Posted June 7, 2021 by Mark Perna
In an automating workforce, soft skills are the irreplaceably human element of work—and the thing employers are desperate to find. Mark’s article, “Here Are The Top 5 Soft Skills I Look For In Candidates,” published at Forbes.com on May 24, 2021.
As the workplace increasingly automates, soft skills are what make the human contribution so irreplaceably unique.
Soft skills, or the non-technical skills that relate to how you work, appear to be in short supply today. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal conducted an oft-cited study of over 900 executives on the topic of soft skills. Ninety-two percent said that soft skills such as communication, initiative, conflict management and others are equally important as the hard skills to perform the job. At the same time, fully 89% of those same executives said they have a very difficult or somewhat difficult time sourcing candidates that possess these skills.
I’m a small business owner in an industry where soft skills—or as I prefer to call them, professional skills—are almost more imperative than the technical skills to do the job. We can’t train on our company standards and culture if the individual doesn’t want to learn. A trainable attitude is everything.
As the workforce continues to reinvent itself, professional skills are finally coming into their own as a critical component of workplace success. Here are the top 5 skills and traits that I look for when hiring.
Heading any list of soft skills you will find communication: written and verbal, virtual and in person. I define communication as the ability to speak and write clearly, as well as the ability to listen well and process what others say. A worker who cannot effectively share and receive information is marooned from the rest of the team—now more than ever in today’s remote and hybrid work environments.
Symptoms of poor communication include short, abrupt responses that do not acknowledge or address the concerns of the other party; a mulish refusal to reconsider one’s perspective after hearing that of others; ignoring and failing to respond to others’ communications (especially emails); and a basic inability to gauge the feelings and responses of your listeners.
Every week, there’s a new tip for that one magic phrase or strategy to instantly improve your communication and get the results you want. Those things can be helpful, but my best advice would be to find a real-life role model of great communication to study and emulate. Once you’ve identified such a person—either in your professional or personal life—be active in dissecting what makes their communication skills so good. You might even ask that person to consider a mini-mentorship in this area.
Engagement can be summarized in my 5-minute method to success: show up five minutes early, leave five minutes late, and care while you’re there. It means joining wholeheartedly in the goals of the company, caring about the outcome and giving it your best every day.
Anyone can go through the motions, but it takes an engaged worker to bring passion to the role. Sadly, there is an astounding lack of engagement in many candidates today. When hiring, I look for someone who cares for more than just the paycheck, but also about the larger mission of the company and how they can further it. I’m looking for people who believe in what we’re doing and want to be part of that vision.
If you’re truly not engaged in your work, you might be in the wrong career field. But before you jump ship, ask yourself if the core of the problem is not actually the work itself, but the person doing it—you. Successful people engage themselves deeply in what they do, even if it’s not yet their dream career. Bringing your best to where you’re at is how you get to where you want to go.
Another key professional skill that you’ll see blazoned across every resume and cover letter is teamwork. Everyone is eager to prove that they “work well with others” and are “team players.” And while that is absolutely critical, it isn’t the whole picture of teamwork.
Teamwork is more than just being a pleasant person to work with. I define teamwork as active participation in collaboration with others—the ability and desire to partner seamlessly with anyone in the company to accomplish whatever is needed.
That type of close working relationship will not come without sticky patches. My team has had its share of these moments and we always try to believe the best of each other’s motives, respect the diversity of opinions represented and keep our focus the quality of the work. I know that each person is striving to create the best possible product for our clients and because we are committed to teamwork, we are able to navigate our creative and sometimes even personal differences.
Never has problem solving been as necessary as last year, when the workforce faced challenges far beyond the norm. Like almost every other business in America, my company was forced to go virtual overnight. While we had long operated remotely within our team, we suddenly had to deliver virtual solutions for our clients as well. The ability of my team to jump in and solve these problems is the reason we are still in business today.
Problem solving is really another term for critical thinking. Individuals who excel in this area are those who approach problems from a different angle and refuse to accept less than desirable results. This demands that we not become entrenched in a certain way of doing things simply because it’s how they have always been done. The best problem-solvers see and strategize how to mitigate the problems that aren’t even evident yet. And they never settle for a solution that’s just okay.
I consider every person in my company to be a leader in their area of expertise. That’s why I hired them: I can’t be an expert in everything, and so I must rely on others to fill these gaps and bring the talents and perspectives that I lack.
Leadership is more than just the ability to take charge of something, though ownership is a big part of it. Leadership is, in many ways, the sum total of a person’s soft skills. It’s how you bring those soft skills to bear on everything else. Leaders are constantly developing their abilities and becoming better versions of themselves. Ironically, it’s those who are willing to learn who are the true leaders. Such individuals can process feedback and use it to fuel their growth—reminding me why I hired them in the first place.
As a business owner I hire people, not technical skill sets. And that’s why their professional skills can make or break the hiring decision. If they can’t communicate, be engaged, participate fully, think critically or demonstrate leadership, it doesn’t matter how technically qualified they are. They won’t have a long-term future at my company.
The way that individuals handle themselves in interactions at work is the greatest determinant of their caliber as professionals. As the world automates, professional skills are the currency of the future—and the key to unlock a career where you can contribute something irreplaceable every day.