What Soft Skills Are

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.13.54 AMTo some, soft skills are code for corporate culture; for others they are the emotional side of working well together as a team and being a team player. Yet to others it represents specific skills that companies spend large amounts of money to develop within their people.

I ask companies small to large what kinds of skills they are looking for in their new recruits.  They often start the conversation by saying “I can teach the hard skills specific to my organization or industry but what I really need are people that are problem solvers, can work in teams, can communicate well, have learned how to learn, and can lead teams.”

What they are saying is they need 21st-century skills or what we are calling soft skills. These five skills below are the essence of soft skills, and every company, no matter its size will either succeed or fail in the 21st century based on how well these skills are developed and used in their organization.

Let’s look at five soft skills and the role they play in your success.

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  • Problem solving — A service-based economy is run on solving other’s problems. Fewer and fewer answers are cookie cutter ones that come from the training manual. You need people who can analyze data and come up with solutions to give your customers options to choose from.
  • Teamwork — We spend our entire education process learning how to work as an individual; if you collaborate on a test you get kicked out of school. In the workplace, employees need to compensate for each other and develop an even stronger solution because of their talents.
  • Communication — Each customer is becoming more unique, so you need people who can listen and understand what the issues are and then articulate those to other parts of your organization. Teams are becoming more remote and more global so being able to communicate effectively through technology to develop a solution for a customer is becoming more important. Once employees have developed a solution for a customer, they need to go and communicate that back to them in a way customers can understand.
  • Ability to learn — Employees need confidence that they can learn new things as what they learn in their first year of school is often obsolete by the time they graduate.
  • Leadership — We aren’t talking about CEO-level leadership, but taking responsibility for what needs to be done in a team environment. As discussed above, we rarely work independently anymore, so having employees who can organize and manage teams is a critical function that allows a company to scale and work at its most efficient level. This isn’t about personality or charisma but having the interpersonal skills to communicate with a team, encourage a team, and deliver for the team.

It takes time and practice to develop soft skills. Before becoming a parent, my wife and I read many different books on the subject and felt like we were prepared. It didn’t matter how much I read or studied. When our daughter woke up and started screaming in the middle of the night it wasn’t anything like what I read about. It was learning what she needed by doing it over and over again that I became a better parent.

So it is with soft skills: employees need to be put in a team environment and be given real problems to be solved with no predetermined outcomes, and then go and figure it out, over and over again.

Kevin Nethercott is the managing director of employer engagement at Knod, which is disrupting higher education by closing the education to employment gap -- connecting the world's middle-class to employers by bringing the employers into Knod’s blended learning process.


2 Comments on “What Soft Skills Are

  1. Kevin, interesting post.

    I’ve worked with several thousand recruiters in both very large Fortune companies as well as smaller organizations as the individual Lou Adler retains to review and certify recruiters in Performance-based Hiring. My part-time work for Lou gives me a lot of insight into a statement like, “I can teach the hard skills etc…”

    I agree with the statement, but from my experience, there is a direct disconnect between that statement and the way that recruiting is actually executed on a day-to-day basis.

    To begin with, the job posts are rife with hard skill requirements, a lot of which don’t have much to do with the reality of what’s actually required to be successful on the job. And, employers are hard pressed to validate those when pressed to do so.

    The initial resume review is next which is typically followed by a phone screen interview which is almost totally structured entirely around these hard skills. That’s especially true of the resume screening process, which is sometimes being done by the ATS alone based on hard-skill key word terms. When that happens, there is never a way for the candidate to even get in the game to present their soft skills.

    While I’ve heard many of the recruiters I referenced above make a similar “soft skills” statement, I can’t recall a single time when I pressed them about how that is incorporated into their initial screening processes, they’ve been able to prove they take that into account up front.

    My conclusion is that only the people who meet the hard skill requirements are likely to get in the game to present their soft skill ability. About the only time I’ve observed something different is when an individual is known (usually a referral) and maybe doesn’t have all of the specified hard skills therefore gets an opportunity to get into the interview game.

    Finally, there are specific resume creation methods that would showcase actual work accomplishments that would fit each of your five soft skills, but I wonder how the recruiting teams would view that, or if they would want an interview is all the hard skills can’t be checked off?

  2. Soft skills are the true measure of employee success. But is there a way to determine a potential new hire’s soft skills when you’re trying to fill an open position?

    The answer to that question is: YES!

    Developed by Harvard University psychology researchers and data scientists, Cangrade is an easy-to-use online tool that analyzes 40 soft skills of potential candidates to predict how likely they will succeed at the job.

    Here’s some more info on how this time-saving tool is helping HR and hiring managers avoid costly hiring mistakes by predicting which potential employee will be successful based on their personality traits and soft skills:


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