What Do They Mean by “Soft Skills”?

In his Forbes.com article titled Here Are The Top 5 Soft Skills I Look For In Candidates, Mark Pena opens by saying, “In an automating workforce, soft skills are the irreplaceably human element of work - and the thing employers are desperate to find.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the idea of soft skills referenced throughout my career, but I’ve rarely heard anyone provide tangible examples of soft skills that I could learn quickly or apply immediately. I’m not suggesting that it’s not possible or never happens, I’m just saying it’s rare… Soft Skills seem to almost always be something that’s ambiguous, or something that you either have or you don’t. I’ve just never been willing to buy into that idea, especially when I hear things like “you get hired for what you know but you get fired for who you are…” (There’s even a Psychology Today article with nearly that exact title that shares lessons from Steve Carell’s character in The Office…)

Before we even bother continuing down this path, let’s look at what Mark Pena lists as those top 5 soft skills he looks for in candidates: Communication (which he says should top any list), Engagement, Teamwork, Problem Solving, and Leadership. He shared that these “non-technical skills that relate to how you work appear to be in short supply today.” Pena backs that claim with a Wall Street Journal study of 900+ executives showing that 92% surveyed believed soft skills were as important as hard skills and 89% of that same group said they struggled finding candidates with those skills.

For what it’s worth, I believe each of those top 5 skills he lists are indeed critical in just about any candidate we consider adding to our teams. But I’d guess your definition for each would likely vary a bit from how I would define them. And even if we reach an agreement on them, we’d still need to come to terms on what the actual behaviors look like in candidates or our team members and how we can effectively develop those skills so that we achieve a tangible return on the time and energy we invest.

Moving forward here, my goal will be to provide you with significant clarity around what we can each look at when someone mentions soft skills so we’re on the same page and a practical approach for building our own soft skills, as well as the soft skills throughout our entire team, in a way that we see a direct impact on profitability. Before we do all that though, we’ll take a quick look at a framework Cindy and I learned from a former presidential candidate just a few years ago...


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