How to Develop Soft Skills (AKA What No One Teaches You in School)

June 17, 2021
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I spent four years in college, three years in law school, and ended up with a lot of school debt, yet I still felt unprepared for my first “adult” job. I realized about 95% of the classes I took didn’t teach me anything about how to communicate effectively, lead a team, manage my time, or be flexible doing work different than what I was hired for.

Unfortunately, these aren’t always the core skills that you are taught in school. However, they are the soft skills that we all need to be successful. These are areas that employers value, which is why it’s critical to work on and emphasize these soft skills every day.

Not sure how to get started? Here are a few pointers for getting ahead of the game.

1. Focus On Your Work Ethic

In the early stages of your career, it may feel hard to stand out amongst people who have more experience or are older than you. The type of person who always stands out is the one who has a strong work ethic. I would rather be known as a hard worker who people can count on than just being labeled “smart.”

Always show up on time, meet deadlines, respond to emails promptly, maintain a positive attitude, be accountable, and be dependable. These are areas only YOU have control over and they are what will make you invaluable. Remember, talent will get you in the door but your work ethic will keep you in the room. 

2. Study Leaders

Every leader has a different style, and all leaders are not created equal. Identify three to five leaders who you respect and look up to and write down their characteristics of what makes them a good leader. Some you may know personally and some you may not. Study them, follow them, dissect them.

I personally look up to Oprah. Her leadership style is inspirational and motivational. People like her and trust her and therefore respect her. One of my leadership tests is “what would Oprah do”?

3. Develop Your “It” Factor

Some call this executive presence, but I prefer “it factor.” This is the ability to attract and engage people—and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an executive or not.

Practice how you enter a room. Are you poised, polished, and prepared? Evaluate whether you effectively speak up. Do you dress the part? Are you confident? Are you self-aware? Every true leader has mastered the skill of having a presence that people respect and want to follow.

As the saying goes, a leader without followers is just someone taking a walk. 

4. Hone Your Communication Skills

Learn to pick up the phone, check the tone of your emails, evaluate your body language and say yes to giving the presentation when you want to say no. Communication is a skill that will serve you throughout your career so learn how to do it well. This is a teachable skill and the more you focus on it the better you will get.

We live in a very digital-dependent world, but there is still something to be said about good ole fashioned interpersonal communication.

5. Be Empathetic

Some believe that empathy is the hardest soft skill to learn but also the most important one to master. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. It requires listening more and talking less. Empathy will increase loyalty, accelerate productivity, expand engagement and encourage collaboration.

Even as automation changes the future of the workplace, in order to stand out from the competition (humans and robots) you will need to practice and hone empathy. Treating people the way you want to be treated is not just a principle for preschoolers—it applies even more so to “adulting.” I’m sure we can all remember a boss who let us take off unexpectedly or a co-worker who offered to help you meet a pressing deadline. Take this skill seriously and watch your career flourish.

About the Author: Arika Pierce is a millennial and Gen Z success coach who helps younger generations develop the tools needed for success in business, leadership, and life. She is also the author of “The Millennial’s Playbook to Adulting,” a one-stop resource on everything from personal branding and networking, to job hunting, finances, and mental and physical health.

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This story was originally published on October 15, 2019, and has since been updated.

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