Transferable Soft Skills for the Working World
Soft skills are a key requirement for the working world. Without them, your qualifications and experience are seriously undermined. We argue that these are skills that consultants have always needed.
As jobs and technology change, and COVID will only accelerate this, your profile becomes less about what work you do and more about how you do it. The valuable technical skills you have in 2020 may be obsolete by 2025 but the soft skills won’t. In the past, transferable skills were those that could help you find a role in a different industry. Now, transferable soft skills are what will equip you to progress within an industry. People need to be flexible, empathetic and resilient if they want to get on.
This requirement has been acknowledged in recent reports by corporate consultancies like McKinsey and PWC. More surprisingly, UNICEF also invests millions on transferable skills with programs targeting regions where the availability of education isn’t guaranteed. They know that on top of foundational math, reading and writing ability, it is essential to work on communications, creativity, problem solving, empathy, respect for diversity, and critical thinking. They overlay this with subject specific training on coding, engineering or whatever the most applicable specialism may be for the region in question. Ironically, in The West, where we mostly have every advantage, some of these soft elements have been bypassed by people entering the working world and overlooked by well-established professionals.
Soft Skills in Tough Situations
People who think that soft skills are overrated for tough industries like Financial Services should consider the case of the elite special forces. Business Speaker Simon Sinek talks about the character that the US Navy Seals look for in their selection program. Essentially, the Seals plot a person’s performance against their trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is more important to them. When your life depends on it, you want to be surrounded by people you can trust. So, they would rather take an average performer who gets the highest trust rating, the rest can be worked on. The British SAS have a similar outlook. Sinek goes on to say that in the corporate world all the measurement is around performance. Emotional intelligence and empathy may get more lip service these days, but they don’t factor strongly enough in selection decisions. The result is that everyone can “name the office asshole.”
A 2020 McKinsey survey found 87% of companies were either experiencing skills gaps or were expecting them to develop, PWC reported 74%. The thrust was that companies would seek to upskill workforces with a combination of technical, digital and soft skills. Specialist skillsets will come and go with increasing frequency, but a range of transferable soft skills will equip people to adapt quickly. This outlook is more person centric than job centric. It supports cross-functional teams using agile working styles for the short bursts of creative problem solving that are becoming more prevalent in the workplace. It favors people who not only take the time to understand tasks from the perspectives of other disciplines but who work on skills outside of their core competence.
Times move on, in the early 90s, before the Internet was fully established, it was rare for anyone outside the typing pool to have to type or even know how. It’s hard to imagine the extent to which such an inflexible system would cripple modern enterprise. Nowadays, essential computer literacy requirements are expanding beyond familiarity with MS Office (although most people’s level is still basic) to encompass low level coding, image manipulation and database management along with the ability to work remotely. Understanding digital technology and how it can be applied to improve processes is the type of widely applicable skill that companies are investing in. Other areas of focus include legal and regulatory awareness, project management, commercial management, finance, and sustainability. In 2020 in particular, time management has become vital.
The need for expertise has not gone away and for a lead consultant it is non-negotiable. Whether it’s knowledge of a technology genre, a process, or a transferrable methodology, a true consultant needs to possess a large amount of relevant insight, but soft skills are still important. A good consultant has the strength of character to push for the optimum solution in the face of conflict while understanding other people’s fears and motivations.
Remote working during the pandemic has increased the importance of self-awareness, humility, and empathy for corporate employees, especially the managers. For teams to engage effectively at distance, leaders must express themselves in a more emotionally intelligent way so that team members feel valued and empowered. Productivity increases when this happens so the successful corporate manager will have the self-awareness to understand their own strengths, weaknesses, optimum working style and personality, and be able to express what they expect from other people. It may take some structured personal reflection to achieve this.
The Character of a Consultant
Working in your most comfortable style is fine for permanent staff. The consultant does not always have this luxury and needs to work flexibly in a way that suits the client team. This is something that improves with experience but can be consciously worked on and all the soft skills mentioned so far are important. Greg talked about what makes a good consultant back in 2017. The topics he covered stand up more than ever in the current environment.
A good consultant is personable, honest and realistic. He or she is required to do a specific job where everyone comes out looking good, before moving on to the next project. As well as being approachable, it’s important to have integrity and manage expectations. Great consultants are equally prepared to share good news or bad and don’t let optimism and confidence drift into delusion or dishonesty.
Diligent consultants invest in their skills, they love to learn and have wider interests than their core specialisms. They are willing to understand different skills and perspectives and doing so helps them to be engaging and assertive. It takes a level of awareness and empathy to lead a struggling project to a positive conclusion without disrespecting the pride, passion and hours that have already been invested. A wider scope of understanding also helps to bring about those eureka moments when lateral thinking combines seemingly unrelated ideas to achieve a unique solution.
Passion, Persistence and Resilience
Persistence remains a vital trait in the best consultants. It’s one of the most transferable skills and it can be worked on. Resilience has been the 2020 buzz-word that adds a mental health dimension to this valuable trait. Sometimes tasks are just plain dull. The discipline and desire to persevere in difficult circumstances sets the best consultants apart. The ability to maintain that level of dedication in a remote-working scenario only serves to underline this. As Greg said in 2017:
“a consultant who is motivated to make a difference will get the job done and may well deliver an extra level of value. If they tend towards obsession, that’s fine by me, provided they’re happy and looking after themselves. A true passion for the subject is particularly useful in this industry and a consultant who spends their weekends doing much the same as they do during the week can be among the best.”
In 2020 people need to look after themselves more than ever and we at JP Reis support our consultants to do that. Leaders equipped with the right soft-skills have performed well in 2020. The people who have learned to see things from different perspectives and engage in different ways have invested in their futures and have given themselves a chance to come through this challenging period stronger than ever.