus the distractions that are are part of the work environment itself to do what they need to do.

We need to stop talking about “soft” skills as if they matter less than coding, accounting, analytics and other abilities. The latter are the kinds of skills someone usually goes to school for or can otherwise learn. The former, though, are those that often comes from either innate ability or hard-earned experience. When you see someone with excellent persuasion skills, it means they’ve earned that, likely through trial and error. Same for the other skills on LinkedIn’s list.

Unfortunately they’re not the kinds of skills that can be demonstrated in a portfolio or on a resume. They come through best either when interviewing a potential candidate or by seeing them work up close. So as much as executives may say they want more people with those abilities and talents, screening for them is difficult. The solution, then, would seem to be to change the hiring process to better find individuals capable of filling those needs.

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