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The Growing Importance of Soft Skills

I’ve been working on my own — and now others’— interpersonal skills for decades, but I’m realizing I need to update my terminology.

Listening, empathy, teamwork, humility — extremely important along with your degree and “hard” experience and skills — are termed as “soft skills.”

Recently, TTI Success Insights, a company with whom I work closely to learn how to apply assessment tools, compared hard v. soft skills, explaining what makes each different and why each is important.

First of all, the best way to distinguish between hard and soft skills is their measurability. You can pass a test and receive a degree or certificate. You can’t always present data showing how good of a team player you are. Of course, in working with people through assessments helps coaches like me get closer to some measure of that, but you get the picture.

I’d like to take the term “soft skills” to task, though, in that it infers that it’s not an important skill. Far from it, and I prefer the term that Philip Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College uses: Power Skills.

Think about it: communication, persuasive speech and writing, negotiation are not soft traits to carry with you into an interview, a meeting with a client, or in a presentation to stockholders. Your degree means little in any of these instances, truly.

To illustrate the point, let’s say you are a heart surgeon. You must have hard skills like your medical degree and the years of training it took to perfect your skills. Imagine, however, having a surgeon who is a poor communicator, is short-tempered, and lacks any humility to accept and assess any kind of feedback from peers. That surgeon’s patient could suffer because of his lack of these skills.

The most interesting thing is that I’m learning that power skills may even be more important than hard skills. An article in Forbes pointed to a Google study of their employees, where they found, “their highest performing teams were interdisciplinary groups that benefited heavily from employees who brought strong soft skills to the collaborative process. Further research revealed that important predictors of success within Google were skills like good communication, insights about others, and empathetic leadership.”

So, if you’re questioning the importance of taking personality assessments when you meet with a business coach, I ensure you the value is priceless. The weight of such skills is growing as the job market is changing at a much faster pace, and adaptability and the ability to think in terms of the bigger picture is also in higher demand.

Not that long ago, people who got degrees in let’s say philosophy were considered as having an aimless existence, unless their goal was to teach philosophy in college. Now, people like Mark Cuban are making bold claims like, “a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree.”

Why would he say that? Because artificial intelligence is here, and it will likely be able to perform those “hard” tasks like computing, accounting and programming. People who are tuned into personal development to improve their critical thinking skills are much more likely to stay successful.

I have to admit, it’s tough to wrap my head around where we’re headed, but the good news is that while hard skills are usually taught externally to you, the power skills are completely within your grasp. It’s not book learning, but it’s perhaps the toughest studying you’ll ever do.

Time and again I meet with potential clients who start off enthusiastically about grabbing success, but when it comes to the inwardly-focused process of understanding your limitations, flaws, challenges in order to begin to change them (and strengthening power skills), people get cold feet. If I have just described you, try this exercise: Imagine yourself in five years, feeling like the boat left the dock without you. Your skills that came from a book are no longer valuable, and you feel frustrated and lost.

Conversely, imagine yourself in five years, feeling very successful - in a career you love, in positive relationships — all because you regulary engaged in the process of examining your motivations, assessing your behavior critically, and generally being self-aware of your impact.

Now, whether you are driven to avoid a bad outcome, or are driven to become your best self, use that momentum to start the process. No cold feet, just steps toward the goal of personal development. You will find it’s a journey that has no end, but because you’re enjoying the scenery along the way, it doesn’t matter.