So you’ve decided to work on your skillset – to have a more balanced mix of hard and soft skills. But what’s the difference? And what can you do to plug the gaps? Our experts advise…
A well-balanced skillset is a must for any serious jobseeker. But there’s a big difference between soft and hard skills, and the way to showcase them to a potential employer. We look at this important topic with the help of two experts.
What’s the difference between a hard and a soft skill?
"Hard skills are easier to quantify than soft skills,” says Sean Li, associate director, Robert Walters China. "They are things you can learn in a classroom or training session, or by reading a book or consulting with someone or on the job. It’s easy to say if you have or don’t have them, and with the right aptitude they are easier to pick up than soft skills too.”
Erica Sosna is an expert with Career Matters, which helps companies to retain and energise their talent through career conversations. Hard skills, she says, are "technical skills, usually in a specific field of knowledge or expertise, and often formally certified – e.g. ‘I know how to code’. They tend to relate to the acquisition of knowledge in structured, formal ways.”
Soft skills, on the other hand, "are the everyday skills we use to communicate, understand and interact with the people around us,” says Erica. “They relate to the way you approach something e.g. ‘I have experience of project managing’ even if it’s not the case that you’re a fully trained or qualified project manager.”
What is a transferable skill? And how do hard and soft skills compare?
“Transferable skills are skills that are easy to transfer between different jobs, sectors and even careers,” says Sean. “Hard skills are less transferable. For example, in HR a hard skill might be knowledge of specific local employment laws, or the ability to recruit in one niche sector. Looking more widely, proficiency in one very local language would be another example.”
By comparison, "Soft skills are more transferable because they are needed in all professions. The more soft skills you have, the more options you have.”
What’s the relative importance of each in a candidate’s skills mix?
"There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here because it really depends on the job position,” says Sean. "For example, in the case of a mechanical engineer or R&D manager, the lack of hard skills would be unacceptable, whereas a lack of certain soft skills would be more tolerated.”
But in other professions, soft skills are much more important, says Sean. "In sales, for example, you wouldn’t be expected to be a technical expert in what you’re selling. But you do have to have the soft skills – the ability to engage people, build rapport, listen actively, close a deal.”
How do employers look for the right mix of skills they want? How can you demonstrate your mix of skills?
"Recruiters screen candidates for hard skills pre-interview – these are often clear from the CV,” says Sean. “You can’t assess soft skills from a resume, but you can assess lots of them from an interview situation.”
Erica adds: "Because soft skills are often about people and communication, your interview is always a kind of test of them. Interviewers need to interact with you to really get a sense of your level of soft skills. Or if it’s an internal interview, they can also talk to people who have experience of managing and interacting with you every day.”
"Hard skills are easier to evidence, whereas soft skills require more storytelling,” says Erica. ”STAR stories (which we’ve looked at in this article on competency-based questions are great for communicating soft and transferable skills, especially if you’re moving between industries and functions, because they help you translate experience from one industry to another. Showing how you ’influenced change within a complex stakeholder structure’, for example, is a tale that can resonate whether you did it in a learning consultancy or a legal firm or a bank.”
Which skills matter more as a career develops?
"In lots of business cases, soft skills are key for success in terms of performance and promotion,” says Sean. “The requirements for technical skills at a senior level come down, while the emphasis on soft skills grows. This stands to reason, because at this level you need to demonstrate things like leadership, people management abilities and influencing skills.”
He adds: "If you are doing a technical role where hard skills are more important and you have excellent soft skills as well, especially compared to your peers – then you have more potential to transfer to senior managerial and commercial roles.”
How can you work out where the gaps are in your skillset? What can you do to fill those gaps?
"To work out what’s lacking or needs improvement in your skillset, you need to be actively listening and really ready to change,” says Sean. "Some people say they want to improve but in reality, they’re not actually that open to constructive feedback. If you do want to develop, you could consult with a mentor or expert in that specific skillset. Use a soft learning target e.g. ‘I want to get better at listening actively’ or ‘I will respond more positively to feedback’' as a lens to practise in your daily working routine.”
“Also, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. For job interviews, people will always prepare questions about things like expectations of role, potential challenges and opportunities. But I see very few candidates ask the recruitment consultant or the HR person for direct, constructive feedback about how they performed at interview in terms of soft skills. That’s the best opportunity to get feedback and develop insight into your own soft skills right there.”
“Lots of people don’t appreciate the value of recruitment consultants and HR professionals when you want to know more about gaps in your skillset,” he adds. “Big companies will often have talent development experts or Centres of Excellence who you can consult about the gaps in your skillset. They are also very good on what’s needed in your sector and for your next promotion, all of which can help you plan your skill development goals more effectively.
"Finally, we need to understand that different people have different strengths and weakness, and some soft skills, while desirable, may not be essential in your line of work. Some soft skills are very hard and time-consuming to acquire, so you need to prioritise – if a soft skill isn’t essential for success in your profession, you probably want to focus on something else first. If you only focus on what’s lacking, you may miss the opportunity to excel in another area.”
Erica adds: "For many very technical people, such as in law, tech and finance, stepping up into management or strategy can be a very painful transition because they just don’t have the soft skills. Stepping up takes them away from the things they most love doing. But if a person really wants to develop their soft skills, they could explore stretch projects and opportunities to grow even outside work – you can develop a lot of soft skills by managing a sports teams or organising a complex volunteering project.”
“There’s also of course lots of training available to help you develop things like leadership skills, team-building and communicating with greater impact. Take every opportunity to practise, listen with humility, and ask for feedback. Above all, you have to show up.”
Are there skills that you see as becoming more important in the near future?
“Employers are putting more and more emphasis on soft skills,” says Sean. “It’s easy to train many hard skills e.g. how to use a new system or understand a new piece of industry regulation, but it’s much more difficult to train an employee in a soft skill such as flexibility, a sense of urgency, the ability to handle pressure, or emotional intelligence.”
“In our current economic environment, everything is constantly changing so much and so fast that hard skills which were once super-valuable and sought after may not be so in the future,’ he adds. “A key soft skill for me would be adaptability – a mindset that allows you to take on new skills and cope with rapidly changing scenarios. Another is collaboration, which is related to teamwork, the ability to influence, communication and so on – this is very important for lots of companies, especially with agile working styles and rapid team changes.”
In the final analysis, says Erica, it’s worth focussing on your strengths. “Some of us have a natural ability for problem solving or innovation, while others are excellent at detailed work. Our clients often overlook their natural talents and soft skills because they assume everyone can do them. If you ask yourself the question ‘What is it I cannot seem to stop myself from doing?’, you will get a strong feel for the innate key qualities that make you who you are and the soft skills that help you stand out from the competition.”
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