Soft skills–those traits and techniques that help you build relationships with others–are a key to getting ahead at work.
Even in a high-tech, highly electronic world, says Melisza Campos, a Dale Carnegie master, “The people who can get things done are the ones who can navigate human relationships.”
Why is that? Campos, 40, whose day job is as a marketing manager at Wegmans, says “Being able to facilitate solutions, whether for your department or company, is very important.” She believes that problems we face in the world are getting more and more complex, so it takes collaboration to address them.
Soft skills help you understand where people are at, she said, and how to motivate them to work together to accomplish what is a prime objective for most businesses: “getting something done on time.”
Lack of soft skills may even be the cause of today’s tempestuous political times. Campos cited a recent Harvard Business Review article that said 50 percent of Americans avoid talking with people who are different. It’s hard to communicate, let alone collaborate, with a person who won’t even consider talking to you.
Many people 40 years old and above think those younger than 40 lack some of these soft skills, due to their reliance on screens rather than face-to-face communication. As a result, RBJ consulted with three 2018 winners of the Rochester 40 Under 40 Awards, to get their take on the importance of soft skills and how to develop them.
All three said soft skills may come more easily to an extrovert–especially some who describes themselves as a “people person.” But they also suggested ways people can improve upon soft skills.
The skills include building trust, making connections, being able to truly listen to and acknowledge another point of view, resolving conflicts, self-awareness and reflection, flexibility in the face of unexpected events, and perhaps above all, the ability to communicate well.
Anyone with an abundance of these traits might want to consider finding work in a field that makes extensive use of these skills, such as fundraising and marketing.
“I’ve always been a people person and I think soft skills is just something you just have, but I do think it’s something that you can be thoughtful of, or improve upon,” said Ryann Guglielmo, 29, a public relations advisor at Dixon Schwabl. She said she’s noticed a difference in access to soft skills among younger people.
“I think younger generations have different resources we might not have had,” Gugliemo said, such as required interpersonal communication classes in college. She said younger people communicate well, but they may prefer doing it by email instead of in-person meetings.
“I would rather do the in-person meeting, but I appreciate someone who doesn’t have that style,” she said.
Darrell Bell, 39, vice president for institutional advancement at Roberts Wesleyan College, says he was often warned that his outgoing personality as a child would lead him into a career in politics.
“I don’t think I would be a vice president if I didn’t have curiosity, want to learn new things, jump in head first when there’s problems to solve, or conflicts to resolve,” Bell said. “I’ve always just had a passion for getting to know people.”
Carlos Cong, 40, a senior manager of Enterprise Technology Services at Paychex, Inc., describes himself as more of an “ambivert,” meaning an introvert at times and an extravert at other times, depending on the situation.
Nevertheless, Cong relies on soft skills to do his job. “Everything we do (at Paychex) is all about collaboration,” he said. That’s true whether he’s communicating with an end user of Paychex services at a remote location or a division executive who wants to achieve a particular business outcome, and especially when making a pitch.
Cong said soft skills are “foundational for you to be successful. If you don’t have those skills, you’re really not going to go anywhere.”
All three 40 Under 40 awardees said it’s possible to hone soft skills by learning from others, though Bell leaned more heavily toward the “You’ve either got it you’ve don’t” school of thinking.
Guglielmo said she regularly attends workshops or presentations–some of them free–offered by the Rochester Business Journal and the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.
Campos said people need to practice these skills and can start out small, in low-risk settings. As a proponent of Dale Carnegie training, she of course suggested that training would be useful, “where you’re in a safe lab environment to be able to try.” But students of soft skills can also learn on the job. “Ask a manager to take on more–facilitating a team meeting. Or it could be that they go to more networking functions just to try,” Campos suggested.
Bell said, “Exposure is everything.” College courses can offer practice in making presentations or drawing in other students to collaborate on projects.
When he was getting his master’s degree in strategic leadership at Roberts, Bell said some of his classmates had a lot of trouble making public presentations. “At end of the program, they were sending me photos of them presenting to hundreds of people,” he said. “A lot of where we get caught up is in our own heads. When you’re put into a situation where you have to do it, you just kind of have to do it.”
Both Guglielmo and Cong suggested observing leaders you admire and copying their best soft skills. Guglielmo has used that trick to develop the skill of successful delegating. She doesn’t just give someone a task; she communicates how the task will help the larger project.
“Find a mentor who can coach you and be honest with you,” Guglielmo said.
Cong said he learned the value of listening from observing a leader he admired at work.
“One of my mentors throughout my career, really, really took the time to actively listen to people and really make them feel valued in terms of their opinion, even if she didn’t agree with them. Through that observation, really what I learned was that patience … to not jump to conclusions,” he said. One should respond to a foreign idea in a way that will “continue to grow the relationship rather than hinder it,” he said. Interrupting or cutting someone off can cause the other person to be combative, defensive, less than curious. “Acknowledgement is the response people really want.”
One last suggestion that introverts might find especially attractive came from Cong: read a book. There are plenty of how-to books available. Cong’s favorite is “Leading Change” by John Kotter.
Whether you are born with the skills or need to develop or brush up on them, soft skills are worth having.
“You’ll be more respected at work and people will want to work alongside you and with you,” Guglielmo said.