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What Are Soft Skills – Building Blocks to Career Success
I have to admit I had no idea what soft skills were when I graduated from college. I quickly realized at my first job at McKinsey how my lack of soft skills affected my performance ratings. Here are some of the soft skills I lacked at that time.
- Stress Management and People Management Skills – When I was 22 years old, I was assigned an assistant at McKinsey. I treated her horribly when I was stressed and I was incompetent to think that I am entitled because she worked for me. Needless to say, she did NOT jump to help me the entire time.
- Confidence and communication skills – I was book smart and had great ideas about projects, but sometimes I was afraid to speak when there were seniors in the room. I had no idea how to structure my comments and I didn’t have the confidence to think that it would matter what I thought. McKinsey expects Analysts to express their opinions.
- Skills / Office political skills – I was blamed for what I did not do on a project. It took me a few years to move on from this one. My manager managed to blame me because he could play office politics better than I could. I did not have close support from any partners.
After 15 years of consulting with all types of people, personalities and unexpected situations, I have a much greater appreciation for how important soft skills are to achieving business and career success. So I’d like to offer my own definition of “what are soft skills” in practical terms.
I believe there are five building blocks to career success – professionalism, work attitude, self-management skills, people skills and hard skills. These five components are critical to finding jobs and succeeding on the job. Soft skills represent two of these building blocks and are most important to your career success.
- Self-management skills – which we use to manage how we perceive ourselves and manage our reactions to unexpected situations. How can we succeed if we don’t project or feel confident to take certain actions? How can we succeed if we can’t control our angry reaction to a customer who complains all the time?
- People Skills – which we use to influence how others perceive us, our work, our ideas. For example, we may have a brilliant idea, but if we cannot communicate it, no one will give us the support to implement it. If we worked hard, but no one knows about it, does it count? Probably not. We need to subtly self-promote so that the right people can appreciate all our hard skills and soft skills.
These skills cannot be easily learned in school. This is why there are many articles about why college grads with good grades and hard skills don’t get jobs or struggle in their jobs due to lack of soft skills. Experienced professionals with solid hard skills also need these soft skills even more because they may be passed over for promotion because they don’t know how to lead a team or influence office politics.
The good news is once you appreciate what soft skills are and their importance, you can begin to develop them further with practice, time and guidance. Every subsequent interaction you have with people at work is an opportunity to practice and improve.
Best wishes for your career. I’m always in your corner.
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