Strengthen These 7 Critical Soft Skills and Move Up Faster

By Kate Rodriguez

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Ready to take a career step forward this year? Instead of focusing on getting better at the technical part of your job -- using the skills you learned in college or grad school – you might be better off strengthening your soft skills. Those are personality-driven competencies, like communicating well or tackling problems effectively. In a recent survey by Talent Q, 90 percent of employers responded that soft skills will become increasingly important to them as the workforce globalizes. And a 2014 CareerBuilder study of over 2,000 employers found that 77 percent of them believe soft skills are as important as hard skills. Yet many job seekers, especially entry-level ones, lack important soft skills that companies look for in successful employees. No matter what job or level you occupy currently, you'll up your chances of moving ahead if you improve in these 7 soft skill areas:


1. Company Loyalty and Enthusiasm

Company loyalty is at an all-time low, with nearly 60 percent of workers saying they remain in a constant job-search mode, even when employed. High turnover hurts an organization’s bottom line and its ability to stay competitive. Consequently, managers highly value an employee who demonstrates commitment to the organization and the enthusiasm that goes with it. 


2. Initiative

Bosses usually love it when employees take the initiative. In addition to taking some weight off their shoulders, it shows them that you are excited about doing your job. Demonstrating initiative takes many forms. It could be volunteering to take on a new project, offering to help a colleague with their workload, coming up with a way to complete a process more efficiently, discovering a cost-savings measure, or offering a good idea for a team-building social event. Another strategy is to anticipate your boss’s or team’s needs and plan ahead. Be the one who starts preparing for challenges in the next quarter, for instance.


3. Teamwork

Teams are the way of work in most places. There’s an art to participating effectively on a team, including being mindful of team member input in meetings, sharing information openly, putting systems in place to study ideas and make decisions, and being ready to admit failure and move on.


4. Problem Identification and Problem Solving

The only way to solve a problem right is to identify it first. Being able to frame a problem is a soft skill that not everyone has. But if you take the time to develop it, you can become invaluable to your employer. Business problems are usually complex and multi-layered -- to target a problem, you’ll need to develop a system: define, discuss with others, challenge the assumptions, and redefine until you get it right.

Then comes the easier part, finding the solution. That means developing hypothetical solutions, analyzing them, and coming up with a recommendation to solve the problem.


5. Oral Presentation

Anyone can become good at giving a presentation. It takes knowing how to put one together, and practice. The results can be career-changing – nothing boosts your professional credibility more than your delivering a persuasive, polished presentation. So, take time to learn this soft skill. Discern what information to include in your talk, how to build a story, tricks to memorize your script, and ways to develop strong accompanying visuals.


6. Written Communications

Similarly, developing the skill of written communication can help propel you upward in the workplace. It’s not just about double-checking your grammar and spelling on everything you produce (including emails and text messages), it’s also about writing concisely and persuasively in a way that gets the message across clearly without any wasted space. Often, we write to motivate a response – we want the boss to provide guidance, the client to answer an email, or the team to come up with a recommendation based on a report. If you write well, it makes that process much smoother, to your credit.


7. Decision Making

“Strong decision-making skills” is a requirement you see on many job announcements because it’s an important soft skill for every profession. There’s a right way to go about making decisions. Gather the facts, focus on results, get input from others, and learn to be comfortable with mistakes, among other things, and you’ll find you make solid business decisions most of the time.  

After you’ve identified the soft skills areas you want to improve in over the year, you’ll need look at practical ways to make it happen. It’s easy to find training programs at local community colleges or online courses via professional development training websites on topics like communications, teambuilding and decision making. As for other, harder-to-teach competencies, watch your most successful peers. How do they take initiative or show enthusiasm for their work, for example? Also, consider asking a more senior colleague to act as your mentor, and seek guidance in honing the soft skills you feel need work.

If you’re career searching in 2016 (or at any time), be sure to tout soft skills on your resume and in cover letters. Employers typically list pertinent soft skills in the job description – “must be able to communicate well” is a common one – but many applicants focus their materials on their hard skills only. If you can, include a couple of quotations from former managers, customers or colleagues in your resume that speak to your soft skills as well as the technical ones.


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