Posted by Paul McDonald on Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - 05:00 | Follow me
When college students and people just starting their careers ask me what they need to do to succeed professionally, I tell them this: Grow and refine your soft skills — now.
It doesn’t matter what type of job or industry you’re targeting — or the specific knowledge or technical skills you’ll need to bring to a role. Interpersonal abilities can give any up-and-coming professional a significant edge in the hiring market.
More than that, these skills are likely to have a direct impact on how you advance in your career.
High expectations for new hires
You need strong interpersonal abilities to navigate today’s highly collaborative work environment. Many employers also seek candidates who excel at problem solving and critical thinking, as these skills can help to drive innovation. More intangible qualities like self-confidence, an entrepreneurial spirit and inquisitiveness are also in demand.
But solid communication skills may be the most valued soft skills of all. And they encompass much more than the ability to speak or write well. For example, you must be able to communicate effectively through an array of channels, from email to social media to video. You must be a master of the art of listening, and have awareness of the body language you’re exhibiting in business settings. And you must be attuned to how others prefer to receive information from and communicate with you.
The catch is that employers will expect you to have well-polished soft skills from day one. There are two reasons for these high expectations:
- The pace of business is incredibly fast today, so there is little or no time for new hires to ramp up.
- Many employers are keeping an eye toward the future when hiring. They want to invest in candidates with the ability to grow with the firm and eventually assume a leadership position. Strong interpersonal abilities are a strong indicator of that potential.
So, how can you earn the soft skills you need to succeed? On campus, on the job or both, depending on where you are with your education and career.
Colleges and universities are ideal settings for building soft skills. They bring together people from diverse backgrounds, and from various demographic groups, who have different ways of working and communicating. You can learn quite a lot simply by interacting with others in the classroom, in the dorm, through organized school activities and through college work opportunities.
However, you need to bring more focus to your soft skills development if you want to prepare for success in the business world. Your professors can help. When possible, choose courses with instructors who have a reputation for challenging their students to ask why, to express themselves and to seek out solutions to problems. I was fortunate to have professors like this when I was in school. These mentors helped to shape who I am today as a person and a professional.
Also consider taking classes in philosophy or logic. These are more valuable to your career than you might realize because they stimulate critical thinking and interaction. And look for courses that offer smaller class sizes and, therefore, a higher level of discourse with your professor and classmates.
Lastly, don’t overload on online courses, if you can avoid it. This type of learning is convenient and may be your only option for some coursework, but the experience just isn’t the same as being in an actual classroom — even with video and chat options. When it comes to developing interpersonal abilities, there’s no substitute for in-person, face-to-face interaction.
On the job
Demonstrating to an employer that you have well-developed soft skills can help you get hired. But if you want to progress in your career — and if you aspire to leadership roles — you’ll need to continually refine your interpersonal abilities. I’ve been in the workforce for decades, and I can tell you that I’m still learning how to be a better communicator and leader!
Here are some ways to improve and expand your soft skills once you’re in the workforce:
- Be mindful about showing empathy, being a good listener, using humor, promoting teamwork and acknowledging the accomplishments of your coworkers. Your everyday interactions with colleagues in the workplace provide endless and varied opportunities for exercising interpersonal abilities.
- Look for any opportunity to lead, innovate, learn or provide solutions while on the job. Stepping outside of your comfort zone at work on a regular basis not only helps you to grow your soft skills, but it also can raise your profile and help you earn respect.
- Go back to the classroom. Whether it’s a public speaking course or a leadership workshop, there are many ways to sharpen your soft skills through continuing education. Colleges and universities and professional organizations are just some of the resources you can turn to for formal training.
What’s most important is that you start as soon as possible to make interpersonal abilities your strong suit. I assure you that you’re going to need these skills, and they will play a vital role in your future success.