If you are looking for an area to improve upon to help you career, here are some easy places to start. These are skills that are difficult to represent well on your resume; you are going to have to demonstrate them to show you possess them.
As you look to the graphic to the left of this paragraph, you can see there are several soft skills that are commonly looked for in the business world. In some job roles, these skills are top priorities and “must-haves” to be successful. For example, I am in sales, which is far from a linear process. I typically have over 50 opportunities in my pipeline of new business, all in various stages of completion. Effective Communication and Time Management skills are usually a make-or-break skill set for a role like mine in doing long term, relationship-based selling. If I was selling cell phones at the mall, probably not as much of a concern.
(Effective) Teamwork and Adaptability are skills forced upon us in school; things like group projects and even just the environment of switching classrooms or, in a glaringly obvious recent example, switching from in person classes to online classes. If you are a rigid person who thrives in a structured environment far more than a malleable one, this might be a struggle. Many people who gravitate towards roles like engineering, accounting, computer science, compliance control and more may find some of these soft skills more of a struggle than others. This is not a knock against them, as they possess skills that those who do well within the graphic above struggle. I hope the rest of this post helps point you in the direction of some ways to bolster these skills; regardless of current strengths you have, we all have room for improvement.
Efficient Communication – In many cases, if someone else doesn’t understand or “get” you, it is because you are not communicating to them in an effective manner. Each person has a preferred way of learning, and they typically break down into three categories: Visual, Kinesthetic and Auditory communicators. If you listen for clues as to how they learn, I have found that their communication style mirrors this closely. When someone says to you: “I see what you are saying”, they are typically a visual learner and communicator. (This is the most common category by the way, more people are visual learners than the other to categories.) Once you are aware of this preference, you can speak to them “in their language” For example, instead of using your words to tell them a story, you are painting them a picture. For a comprehensive list of the actual communication styles, click here. It is detailed and in my opinion too much to sort through while you are conversing with someone, but it would be good to be aware of. The classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is a must read for learning how to communicate effectively.
If you have never done the exercise of sitting with someone and describing to them how to put together a puzzle, assemble a toy, etc., this is a great way to see if you share your thoughts and ideas as effectively as you think you do. I did this once at a conference where we had four person teams and had to build a child’s bike in a race against the other teams. The person giving the directions was facing the others, but was not allowed to use their hands in any manner to communicate. It is really hard for most people to do this to any level of proficiency, even if they are looking at what they are trying to help you with. All bikes were donated to the local Boys & Girls Club, and a lot of lessons about effective communications were learned that day.
Time Management – For some, this is a major struggle. For the younger generations school and those in the workforce, they have been raised in an era of distractions. Incessant notifications from our smartphones have us looking down at our cell phones ALL THE TIME. Uninterrupted focus is becoming a lost art. In my opinion, this is one of the leading causes of poor time management. Lack of Self Discipline is a close second, and in some ways they go hand in hand. Turn off all of the notifications on your phone; YOU should be accessing social media when you choose to, not the other way around. Focus on the task at hand, and check in on the Kardashians later.
One of the most simple but effective methods for time management is simply to write out a To Do list for each day. First, write down everything that you need to do. Then prioritize the list. I love to start with the “worst” or least desirable thing I have to do for the day, and get it done first. Otherwise I am dwelling on it for the majority of the day, and am in danger of putting it off for another day. It helps the day’s momentum to have that scratched off the list early; it makes the rest seem easy. Self Discipline takes practice, so start with little tasks that allow an easy “win”, and build off of that. Basic human psychology…incentives work, so structure your discipline practices accordingly. For more information on this, read this and this book.
Effective Teamwork – This is the trickiest one on the list in my opinion. Because you are now interacting with several people and their respective personalities on the reg. If you played team sports, you know that you are only as good as the worst player on the team when they are on the field. In the workplace, this holds true as well. Whether it is actual lack of capability, or just laziness, not everyone on the team is going to put out the same level of work. If you remember the doing group projects in school, then you have a good idea of what I am talking about.
First things first, be sure to figure out what your role is. If you are the group lead, don’t just assume command and start barking orders. Approach the task in a collaborative format; someone on the team may have a set of skills that are an obvious choice for certain parts, and you’d want to use those skills for the great good. A great book to read on this topic is: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. There are lots of others as well, my personal favorite being Start with WHY by Simon Sinek. Awesome read, and certainly a new wave of thinking for the corporate world. Like anything else, this skill takes practice too. And to add to the degree of difficulty, as the team changes, so does the overall dynamic. It is a constant struggle, but is also hypercritical in setting the trajectory of the team.
As a final thought on this in regards to leadership, I would highly recommend the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willlink. Loved that one…
Critical Thinking – This one is a tough one, and open for interpretation. I find that I am a good critical thinker about certain things, and not so hot in other areas. So I try to parlay the skills I have to the other areas, but I am a work in progress just like everyone else. A good place to start improving this skill is this book: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I chose this one for my own Book Club read and discussion. Read why I started a book club here.
I think a great exercise to help develop this skill is to use social media for practice. For example, most of the stuff you read is A. someone’s opinion (not facts) B. a clickbait title (not facts) or C. has an embedded agenda (political or otherwise). The discipline practice comes from teaching yourself to pause after you read something and ask a few questions, such as the source of this information, is it the whole story, etc. It is such an easy trap to fall into, and that is by design. We are inundated with so much information these days that it has become very difficult to filter through everything you are exposed to. So to “keep up” we scroll through headlines, tweets, and comments and quickly form an opinion. WRONG WAY to go about it. As we have seen recently in the news (no matter when you read this) the initial information that was shared about a topic was limited, not researched, presented in a race to be first whether correct or not, etc. Then later when more information comes to light, the entire narrative completely changes.
Instead of just doing what everyone else does, stop for a second and think critically about this. Don’t react…pause and think. Try to see the other side. Come up with at least one more plausible explanation to offset what you just saw. WAIT…collect more information, and then form an initial opinion. Critically think about it by considering all sides, not just the “answer” that was spoon fed to you.
Adaptability – I think for the younger generation, certain parts of this are easy, and others are more difficult. But then again, it is the same for the older generations, but with flip-flopped examples. Technology changes are likely very easy for younger people, while someone who is older may struggle to get comfortable with a new device, app or software program. As a fairly flexible person in general, I don’t think I struggle too much with adaptability, but again, maybe that is a prerequisite for being in sales.
For those who do, here are a couple of thoughts you could use to work on this:
1. Go new places – whether just a different grocery store, or a new city, force yourself to adapt and adjust to your new surroundings, however brief the time frame is.
2. Learn a new skill or sport – Take a dance class, yoga or martial arts class. Acquiring new skills in general takes not only self discipline but also adaptability as well.
3. World travel – I realize this is out of reach for many, but throwing yourself into a new culture, especially one that does not speak your language would be the ultimate crash course in adaptability.
A quick and fun read is this classic that everyone was enamored with a while ago called Who Moved My Cheese?. It is a good story that I found easy to extrapolate to my own life.
To summarize, all of these skills can be added to a bullet point or two on your resume, but must be demonstrated in person through discussion and examples. If you are looking for a job whether as anew grad or an old warhorse, standing out among the masses is never easy. But if you can come prepared with at least an inkling of how these core soft skills work and play into the role you are looking to occupy, that might be enough to make the difference. If there is something you think I could help with, don’t hesitate to contact me.
I wish you luck in your endeavors.