When I give job interview advice as a Hiring Manager, I find that many people are confused by the term “soft skills”. What exactly are soft skills and how do they differ from “hard skills”, which is another term that can be confusing.
Soft Skills Versus Hard Skills
Hard skills are those skills that are specific to a particular job or industry. Examples include:
- Carpentry skills
- Construction skills
- Medical skills
- Information Technology skills
And the list goes on. There are almost as many hard skills as there are jobs. These are the skills that can be taught and then tested by exams to determine proficiency.
Hard skills are the basic minimum skills needed to successfully perform a particular job.
Soft skills, on the other hand, are those skills that are not technical and not specific to a particular job. They are transferable and can be applied to any job.
The main soft skills that Hiring Managers look for include:
- Work Ethic
- Communication Skills
- Problem Solving Skills
- Interpersonal Skills
- Ability to work under pressure
Soft skills are much harder to learn and develop because many of them are inborn – you either have them or you don’t. As an example, how do you teach a lazy person to have a good work ethic?
As you can see from the list, soft skills are those desirable characteristics that all Hiring Managers look for when hiring. While it’s nice to have good hard skills, I’m willing to compromise a bit on these because they can be taught or improved if a candidate has strong soft skills.
I like to say that hard skills get you the interview and soft skills get you the job. I will always choose someone strong in what I believe to be the most important soft skills, even if they are less experienced in the hard skills required for the job.
The Most Important Soft Skills to Have
In my opinion, it’s virtually impossible to be equally strong in every soft skill. That’s a person I’ve never met! That being the case, what are the most important soft skills in the eyes of the Hiring Manager? This will of course vary depending on the position and the Hiring Manager.
For myself, the answer is easy. By far, the three soft skills that I look for – and believe are the best indicators of success on the job – are these:
- Work Ethic
Show me an applicant who is strong in these three soft skills and I’ll show you someone who is almost guaranteed to succeed in any job for which they are otherwise qualified. I’ve seen this time and time again over the years.
Almost without exception, every employee I’ve hired over the years who possessed these traits was successful. The problem is that there are far too few of them.
Case in point. One of my teams was once managing the upgrade of 1500 desktop computers and had to hire temporary help. This was not rocket scientist stuff and consisted of unpacking the new computers, disconnecting the old ones, and hooking up the new ones. Pretty much grunt IT work.
One of the temporary employees – we’ll call him Fred – came in smiling and that smile seldom left his face, even with the drudge work of unstacking and unpacking boxes of computers. No matter what, Fred was in a good mood and it was contagious. So, check the box for attitude.
The other workers when done installing the new PC would usually just walk off to the next one. Without being asked, Fred always took time with the user to be sure the new computer booted up correctly and familiarized them with any differences. The users loved him. Check the box for initiative.
Fred was always the first to arrive and usually the last to leave at the end of the day, even though he wasn’t getting paid for that extra time. It was simply his nature. Check the box for work ethic.
Toward the end of the project, we had a permanent opening for a desktop support person. Without being prompted, the team was unanimously in favor of hiring Fred, even though his technical skills were pretty basic.
So, I didn’t even bother recruiting for the position. And the team was right – Fred went on to become one of our best employees and has been promoted twice.
That’s the power of attitude, initiative, and work ethic. I’ll even go so far as to say that all other soft skills are present in one of these three.
- Leadership – can be shown by initiative and work ethic
- Problem Solving Skills – can be shown by initiative
- Adaptability – shown by initiative and attitude
- Teamwork – shown by attitude and work ethic
- Dependability – shown by work ethic
- Creativity – shown by initiative
- Ability to Work Under Pressure – shown by work ethic and attitude
- Interpersonal skills – shown by attitude
I could go on, but hopefully, you get the point. As a Hiring Manager, every soft skill that I believe is important exists in these three: attitude, initiative, and work ethic.
How to Demonstrate These Soft Skills
The challenge to you is how to demonstrate these soft skills in your interview. After all, unlike hard skills, they can’t be quantitatively measured in advance. That being the case, you’ll need to use other methods.
For attitude, you can demonstrate that you have a good one by the image you project in the interview. Be enthusiastic and smile as much as you can regardless of how you think the interview is going. Avoid making negative comments about anything.
Yes, you also need to show confidence, but make sure you don’t cross over the line to cockiness. That will come across as the opposite of a good attitude.
For initiative and work ethic, you’ll need to have examples of accomplishments that show these soft skills.
For example, a case where you identified and took on a project and successfully completed it without being asked. This shows initiative.
Or, a case where you completed a task that was on a tight deadline by coming in early and working late. This shows a good work ethic.
Try to have several examples such as these and work them into your answers whenever possible. Simply saying you have good initiative and a good work ethic is meaningless. You need your accomplishments to speak for you.
My success rate for hiring employees strong in these three soft skills is high. If you can demonstrate them, your success rate in your interviews will also be high.
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