By: Ericka Harney, Executive Director, Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance

Use of the term ‘soft skills’ or ‘people skills’ has been thrown around a lot but what are professionals really doing to improve them? We seem to think they are important but don’t know exactly why. They are hard to quantify, and as such, I have found employers are not as supportive of professional development in these areas when they can pay for education with more obvious outcomes. In addition to the quantifiable issues, we have an innate aversion to the word ‘soft’ in the professional context.

Dina Medland, a contributor to Forbes, examined several studies that seek to quantify aspects of soft skills. One study showed that 97% of employers think soft skills are important to their business success, with 75% of employers finding a lack of, or gap in, soft skills. While this provides some perspective, a more impactful quantification is that a study determined that soft skills was responsible for the contribution of £88 billion in the UK economy. Talk about a quantity!

The Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA) began addressing these skills, or what I like to call ‘critical competencies’, in 2015 to complement the technical education members are receiving at conferences, their local chapters and from employers. The move to include more skills the help members build relationships and emotional intelligence (EQ) was supported by research and publications to be of industry importance. The Journal of Accountancy and Journal of Finance have published several articles on the need to develop EQ and other skills, for professionals as well as college students.

Let’s break down areas of soft skills to dig a little deeper and look at how we can develop these skills, in addition to promoting that we have them. One thing I do want to stress here is the lack of discussion of age or generation. So much of the discussion around soft skills is dedicated to addressing, or even attacking, the Millennial generation as the one lacking in soft skills. I find that regardless of age or generation, we all have weaknesses in soft skills to work on.  Last time I checked, we all graduated with the enthusiasm to take on the world and had plenty of blind spots in the form of ‘we don’t’ know what we don’t know’. Having critical competencies for success is for everyone to develop.

Defining Soft Skills

Soft Skills, EQ, People Skills – these all encompass many aspects of human behavior, which again lends to the nebulous nature of the topic. I like to break the laundry list of facets into some main categories that help me focus better on individual skills.

Communication

It probably seems like the vast world of communication does not make understanding soft skills easier but it is truly half the battle in the working world. We can break this down further into verbal, non-verbal, written, and listening. Be mindful of word choice and jargon depending on the audience. Something as simple as leaving a clear voicemail or writing an aggression-free email needs active thought and intention, so be present. Always remember that your non-verbal communication sends messages that are just as important as written or spoken communication. Finally in the communication realm is feedback. Know how to ask for and use feedback from others as well as provide objective and useful feedback to others in a non-critical way.

Action

Probably the easiest area to define are actions like ability to project manage, find creative solutions, dig into work, and flexibility to changing situations. Most of us know if we are left-brained or right-brained. Project manage based on how your brain works and processes information. Also, realize that taking initiative and being reliable in today’s workforce are huge traits that you will be able to take to the bank. Hard work is rewarded, sometimes even if you must pat yourself on the back. Know your tolerance for ambiguity (which there is an actual scale for measuring this) and work with yourself to learn from mistakes as well as your wins.

Relationships

Nothing is certain when you have people involved, so accept now that you cannot control everyone else’s behavior. But you can make sure you can do a few key things. Be able to handle difficult conversations – and admit when you have made a mistake. Take self-reflection seriously when it comes to your emotions. If you know a particular person or issue causes you anxiety or fear, identify it and how to cope. Despite how you feel about someone, you’ll have to collaborate with them in the work place. While you need to know yourself well, you also need to be able to ‘read’ others and be socially aware, able to interact and develop positive working relationships. It’s also key to understand the importance of mentoring and advising, especially peer to peer. Having an outside perspective or able to tap into someone’s experiences is invaluable to helping you strengthen soft skills.

Developing and Selling Your Soft Skill Ability

You’ve probably noticed from above, the development of your soft skills is going to require initiative and work on your part. Utilize assessments, like the DiSC Profile or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, to understand your personality and the many facets of it. You’ll better understand your strengths and areas of opportunity. Above all recognize the need for self-reflection so you can identify the skills to focus on strengthening. Once those are identified, you can find plenty of webinars, articles, blogs and other resources.

I’ll be the first one to admit that when helping others with resumes, I’ve been the proponent of ‘quantify, quantify’, sometimes missing out on the opportunity display soft skills. I always recommend keeping a working draft of a resume so you can pick and choose what goes into a job application or LinkedIn profile. Use this document to articulate these soft skills and what they accomplished, in addition to demonstration of hard skills. For example, were you part of a 6-member team that found an innovative solution? Not only describe what, but the how – did you communicate in person or virtually? Did you take a leadership role or were you integral to managing a process as a team member? Were there challenges that you overcame and how did you do that. Be as lengthy as you need to be in this document so you can edit later.

Making a conscious effort to strength soft skills is one of the best investments in yourself. Utilize networks, your employer and resources to your advantage. Take each opportunity as it comes and remember it is a journey unto itself.