No matter what you do for work, you need to master some foundational soft skills for career success. Consider them as the “10 essentials”, a reference to the items you should always have with you when you go camping or hiking, especially in backcountry areas. These 10 career soft skills won’t be equally important in every role, but if you master them, you will position yourself well for a broad range of career situations.
Pathwise’s Essential Career Soft Skills
Though this list is arranged alphabetically, it’s also appropriate for authenticity to come first among our list of career soft skills because it is arguably the most important trait of all. Whoever you are, be yourself.
You should always work on being your best self, particularly in professional settings, but be your best self, not someone else’s. If you try to be someone else, or to mimic their style, it won’t feel natural, and it will come across as phony.
Accept as well that you won’t always be at your best. It’s part of the human experience. In this context, it’s ok to admit your mistakes and acknowledge your flaws and weaknesses, especially if you talk about them with candor, show humility and vulnerability in doing so, and demonstrate that you are learning from them and working to be better every day.
Very few, if any of us, literally work alone all the time. We depend on others to accomplish our day-to-day work and our broader professional objectives, including the people with whom we regularly work, those in our companies more broadly, and people outside our firms. For these reasons, it’s essential to work well in team situations and to be team players.
You’ll need to accept the “give and take” and to compromise at times. But no one wants to work with someone who is difficult, who doesn’t carry their share of the load, who’s a “lone wolf”, or who hogs all the glory. Be someone whose team members appreciate as a colleague.
Whole books have been written about good communication as a core career soft skill, and we won’t try to summarize them all here. Suffice it to say that your written and oral communications should, at a minimum, be clear, concise, and complete. Each of these play a major part in having good communication skills.
When speaking, your tone and body language should reinforce the message you are delivering. Remember that research consistently indicates that 90%+ of your communication is not in what you’re saying itself.
As you become a stronger communicator, you should also work on being compelling. Appropriately use tone, emotion, gestures, movement, and repetition to amplify your message without taking away from it.
Additionally, communication skills include actively listening to make people feel heard. To loosely quote Maya Angelou, bear in mind that people may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
Conviction is ultimately a measure of whether you believe in yourself and in your point of view. It doesn’t mean that you’re always right, but it does mean indicate you’re capable of exhibiting great leadership skills.
For example, are you willing to make a bold move or an unpopular decision? Are you comfortable taking calculated risks? Do you have the courage to speak your truth or to take a contrarian viewpoint? Are you an independent thinker and worker? Are you willing to give constructive feedback when it needs to be provided, even when it might not be well-received? In all of these situations, having conviction is critical.
Drive is a measure of your aspirations. You demonstrate it in a number of ways. Are you self-motivated? Are you intellectually curious? Do you seek continuous improvement – in yourself, in others, and in the organizations of which you’re a part? Are you open to feedback, even when it’s uncomfortable to receive? Do you balance your drive by not truly expecting perfection, by celebrating small wins, and by saying, “Thank you” along the way?
Remember as well that drive is also an indicator that your activities are aligned with your passions and interests. If this alignment exists, it will be evident, in your energy and in your enthusiasm for what you do. If the alignment is lacking, you won’t be able to bring your best every day, and that’s something you’ll need to address.
Empathy is about being able to envision yourself in someone else’s place, to understand their life context, their worldview, and their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or let them have their way. It does mean that you understand and are taking into account how they will see what you’re saying to them, what you’re asking of them, or what you’re expecting of them.
Some people are naturally empathetic, while others eventually discover for themselves how to be empathetic. Still others never achieve this self-discovery, and they are less effective leaders and colleagues as a result. Work at unlocking your empathetic self.
Put simply, execution is about being able to get things done, about achieving results. Do you have strong problem-solving skills? Are you able to see the steps needed to achieve a goal? Can you clearly communicate those steps to those whose help you will need in accomplishing them? Do you create the right kind of environment for personal and team success? Are you able to see risks and mitigate them, and to overcome obstacles when they present themselves? Do you achieve your results in the right way? Work is ultimately about execution. Hence it’s critical that you have a strong reputation for time management, work ethic, and the ability to get things done right.
The importance of influencing skills cannot be overstated. They are useful in so very many situations, because no one is always in charge. Influencing is about getting someone to see your point of view, to come to your way of thinking, or to do what you would like them to do, even if it’s not what they wanted or not in their self-interest.
You exercise your influencing skills when you lack absolute positional authority (i.e., you’re not the boss) and often even when you have such authority. Particularly in today’s heavily matrixed large corporations, influencing skills are a must. They’re also useful when you need to advocate for yourself (in and of itself an important skill) and when you’re negotiating for something or trying to resolve a conflict. Having strong interpersonal skills will broaden the range of situations in which you can be effective.
The strength of your judgment is revealed by the quality of your decisions. Are you thoughtful about the actions you take? Do you take into account the pros and cons of potential courses of action? Do you make an effort to see a situation from different vantage points, such as the perspective of different stakeholders? Do you make ethical choices, ones you would not be embarrassed to see made public in some fashion?
Some people lack good judgment. Some never develop a good moral compass. Putting such people in leadership or other decision-making roles leads to bad outcomes, for themselves, their teams, and their organizations. Be known for your judgment and your sense of ethics.
Wrapping up the list with resilience is appropriate, because work is hard. Not everything about it is ever fully in your control.
Changes will take place, and they won’t always be good for you. Along the way, you will make mistakes, experience failure, and come up short relative to goals or expectations.
Work and other aspects of your life won’t always be in perfect harmony. This is natural, and we all feel this way. Being able to weather these times – to learn from them, to move past them, and to draw strength from them – is what resilience is about.
This doesn’t mean putting up with a work (or life) situation that is leaving you miserable or unfulfilled. If you feel that way, you need to work to understand why, and to do something about it. But it’s important to realize that everyone has tough days, and that the resilient are those who learn to adapt, to maintain a positive outlook, and to stand tall, even when things are challenging for them.
For real life case studies of these career soft skills in action, check out our podcast Career Sessions, Career Lessons
Building Your Skillset
Work at mastering these 10 essential career soft skills. Incorporate them into job interviews with prospective new hires – and ask candidates to walk you through real examples.
To be clear, these “soft” career skills aren’t a substitute for technical competence – so called “hard” skills. You have to know how to do your job if you want to be successful. But strength in these areas will be a massive force multiplier on your technical competence, because if you have both the technical skills and these foundational traits as well, you are destined for greatness.
We offer tools for you to self-assess your capability levels in each of these areas and to gather input on them from those around you. We offer skill-building content and events, and we provide access to coaches who can help you work on a personalized course of action to improve in areas that your dream jobs require..