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Reading Time: 5 minutes

What are soft skills and why are they important?

Isabel Morris

Unlike hard skills, which can be tested and quantified, soft skills are often harder to put a finger on. They include any skills that are personality traits, or behaviours. They describe how you do something, rather than what you achieve.

Employers will often look for soft skills, such as communication and flexibility, when they’re hiring. In fact, research has shown that employers often care more about soft skills than they do technical abilities. One reason for this is that soft skills help facilitate human connection, thereby bolstering your efficiency and productivity, whichever sector you’re working in.

It’s important to understand exactly what employers are seeking, so you can go about developing your soft skills and showing them off in resumes and cover letters. In this post, we’ll delve into the soft skills most sought after by employers – what they are, why you need them and how they can be developed.
 
Communication

This is a (if not the) big one. In a nutshell, communication is the ability to build rapport and to confidently engage with others through listening, speaking, writing, presenting and observing.

People with strong written and verbal communication skills are more productive. They produce clear, meaningful and well-informed work, and build strong relationships with their colleagues and clients.

Every day presents a new opportunity to work on your communication skills. You could, for example:

  • Give a presentation – at a client meeting, for your colleagues, in one your university classes
  • Adapt your speaking style to your audience – communication in a business environment is different from communication with your friends and family!
  • Actively listen to your peers and colleagues

 
Teamwork

Try to think of a job that doesn’t require teamwork. It’s hard, right? Even freelancers need to engage on some level with the companies they’re working for.

Teamwork involves successfully achieving a joint goal. When people synthesize their different skills and talents, everyone wins. This means respecting others, cooperating, collaborating, negotiating, persuading and contributing to discussions or joint projects.

You can strengthen your teamwork skills by:

  • Having a say in meetings
  • Taking on a joint responsibility, be that at work or in your life more generally
  • Working with your colleagues on a project or process
  • Being open to feedback and providing suggestions to others

 
Initiative

Employers notice people who initiate activities rather than just ‘joining in’. Companies rely on problem solvers – people who think on their feet and take action when something goes wrong – to successfully navigate through unexpected challenges.

Taking initiative involves analysing facts and situations, anticipating and preventing problems, and being proactive in developing new solutions or approaches.

Taking initiative at work obviously comes more naturally to some. Nevertheless, you can practice this soft skill by:

  • Looking for opportunities in any problems that arise and thinking about how you could solve them
  • Questioning the way things are and asking how tasks could be done better
  • Combining unrelated ideas to come up with new methods and inspiration
  • Asking colleagues for tips, suggestions and ideas

 
Commercial awareness

The ability to understand what makes a company successful – be that through buying or selling products, supplying services to a market or streamlining a system – is incredibly valued by employers.

Not only does commercial awareness give you credibility with clients and senior employees, it also means you can make well-thought-out business decisions that will benefit the company.

You can improve your general commercial awareness by:

  • Keeping up with the news and reading other relevant publications
  • Working in different areas of your company and asking questions
  • Talking with your contacts working in other areas about recent innovations within their sector and the challenges facing it
  • Researching organisations, their competitors and their sector

To start building your commercial awareness, we recommend checking out The Economist, Sifted, the In Good Company podcast, and the Rethinking Business podcast.
 
Leadership

You don’t have to be the CEO to be a leader. Leaders constructively motivate, influence, and empower others. Leadership isn’t simply getting others to do what you want; it’s about inspiring your peers and colleagues, and helping them reach their potential.

Employers are always looking for leadership potential. It’s those people that might one day go on to make decisions for and represent their company.

Great leaders start small. Build your leadership skills by:

  • Taking ownership over your own workload
  • Stepping up to fill a gap or save a project
  • Setting out a clear, confident goal or vision for projects you’re working on or processes you’re involved with – taking into account the perspectives and opinions of your colleagues, of course
  • Sharing your knowledge with peers and colleagues, and taking the time to train others
  • Being decisive and not shying away from making decisions

 
Creativity

Creativity is not just about making things look cool – it’s about disruption, variation and risk-taking. Creativity can be used in any role and at any level. Being creative means being curious and innovative, having an open mind and learning from people who do things differently.

Creative employees are valuable to employers because they bring fresh thinking and perspective to their work, developing new and exciting avenues for their company to explore.

Try something different:

  • Come at a problem from an alternative direction
  • Do something to break up your daily routine – make a sketch on the tube, design a flower box for your windowsill, write a letter, join a rock band!
  • Be inspired by people who do things differently, and actively seek these people out – at work, through podcasts and TV shows, and even within the pages of your books
  • Take calculated risks – you’ll never know if you never try

 
Adaptability

Nothing ever goes as planned, and it’s important to be able to adapt to new situations and challenges.

Especially in a start-up or SME – where processes, tools and clients are constantly changing – adaptability is essential. Employers rely on people who can adapt to industry shifts and keep their company current through hiccups, mistakes and failures.

Gaining adaptability skills involves:

  • Learning from mistakes and changes to plan, and developing improvement strategies
  • Being an early adopter of change: learning new things and educating others
  • Staying flexible and optimistic through thick and thin

 
How can you show your soft skills to employers?

On your resume. Here, it’s best to ‘show not tell’ your soft skills.

  • Move away from ‘I’m a strong communicator’ towards ‘I was responsible for liaising with 50+ clients on the phone and by email’, to give employers a better idea of your past experience.
  • If creativity is something you wish to emphasise to employers, it may be worth reworking your CV to reflect your creative skills.

When deciding which skills to include, consider the requirements set out in the job spec, as well as which of your skills can be verified by your references.

In your cover letter. Employers will usually only scan your cover letter, so it’s best to give them the buzzwords they’re looking for here – ‘communication’, ‘teamwork’, ‘creativity’ and so on.

  • Once you’re invited to interview, they’ll no doubt take a much closer look, so make sure the skills you include are backed by experience.
  • Try to use every soft skill you mention here as context for why you’re a good fit for the role you’re applying for.
  • Be clear about how your soft skills align with the employer’s goals and values.