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5 ways to perfect your soft skills

Portrait of happy business woman sitting in officeMost candidates focus on their technical skills and experience when applying for a new job or developing their career – but neglect soft skills at your peril.

‘Soft skills are just as important if not more important than technical skills at work, which can be taught more easily and quickly,’ says Claire McCartney, CIPD Adviser, Resourcing and Talent Planning. ‘Having the ability to collaborate with others across the business and externally can also make potential candidates and employees stand out from others.’

Here are five soft skills that will help you advance your career – and how to develop them.

Problem solving

Being a good problem-solver doesn’t just mean finding solutions when you are given a problem. It also means suggesting them when you encounter a problem for yourself, says Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the graduate careers advice blog Graduate Fog and author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession.

‘For graduates in particular, this is a crucial learning point that nobody tells you. If you’re working on a task and hit a hurdle, resist the urge to rush straight to your boss in a panic and tell them there’s a problem.

‘Instead, take 10 minutes to think of some solutions. Then approach them calmly saying “I’ve been working on X and it turns out that it’s not quite as straightforward as we thought. So I was thinking we could do Y. Or if that doesn’t work then Z. But I just wanted to check with you first.”

‘By doing that, you’re flagging the issue and checking in for sign-off, but your manager won’t feel that you’re dumping a problem on them and asking them to fix it. I remember my manager in my first graduate job saying to me “Don’t bring me problems, Tanya – bring me solutions!” and it stuck with me. Now that I’m a manager, I know exactly what she meant.’

Time management

Were you always the student handing in essays minutes before the deadline? As a student, that’s okay – the person marking your work probably won’t know you cut it so fine, and your lateness wouldn’t have impacted them anyway. At work it’s different, says Tanya.

‘Whatever level you’re at, you never want your colleagues to see you in a flap. Looking out of control is a bad look professionally, even if you do get it done in the nick of time.

‘Also, now it isn’t just your stress. If you are late with a research report, it’s your boss who will have less time to write the presentation.

‘Remember, most tasks take twice as long as you expect, so factor that in. If you’re worried you won’t have time to get everything done, prioritise the most important things. If you’re not sure which they are, check with your boss.’


Good communication skills are often listed on person specifications and for good reason.

‘Skilled communicators work well with colleagues, listen and understand instructions, and can express their opinions with confidence without being aggressive,’ says David Shindler, performance coach and author of Learning To Leap.

‘The best communicators are also able to change their style of communication to suit their audience or task at hand – a particularly valuable skill when leading a team, dealing with conflict or persuading others to your way of thinking.

‘If you want to improve your communication skills, watch how others you admire operate and be willing to learn from constructive criticism.’

Leadership skills

You don’t have to manage staff to display leadership qualities.

‘You want to be a good team player but that doesn’t mean that you can’t display strong leadership qualities that mark you out for potential advancement,’ says David.

‘Take responsibility for your work, hold your hands up to your mistakes, and continually look for ways to improve yourself.

‘Employers value workers who lead by example, who are able to motivate themselves, can follow instructions and show initiative and who foster an air of can-do positivity.’

Charm offensive

You might think that some people are naturally charming, but you can learn to build rapport with others, which is valuable in a variety of situations, from interviews to client meetings.

‘The key is to avoid self-referencing and to shift your mindset from you to the other person,’ explains David.

‘We know when we meet someone charming – it’s the quality of the attention they give to you. They remember and use your name. They show interest in your world and you as a person, without being creepy, slick or gushing. Their tone is sincere.

‘They use humour appropriately. They empathise and show you positive regard. They convey credibility, care and warmth. The result is they engender trust.’

If that sounds like a lot to take on, David suggests observing how charming people you admire interact with others and practising in non-work situations to begin with.

Keep working on your skills

Most of us presume we have good soft skills – unless we’ve had feedback to the contrary. Sometimes colleagues or managers don’t feel comfortable criticising soft skills, which means any problems could potentially go overlooked for years – which is bad news for your career.

‘Ask for 360-degree feedback from others about your soft skills and any potential development areas,’ suggests Claire.

‘Try to develop an understanding of where your strengths and weaknesses are and potentially talk with a coach or organisational mentor about developing an action plan to tackle some of your weaknesses.’

Taking the time to improve your soft skills can make a difference to your performance and how you are perceived in the company – and ultimately fast track your career progression.


Book links

How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession by Tanya de Grunwald

Learning to Leap: A guide to being more employable by David Shindler

Image: © Alliance –

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