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When advertising sales manager Stacy Caprio first entered the working world, she was surprised to learn that one of the most important parts of her job would be knowing the right way to talk to clients on the phone.
“I assumed that as long as the correct information was communicated as quickly as possible, I’d done my job,” Caprio says. “But I soon learned there’s a whole art to handling a phone call correctly, and it’s about much more than exchanging facts.” Her realization? That clients became far more receptive when she expressed genuine interest and injected small talk and personality into the conversation.
So-called soft skills like this are just as important as, say, knowing how to use specific software. In fact, a LinkedIn survey found that 57% of employers considered soft skills even more important than hard skills.
So while you may be confident entering the workforce with your technical know-how, it’s also a good idea to brush up on your soft skills so that you don’t find yourself blindsided by some of the unwritten rules of the workplace. We’ve rounded up six of the top soft skills, along with some tips for how to develop them.
1. Problem Solving
It’s a fact of life that things will go wrong. Maybe your computer ate your spreadsheet, or a project suddenly went off schedule. What most newbies do is panic and run to the boss, but your manager doesn’t want a problem dumped on her desk: She wants a solution.
Always come to your boss with a range of solutions, says Brett Ellis, founder of Brett Ellis Career Marketing Services. For instance, if a major report is delayed because of a printing error, tell your boss when it can conceivably be done — and then present her with other vendors who can step in. Just don’t wait too long. “If an assignment will be late, don’t loop your boss in two hours before the deadline,” Ellis says. “Give them an explanation if something was out of your control as far in advance as you can and provide a more realistic deadline with the options.”
2. Public Speaking
You’re probably not going to give a keynote address anytime soon, but almost every professional will end up talking in a meeting or presenting to clients at some point. “It’s vital to feel comfortable expressing your ideas and accomplishments to others in the workplace,” notes Alex Strathdee, co-host of the young professionals podcast “Practically Passionate.”
Practice speaking up in low-stakes situations, such as your weekly team meeting or an affinity group you’ve joined, so you feel confident hearing your voice. And if you know you are on the agenda to present a formal update, don’t just wing it. “Know your content really well, because that’s one less thing that can go wrong if you’re nervous,” Strathdee points out.
“Many new professionals tend to brag about how they did most of the work on group projects, but that is the opposite of what your manager wants.”
You’ve heard it a million times: It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know. “The phrase, ‘I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to work’ gets thrown around a lot, and that can leave young professionals with the idea they can go at it as a lone wolf,” says John Arthur, author of Manage Your New Career: Learn Quickly, Avoid Pitfalls, and Start Your Career With Momentum. “But the reality is that success in the professional world is heavily reliant on the relationships you build along the way.”
So spend time cultivating relationships across departments by volunteering for task forces or even just asking someone to lunch. And don’t neglect to build relationships with your peers, as they are the ones who are going to advance with you — or may become future contacts or clients. But make sure you approach these relationships in a genuine way. “Take the time to learn what interests and drives other people and make an effort to help them whenever you can,” Arthur says.
Maybe you think you’re already a master collaborator because of the group projects you did in college. But in the workplace, your supervisor is looking for a much different result than an A. “Many new professionals tend to brag about how they did most of the work on group projects, but that is the opposite of what your manager wants,” Ellis says. “What’s more appealing is your ability to unselfishly put the group's goal ahead of your own and consider different viewpoints.”
So before you talk, listen. Make sure you understand the goals of the project and how your experience fits in. And don’t hesitate to volunteer for some of the more mundane tasks, as it shows you’re a team player — and you’re liable to learn a lot about your company’s processes.
5. Time Management
We all did it: crammed for a final or pulled an all-nighter to write a paper the day before it was due. But that won’t cut it in the working world, when you are likely depending on input from others to get your work done.
“The ability to break down month-long projects into bite-sized sprints will get you far,” Strathdee says. “People who deliver are those who focus on accurately estimating the time it will take to complete tasks and factor in room for error.”
Make planning the first step of any project. It can help to ask someone who’s done a similar task before how long a project like this might take, as they might identify pitfalls you hadn’t considered, Strathdee suggests.
6. Diverse Communication Styles
Some bosses like a weekly report, others prefer daily updates. Some clients need a phone call, others only want email. And still others expect you to be in Slack all day long. “With business communication, it isn't as simple as saying ‘Do this, don't do that’ because every organization is so different,” Arthur says. The “right” communication style is the one that is most accepted by your team or firm.
“Study the successful people in your organization and emulate the way they communicate, both in terms of style and frequency,” Arthur suggests. And to really nail it, just ask. Your boss would probably love to tell you exactly what she expects — then all you have to do is follow through.