What Are Soft Skills – Building Blocks to Career Success

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 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 dealing with all kinds of people, personalities, and unexpected situations, I have a much greater appreciation for how important soft skills are to achieve business and career success. So I would like to offer my own definition of “what are soft skills” in practical terms.

I believe there are five Building Blocks to Career Success – Professionalism, Work Attitude, Self Management Skills, People Skills, and Hard Skills. These five components are critical to finding jobs and succeeding on the job. Soft skills represent two of these building blocks and are the most important to your career success.

  • 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.

These skills cannot 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 also need these 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.

The good news is once you appreciate what are soft skills and their importance, you can begin to further develop them with practice, time, and guidance. Every next interaction you have with people at work is an opportunity to practice and improve.

Best wishes to your career. I am always in your corner.

Lei