Whenever you are being considered for promotion or a new opportunity, technical skills and qualifications are probably top of mind for you.
Can you demonstrate your proficiency and knowledge? Do you have the right experience and certifications under your belt?
As you are crafting your resume with action words to present your candidacy in the best light, keep in mind that technical skills are not the only relevant factor. For a company that does a good job of pre-screening applicants, technical skills are a simple pre-requisite to getting the interview. They may get you in the door but won't get you the offer. This is where the importance of soft skills come in. No matter how specialized or technical your position is, your soft skills and personal traits define your success as a candidate. I have found this to be true of all positions, but it is particularly important as you get higher up the corporate ladder or if you are becoming a freelancer.
Here are some key traits most hiring managers look for. The relative weight of each one will vary based on the position, the culture of the company and the hiring manager's style. It is likely that you won't find soft skills in the job description, so use this list as your guide and read between the lines – during the application process and in the interview.
This is probably the most important of the soft skills in the workplace. Let's face it: everyone wants to work with people they like. It may seem like a superficial factor to consider, but your ability to be personable and create constructive relationships can boost your professional effectiveness. From collaborating on a cross-functional project to getting your co-worker to give you the numbers you need for your report, being likable can generate results!
Communicating like a boss at work is the foundation of everything that gets done (or does not get done). Whether or not this is a stated job requirement, hiring managers intuitively prefer candidates who can express their thoughts clearly, in conversation and in writing.
This characteristic is difficult to peg, but clear thinkers see the components of the situation accurately. They are able to understand how individual pieces are connected. They are also good at seeing consequences, identifying potential risks and developing solutions.
Procedure manuals and rule-books are helpful, but day-to-day decisions are often based on personal and professional judgment. After all, no procedure guide is ever comprehensive enough to account for human dynamics and personalities, to say nothing of the ever-changing business landscape.
No, you don't have to have every piece of paper labeled and filed the second it lands on your desk! However, hiring managers are comforted when they can see that you have a system for tracking priorities and meeting deadlines. Keep in mind that there is no one right way to accomplish this: some professionals rely on simple daily to-do lists while others use project management software. The key is to know what works for you and to adapt to the needs of your workplace.
Empathy is the ability to relate to the thoughts, emotions and experiences of others. Most of us have a certain degree of empathy naturally. Empathy is critical for success at work, especially if you are in a client-facing role. By making the other person feel truly heard, you can diffuse conflict, get buy-in and motivate others.
Not to be confused with arrogance, confidence is the quiet strength that comes from understanding your worth and ability. Hiring managers can read your confidence level within the first 30 seconds of meeting you, so be sure to project the right image from the moment you arrive.
Professionalism is an important soft skill in the workplace, but an upbeat outlook can make a difference – especially when the team runs into an unexpected challenge. While the interviewing manager may not be able to assess your positive outlook in the first 30 seconds of the interaction, your responses and reactions to interview questions will offer clues on how you deal with adversity.
Which brings me to the next point: not all of these qualities and soft skills can easily come through in your resume and cover letter! As you prepare for the interview, be sure to use it as a strategic opportunity to give the hiring manager insight into the character traits that will make you a great addition to the team.
The best way to show the importance of soft skills is by telling a story. However, not just any story will do! In order to use the interview as a showcase for your candidacy, anticipate common interview questions and choose stories that demonstrate desirable qualities and behaviors in an engaging way. If you think through the anatomy of a great story for an interview, it has three elements.
It's specific. Appropriate details can help the listener understand the context and see relevance.
It demonstrates self-awareness. A good story has a “dip” – a challenge or a problem to solve. Self-awareness highlights the lesson that you have learned in the process of solving the puzzle.
It develops step by step, so that the hiring manager shares the journey with you.
Here is an illustration. Let's pretend that you are in an interview for a manager-level position. The interviewer has just asked you, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult team member.” This is a fairly typical interview question that is aimed at understanding how you would deal with a subordinate who is not cooperating.
Here is an average way of answering the question:
“I recall a time when my staff member kept missing deadlines. Every time I would walk by his desk, he was chatting with co-workers. I thought he was just not focusing on the task and had to talk to him several times about the importance of meeting deadlines and the consequences of missing them. After several weeks of follow-up, the reports were delivered.”
Here is a better way:
“A year ago, I was in charge of supervising James, a mid-career professional who came from Asia to join our team for three months to get some hands-on experience working in the U.S.. I was initially nervous about the new addition. Even though James had almost a decade over everyone else on the team, his experience of working in business English was limited. To add to the challenge, he was joining the team at the busiest time of the year.
A week into the assignment, I observed that James was having a difficult time meeting deadlines. Despite my best efforts to check in with him regularly, he was steadily falling behind. My attempts to talk this through with him did not seem to help. I could see that he was putting in the hours. James was also doing his best to connect with other staff, but our relationship was getting worse.
At a complete loss yet unwilling to compromise the team deliverables, I spoke with my senior manager, Scott. Scott reflected that as an older male professional, James could be having a difficult time with the cultural adjustment. Asking a younger female supervisor for guidance did not come easily to him, so he opted for spinning his wheels and figuring out the answers on his own – even if it was costing us client deliverables.
That was a new insight for me. I suggested scheduling daily status meeting for James, Scott and me to sit down and talk about the project together. With a senior manager in the room, James was finally able to voice his concerns and questions. Within a few meetings, he felt comfortable enough doing the same with me directly.
I am grateful that I sought out guidance and did not simply blame James or judge him as lazy. The end result was much more constructive, and I have learned a lot in the process.”
The second story walks the interviewing manager through the context, highlights your approach for solving a complex puzzle and illustrates your learning. It also demonstrates your focus on constructive communication, clear thinking, good judgment and empathy. It positions you as a manager who wants to balance deadlines with people – working to find a solution that serves the client and the team.
As you develop your own interview responses, think about the characteristics, traits and soft skills that hiring managers look for in the workplace and weave them in. Do you have a story that illustrates your clear thinking, empathy and communication skills? Weave it in! Even if the job description does not explicitly list these qualities, the hiring manager will thank you.
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