“These are strong factors to ferret out during the interview process, in addition to hard skills and competence,” Stornetta says. “Human Resources teams and hiring managers are discovering that strong character traits like attentiveness, depend-ability, thoroughness, and initiative are key elements in a successful employee.”
The Grey Area
In general, soft skills cover a large area of characteristics and capabilities, but certain skills rise above the rest. In particular, communication is often regarded as the most important, as many scenarios call for expert written and oral communication skills, as well as finesse: negotiating a contract, dealing with a difficult supplier, or handling a new marketing initiative to name a few.
“When you look at communication, if it’s in person, 70 percent is body language,” contends Katko. “Do you make eye contact? Do you smile? How do you shake hands? How do you stand? Where are your shoulders?” Regardless of the type of career, Katko says convincing someone else to do something—such as grow, ship, buy, or sell produce—is a soft skill capability.
Other soft skills in demand include adaptability, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking. These traits include working well with different personality types, the ability to learn new skills to meet your employer’s evolving needs, leading by example, making good decisions with available information, and negotiating.
Professionals with excellent interpersonal skills will, in today’s competitive market, nearly always grab the promotion ahead of those whose soft skills are lacking. Attitude is key; research shows nearly 46 percent of new hires part ways with their employer within the first 18 months, largely due to issues described as “attitude problems,” not because they can’t handle the more technical side of their jobs.
How Employers Can Help
The good news is that soft skills, like hard skills, can be taught—though not easily. Given the diversity of America’s workforce in terms of age, gender, and background, training employees in how to develop soft skills may be among a company’s biggest challenges.
“When it comes to training or teaching your employees, you want to make sure [the outcome] is measurable,” asserts Katko. “Boosting soft skills means you’re setting out a plan.” She recommends using a ‘smart goal’ formula that includes being specific about which soft skills are required for a particular position and how to measure an employee’s performance. An engineer, for example, may be a technical whiz, but also needs to be able to convince higher-ups of the importance of his/her projects.
Here’s where coaching programs can be beneficial, helping managers understand how to work with their employees in learning and using soft skills. Katko, whose company conducts corporate sales, management, and customer service training programs, says the strongest managers are also coaches.
“The best managers will bring the biggest benefit to the company and its employees not by being a dictator or a taskmaster, but by being someone who can coach,” she explains. This includes leading by example and using their own soft skills “to help employees understand the importance of the company’s goals.”
Like coaching, mentoring often figures prominently in developing an employee’s soft skills: an experienced mentor can have a positive impact on employees of any age. “Having a good mentor who knows what’s needed and can gently direct you can make a world of difference,” Katko recommends. “I still have mentors to this day.”
Critical to the success of any organization is its culture. Culture produces results; it sets the tone and establishes a vision. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that culture often plays a role in a company’s hiring process. Experts agree that companies should be specific and up front about what they’re looking for in an employee. Moreover, top management shouldn’t be involved in the interview process, instead, it should be run by the people who are building the team and whose work will be most affected by the new hire.