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.

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