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March 07, 2015

Key Soft Skills for Career Success

In school, we learn, and are evaluated on, specific cognitive skills.  Math, grammar, spelling and reading, for instance.  Our ability to perform them at a high level, at least when test time comes, is a measurement of our academic success.  We are reminded of that classmate who didn’t have to try very hard but somehow had the natural ability to test really well. We loved him/her! (Umm..not)

Anyway, those skills — the ‘Hard Skills’ — are left-brain oriented and associated with our concept of IQ, or Intelligence Quotient (I somehow never knew it stood for that, did you?).  A person’s IQ is a mix of nature and nurture — part genetics and part what we learn and put into practice.

And although those skills are foundational in many ways, the way they influence our broader success in life and work is limited.  Why? Because our personal and professional lives are centered around a social ecosystem dependent on connections, influence, persuasion, storytelling, and collaboration.

A different set of skills — the ‘Soft Skills‘ — are essential for self realization and have a much bigger impact on your career and life.  Soft skills are more right-brain oriented, and aren’t generally part of the standard school curricula, although they should be.  These skills are important concepts of a fairly recently developed theory —  EI, or Emotional Intelligence (also referred to as EQ or Emotional Quotient).

The theory of Emotional Intelligence has come into focus over the last few decades, and can be framed as our ability to recognize and understand our own emotions and how they affect people and situations around us.  The theory became widely known in 1995 with the publication of Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ.

Studies have shown that a person having high EI will exhibit stronger job performance and leadership skills. EI-oriented soft skills are recognized by employers as very important in their hiring decisions and top the list of must-have skills for applicants.

We could come up with quite a long list of important soft skills (in fact, here‘s a pretty good one), but I’d like to focus on seven key skills that I believe are the most essential to your career success:

  1. Self-Awareness: This is the most core of EI-oriented soft skills.  To understand your impact on the people and situations that surround you, cultivate an awareness of your own emotions and energies, and how those are driving your actions or influencing others.  This will allow you to pivot your inner self towards the most effective match for various situations.
  2. Attitude and Orientation: This area of soft skills has to do with your basic point of reference as an employee.  It is the way you show up, is reflected in your attitude, openness to learn and be trained, and your overall level of effort.  If you can intentionally position yourself in a positive space, be open and receptive, while exhibiting high levels of hunger and effort, you will be more effective at having influence and impact.  This can’t be underestimated, and ultimately translates to your level of likability, which although may seem amorphous or trivial, has a huge influence on your success.
  3. Communication: Your ability to communicate effectively, both verbally and in writing, is an essential skill.  Communicating requires taking advantage of hard skills related to your writing or speaking abilities. Communicating well requires soft skills to really connect more deeply with people. If you are authentic, clear and confident, you can begin to go beyond merely talking and writing. The ability to transcend also requires the capacity to weave together a compelling narrative — a story that can connect through emotion.  As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  In addition, let’s remember that true communication goes both ways and involves active listening, an art in itself that needs constant honing.
  4. Perceptiveness: If you have this soft skill, you are able to pick up on the full range of communication inputs — verbal, visual and visceral. You can sense the energy in a room, and “hear” what is unsaid, often relying on your intuition as a lens into this underlying nuance.  Without this skill, you miss unspoken cues. You will misinterpret the intentions of others and have trouble relating to them, while not understanding why.
  5. Interpersonal Ability: This is what’s often referred to as “people skills.”  It is your ability to find connective-lines and commonalities with others, engage in two-way communication, built trust, show empathy, and interact in social situations with agility.  Your interpersonal ability requires comfort and confidence of self, so that you can escape that inner monologue we all have, and reach across to authentically connect with others.  You use these skills to connect with a customer, your employer, or a room full of peers.
  6. Persuasiveness: Unless you’re in a position to direct an outcome via coercion (which is never the most effective or sustainable way to lead), you’ll need to rely on this soft skill to influence situations and decisions.  The art of persuasion is difficult to master.  It requires us to get outside our own perspective and desired outcome to understand what’s important and valued by others.  You can be most effective in influencing an outcome through understanding, validating, and aligning with the views and motivations of others.  And often that outcome is a collaborative creation you couldn’t see when considering only your needs and perspectives.
  7. Resilience and Persistence: It’s important to recognize you’re going to fail and make mistakes along your career journey.  Everyone will and likely multiple times.  Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”  Those who end up on top have engaged in the courageous and mundane act of picking themselves back up, and have the patience and discipline to string together a series of small wins over time, with failures in between.


  • ‘Hard Skills’ are left-brain oriented and associated with IQ. We learn them in school.
  • ‘Soft Skills’ are right-brain oriented and associated with EQ or EI, Emotional Intelligence. We learn them primarily from experiences.
  • Soft skills are critical for career success and are strongly connected to employees who perform at a high level and exhibit leadership.
  • The seven key soft skills listed above can accelerate your career and broaden your impact and influence.


Try This Out

  • Ask your boss which soft skills are most important to to the culture of your organization.
  • Have your colleagues offer feedback. In which soft skill area do you exhibit strengths, and in which area could you improve?
  • Identify a mentor or colleague who effectively exhibits some of the soft skills explored above and interview them.  How do they put them into practice?  Have them share stories of success and failure.  Discuss how having soft skills helped or how a lack of them hurt.
  • Focus on internalizing and putting into practice one soft skill area each week for seven weeks.

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