By Tina Donvito
Reader’s Digest —
Forget your technical chops—here are the qualities you really need to succeed.
You get where people are coming from
Congrats! You’ve earned your diploma and think you’re ready to land your dream job—but first, you need soft skills. Although you might have the technical know-how, or “hard skills,” to do the job, your future employer might be looking for something more. One survey showed that job candidates rated themselves higher than employers did on whether they had the skills necessary to do the job. So what are soft skills? They’re people skills that can’t be quantified, like communication. But “communication” doesn’t mean just having a nice phone voice—it means being perceptive and understanding of others’ motives. “I always say, ‘The best way to get what you want is to figure out why someone else wants you to have it,’” says career expert Michelle Tillis Ledermen, founder of Executive Essentials and author of The 11 Laws of Likability. “In other words, seek to understand their motivation. When you do, you can present your ideas, request, or any communication through that lens.”
This year’s survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that 78 percent of employers seek candidates who can work in a team, making it the most desired skill. To do so, you’ll need your coworkers to find you open, available, empathetic, and relatable. If you’re closed off, you will put people on the defensive, which makes it harder to work together and have your ideas accepted. Lederman says one of the “pillars of trust” in a work environment is authenticity. “You can’t connect with and trust someone who isn’t being real,” she says. Another is vulnerability. “This is not about being weak, it is about being open and sharing imperfections for others to learn from,” she says. If your colleagues can relate to you and feel they can trust you, they’re likely to be amenable in turn.
You’re good on your own
Today’s pared-down workforce means your bosses might not have time to hold your hand and make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to—they’ll just want you to get the job done. According to the NACE survey, 65 percent of employers look for initiative in a job candidate. “Without self-motivation you will not reach your full potential for success,” Lederman says. “It’s the highest level of self-mastery.” This internal drive means that you should be able, in effect, to be your own manager. “It’s useful to be predictably capable of handling tasks with little or no direct supervision,” says career consultant Miriam Salpeter, founder of Keppie Careers and author of 100 Conversations for Career Success.
Taking initiative doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions—in fact, requesting clarification is actually proactive. It’s more efficient to make sure you’re moving in the right direction before completing a task rather than waste time on the wrong track. “Being able to ask for help when needed is an important skill that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” Salpeter says. “Most employers would prefer to hire someone who knows when it’s time to ask questions and request assistance than someone who thinks he or she already knows everything.” Although you might feel asking questions makes you look stupid, it actually displays an inquisitive mind.
People look to you
“Leadership” falls into the “sweet spot” on the soft skills list from The Bloomberg Job Skills Report. These are traits that are more desired but less common among job candidates. But what does being a leader really entail? It’s beyond telling people what to do. Instead, it means motivating others—even if you’re not actually the manager, by “providing positive feedback when an employee does well, collaborating with team members to set company goals so their opinion and ideas are valued, and creating an environment where employees are allowed and encouraged to be their best selves,” says career counselor Eileen Sharaga, who has a background in psychology and business. This fosters a positive feeling among the staff, which leads to better productivity. “The foundation of a good leader is the ability to build relationships with people,” Lederman says. “The number one reason employees disengage and quit is their relationship with their boss—people believe in the person, not the company.”
You can be counted on
If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it, you’re going to find yourself out on the street. NACE’s survey found that 72 percent of employers look for a strong work ethic on a candidate’s resume. Your colleagues as well as your boss need to be able to depend on you to turn in good work. “‘Accuracy’ and ‘consistency’ are probably two great words to describe a dependable worker,” Salpeter says. Ledermen says this soft skill also has to do with building trust among your team. “Trust is about the expectation of predictability,” she says. “You won’t get that without consistency.”
You’re a good listener
According to a poll by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC, creator of the GMAT), the top skills that companies desire all have to do with communication. But this doesn’t just mean talking—the second most desired trait on the survey was listening. This is huge in conflict resolution. “Active listening provides all parties to feel heard and understood,” Sharaga says. This also can help you get to the root of a conflict, which Salpeter says isn’t always obvious. “Listening is an often forgotten skill,” she says. “Know and understand both sides and identify a way for each side to feel as if they ‘won.’ This takes maturity and an ability to see beyond the immediate outcome.” You must be able to take in and process what’s really going on before you can respond with your ideas, Sharaga says.
In order to make solid decisions, you have to be assured of your ability to do so. “Our belief in our skill set and competence is essential in making choices for the betterment of the company,” Sharaga says. Your boss will be relying on you to have an opinion and voice it, so a wishy-washy attitude will make you less valuable an employee. Making a bad decision in some instances might be better than not making one at all—although of course, it helps if you really do know what you’re talking about. “Perhaps it’s not confidence in your ability to make decisions that’s most important, but having the knowledge to be able to make them appropriately,” says Salpeter.
