Why Soft Skills are Essential to Career Success

When you hear “Soft Skills” – what comes to mind? I must admit I had no idea what are soft skills when I graduated from college.   I quickly realized on my first job at McKinsey how my lack of some soft skills were affecting my performance reviews.  Here are some of the soft skills I lacked at that time:

  • Stress Management and People Management Skills – At 22 years old, I was assigned an assistant at McKinsey.  I treated her horribly when I was stressed out and I was immature to think I have the right to since she worked for me.   Needless to say, she was NOT jumping to help me all the time.
  • Confidence and Communication Skills – I was book smart and had great ideas on projects, but sometimes I was afraid to speak up when there were senior people in the room.  I had no idea how to structure my comments and I didn’t have the confidence to think they would care what I think.  McKinsey expects Analysts to voice their opinions.
  • Resilience /Office politics skills – I was blamed for something I didn’t do on a project.  It took me a few years to move on from this one.  My manager succeeded in blaming me because he knew how to play office politics better than me.  I had no close support from any partners.

After working 15 years in consulting with over twenty Fortune 500 companies dealing with all kinds of people, personalities, and unexpected situations, I have a much greater appreciation for how important soft skills are to achieve career success.   So I want to share my own definition of “what are soft skills” and why they are essential to your career success.  I believe there are five key components to career success.  These five components are critical to finding jobs and succeeding on the job:

  1. Professionalism – e.g., proper appearance, basic courtesy, arriving on time

  2. Work Attitude – e.g., loyal, dedicated, willing to learn, going the extra mile

  3. Self Management Skills – e.g., stress management, motion control, confidence, resilience

  4. People Skills – e.g., communication skills, leadership skills, conflict resolution, mentoring skills

  5. Hard Skills – e.g., math, accounting, programming, finance

Soft skills represent two of these building blocks and are the most important to your career success.  They are #3 and 4 above.

  • Self Management Skills – those we use to manage how we perceive ourselves and manage our reactions to unexpected situations. How can we succeed if we don’t project or feel confident to take certain actions?  How can we succeed if we cannot control our angry response to a customer that complains all the time?
  • People Skills – those we use to influence how others perceive us, our work, our ideas. For example, we may have a brilliant idea, but if we can’t communicate it, no one will give us the support to implement it.    If we worked hard, but no one knows about it, does it count?  Probably not.   We have to subtly self-promote, so that the right people can appreciate all of our hard skills and soft skills.

Soft skills are not easily be learned in school.  This is why there are many articles  about why college grads with good grades and hard skills are not getting jobs or struggling in their jobs due to lack of soft skills.  Seasoned professionals with solid hard skills need soft skills even more as they may be passed for promotion because they don’t know how to lead a team or influence office politics. You can be familiar with the latest corporate tax software and that may be the only real job requirement, but without great people skills, even if you get the job, chances are you won’t keep it as long as another candidate who can get along well with everyone and lead by example

The good news is once you appreciate what are soft skills and their importance, they can be learned with practice, time, and guidance.  Start by going to my recent post – List of 28 Soft skills for Business Professionals and figure out which soft skills you need to improve.  Every next interaction you have with people at work is an opportunity to practice and improve.

Good luck out there.  I look forward to your comments. I am always in your corner.

– Lei

Lei Han

Lei Han is a Stanford engineer and Wharton MBA with 15 years of business experience. Lei is passionate in helping you Find, Excel, and Enjoy your careers. She write a career advice blog at BeMyCareerCoach.com - over 140 articles with tips on on career success, soft skills development, job search, and work life balance.

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