Career Coach: Technical skills aren't enough in today's workplace

After all this time, some people still don't get it. They still think that hiring is all about just bringing in applicants with strong technical skills.

Of course, these skills are important, but are they enough? In today's highly competitive world, it is often the softer skills that differentiate applicants, and determine who will get hired, who will be successful and who will move up in the organization.

Think about it. You will want the most competent doctor, but if you have several of equal competence, then you would probably pick the one who listens to your concerns, who clearly shares information with you and offers suggestions, and the one who is most empathetic. Likewise, among office managers or accountants, you would want the one who is the most ethical, professional and easy to work with. Would you knowingly pick someone who is arrogant, egotistical or miserable to work with as a colleague? Or someone who has a poor work ethic or constantly interrupts or demeans others? Probably not. Yet we often dismiss soft skills as "fluff" and not needed in the workplace.

Leaders and project managers will quickly tell you that the majority of their time is spent trying to get colleagues to work more effectively together or treat each other with respect. They will note that the "people problems" in their company drain their energy. One study by American Express found that more than 60 percent of managers agreed that soft skills are the most important factor when evaluating an employee's performance.

What are the soft skills employers should be looking for? Some of the most important:

• Integrity. Ethical reputation and honesty.

• Work ethic. Being dependable and hardworking, willing to go the extra mile.

• Team player. Being collaborative and working well with others (i.e., having a pleasant personality and working for the team vs. being a bully, manipulator, backstabber or only caring for your own individual agenda).

• Positive attitude and enthusiasm. Optimistic, upbeat, ability to generate good energy.

• Adaptability and flexibility. Employers get frustrated with employees who are resistant to change and are rigid or unable to adapt to new directions.

• Effective communication and confidence. Being a good listener, being able to clearly and concisely articulate your point whether in writing or orally, using appropriate nonverbal and body language.

• Openness and receptivity to feedback. Soliciting feedback and being willing to listen to it and make needed changes to improve; learning from criticism. It is especially important to get feedback on your emotional and social intelligence.

• Creative thinking. Being open to innovation and able to think outside the box.

• Critical thinking and problem solving. Being able to analyze information and put it together; being able to see the interrelationships among various functional areas to address problems.

• Collaboration, conflict management and negotiation skills. Being able to work effectively with others and effectively address conflict as it arises; being able to persuade and influence others.

Jeffrey Kudisch, the managing director of Career Services and assistant dean of Corporate Relations at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, regularly meets with employers about what knowledge and skills they are looking for when hiring future employees.

"Many recruiters have told me that they would rather hire an applicant with a 3.6 GPA who has strong soft skills, than an applicant with a 4.0 who has no soft skills or no extracurricular or leadership activities," he said. "In fact, an applicant with no leadership skills documented on their resume sends up red flags."

He further notes, "It's not either/or when it comes to technical skills and soft skills. Applicants with both types of skills are what employers are looking for if they are planning to fill positions that will quickly move up in the organization."

Some organizations do understand the value of soft skills. The Labor Department developed a curriculum entitled "Skills to pay the bills: Mastering soft skills for workplace success," which teaches soft skills such as communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism to young people ages 14 to 21. Other firms encourage employees to take public speaking classes, creativity workshops or negotiation seminars.

It's time we stop undervaluing soft skills, and provide the necessary training for them -- in our schools and our organizations. Only then will we truly have a workforce that can do the technical work that is needed, and will also demonstrate outstanding collaboration and performance.

• Russell is the vice dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of its Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Programs. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management.

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