To be a true professional, you have to keep your emotions in check, because your emotional state will affect those around you. “Energy is contagious,” Lederman says. “If you are allowing your mood swings to impact your productivity, you can also expect it to impact those around you—and almost always negatively.” Being frustrated and impatient is not conducive to a positive work environment. But, if you can take a beat to calm yourself (try some deep breathing), you can step back and solve the problem you’re facing with a clear head.
You have grace under pressure
Let’s face it—work can be stressful, no matter what job you have. A survey from the American Psychological Association found that one-third of Americans experience chronic workplace stress. But if you allow that pressure to consume you, you won’t be able to be productive. The first way to deal is to identify what sets it off for you—deadlines, speaking at meetings, criticism from your boss—and then you can find stress management strategies to head it off at the pass. “Understand your triggers and what grounds you, and seek to be responsive rather than reactive,” Lederman advises.
You pay attention to the clock
One of the ways you can better handle stress at work is time management and organization, which was ranked on one poll as the second most in-demand skill. Missed deadlines are not going to reflect well on you, so look for ways you can become more efficient. Learning how to focus your energy on one task at a time can help you move through all you have to do quicker. “Multitasking is a myth!” Lederman says. “Multitasking only works when the tasks are repetitive and don’t require mental input. When you are in high mental tasks, block out everything else and you will be more efficient.” Sometimes we waste time because of the way processes are set up in the company, so if you have a better idea, suggest it to your team. “Schedule regular team meetings to check workplace progress and productivity, and collaborate going forward on what needs improvement while also stating what’s going well,” Sharaga suggests.
You go with the flow
Today’s workplace moves fast, so you need an attitude that keeps you flexible and adaptable—a skill 63 percent of employers look for, according to NACE. “Business process, strategy, technology, and goals are constantly changing,” Lederman says. So don’t get stuck in one way of doing things. Plus, you’re going to have to deal with various personalities and approaches to the tasks at hand. “We all work differently and if you can’t adapt to different communication styles you will have a harder time connecting, collaborating, and influencing,” she says. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up for what you think would work best. “Still question the reasons, seek to understand the vision, and then look for where you can contribute and have an impact,” Lederman says.
You play well with others
Remember the rules you learned in kindergarten—sharing, having manners, and taking turns all foster a more effective and efficient team. A study from Harvard found that social skills are actually rewarded by the labor market, as jobs that require these skills are growing. But if you’re always trying to one-up others or get ahead at the expense of your coworkers, the environment will quickly turn toxic. Be honest about your motivations and goals instead of being shady. “Transparency—providing information and reasoning—is essential to building trust,” Lederman says. “Without the information, people make up their own stories, which are not the ones you want being shared.”
You express yourself
Communication is multi-faceted, so along with listening and responding you need the verbal and written skills to state your position clearly—desired traits that are numbers one and three on GMAC’s survey. “No matter how skilled and talented you are, if you’re unable to effectively express yourself to your team and employer, your skills may be completely overlooked,” Sharaga says. In addition, you need to be adept at all forms of changing technology. “Workers accustomed to texting may need to improve their verbal communication so they can engage successfully via phone conversations,” Salpeter says. “Today’s job seekers may need to practice and improve their video communication skills to excel at a video interview.”
You’re sure of yourself
If you have confidence in yourself, your ideas are going to be presented—and received—better. “You can’t get what you want if you are not able to communicate it clearly, concisely, and in a compelling way,” Lederman says. Whether you’re in a sales job or not, you need to be able to sell what you’re saying. “With confidence, a person has a more positive self-outlook which helps foster a more positive work environment and team,” Sharaga says. Plus, being able to self-promote and network will help you advance. “Having confidence in networking is crucial because with it comes great self-awareness of what you can offer, and the ability to want to expand and connect with others,” she says. Not to mention having the courage to negotiate a higher salary or promotion.
You want to grow
All this confidence, though, does not mean thinking you can do no wrong. “Arrogance is a signal of insecurity, which can represent a lack of skill,” Sharaga says. “Being confident will allow you to openly accept constructive criticism and take what others offer in advice in stride.” This means taking responsibility for your actions and admitting mistakes instead of blaming others, and always looking for ways to improve. Also, the ability to accept that others’ suggestions might be better than yours will allow for true collaboration.
Whatever job you get is not always going to be smooth-sailing—there will be bumps along the way. What sets you apart as a strong and valued worker is your ability to bounce back when things don’t go in your (or your company’s) favor, which means having a positive outlook for the future as well as the problem-solving skills to make it happen. In fact, Bloomberg’s Job Skills Report lists strategic thinking as the number one desired trait that’s also less common among job applicants. This resilience is the kind a motivation that “enables us to overcome obstacles, persevere when things don’t go as planned, and is the drive we need to reach our goals,” Lederman says.