Future-proofing your career (part 2 of 4): Soft skills — the human touch essential to tech?

Soft Skills
2020 was the year we embraced en masse online platforms and data-enabled services as a necessity, turning our digital future very rapidly into our digital present. However, this accelerated tech uptake is prompting professionals who don’t have a passion for algorithms to wonder what their future holds. Artificial intelligence and automation are making waves in every industry – and, according to Tabtha Goldstaub, Co-Founder of AI Advice Platform CognitionX: ‘The simple fact is that in many situations, machines make better decisions than we do: 94% of road traffic accidents are human mistakes; 50% of surgeries will be machine-aided.’ Rather than seeing this as a challenge, we invite you to think of it as an opportunity for a career upgrade. The Harvard Business Review makes the point that ‘digital transformation is about talent not technology’. With these advancements comes a vital need for the human touch — and that’s where soft skills come in.

What are soft skills?

The term refers to personal attributes that influence how well we work and engage with others. It covers our ability to navigate emotions, be creative, collaborate, manage, lead and adapt. However, soft skills have long been seen as ‘nice to haves’ in business and viewed as far from essential. Unlike hard skills, which are tangible, measurable abilities used for specific jobs and can be related directly to systems, performance and success – for example, coding, bookkeeping, data analysis and auditing. These are the skills that have traditionally resulted in promotions, leadership roles and the salaries they command. But times are changing. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution — this new era of digital, soft skills are now what Forbes calls a ‘high-value currency’. They represent a way of working that robots can never emulate. Far from being optional extras, these ‘power skills’, as they’re described by Dartmouth University’s President Philip Hanlon, are in demand. The report reveals that, rather than seeking out expertise in mobile computing or engineering and coding, 57% of business leaders actually want more leaders and managers in their teams. 42% want creative problem solvers and design thinkers and 40% are looking for good communicators. McKinsey Global Institute estimates a 24% rise in the number of hours spent by US and European workers on soft skills in the workplaces of the future. In his book Permission to Feel, Marc Brackett Ph.D. notes that technology is advancing so rapidly that companies aren’t hiring workers for their current skills. Instead, they’re choosing individuals who are flexible and able to present new ideas, inspire cooperation in groups and who can manage and lead teams. The bottom line is that we don’t know what the key hard skills of the future will be, so businesses need people who can adapt, stay curious, be open to the next wave of IT advancements, and maybe even help develop them. To quote Goldstaub: ‘As more and more work becomes automated, there’ll be a huge premium on strong communication, problem solving and critical thinking—all human skills women are naturally inclined towards.’

Four soft skills to focus on

Soft skills are perhaps the hardest skills to master, particularly when it comes to turning the theory into practice. Mike Robbins, author of Bring your Whole Self to Work, believes that ‘The key is for us to deepen our awareness and our practice of these things. Part of how we do that is to acknowledge when we don’t, so as to hold ourselves accountable. Another part of it is to talk about these things with the people we work with and to find ways to practice together.’
1. Collaboration
With cross-functional teams becoming the norm – such as IT and marketing teams coming together to launch a website – effective collaboration is key. This is even truer in a world where so many of us work remotely. Join projects that run across departments and practice drawing on the expertise of others, particularly if their skillset is particularly outside your comfort zone. Make it your mission to understand their responsibilities and mindsets more fully, whilst using the skills you have to help and support them. Loren Margolis, Founder of Training & Leadership Success, describes it as having humility, but with ‘Such high self-regard that you lead with a greater interest in others’. She adds: ‘Ask others’ opinions before you give yours [and] find out how you can support their success first before thinking of your own.’
2. Creativity
LinkedIn’s analysis reveals that creativity is the most in-demand soft skill of all. ‘As technical tasks become outsourced to computing and AI, it is the ability to see things differently and to connect the dots in new ways that distinguish[es] great companies from good ones,’ explains Naz Beheshti, executive wellness coach and consultant. And the good news is, creativity isn’t limited to designers and writers. It’s a skill we all possess, but we just access and express it in different ways. Take our quiz: Which type of creative thinker are you? to see where your creative bias lies — and how to use it to its full potential, or delve right into our workbook Unleashing your creativity in the workplace.
3. Emotional intelligence
Identifying and managing your emotions is one of the cornerstones of great leadership — along with the ability to recognise the emotions of others and manage that interpersonal relationship. In a survey of executives conducted by HR Magazine in the UK, 83% said that a highly emotionally intelligent workforce will be a prerequisite for success in the years to come. According to Claudia Crummenerl, Global Vice President, People and Organisation at Capgemini Invent: ‘Organisations must prioritise EI in recruitment, training and culture to build a resilient team in a changing world.’ To help fine tune your EI skills, take our quiz: Which pillar of emotional intelligence is your strongest? You can also listen on demand to our ongoing webinar series on EQ.
4. Adaptability
Embracing new technology requires adaptability. In the words of Beheshti: ‘An open and receptive mind is essential. Organisations, in turn, must be able to respond quickly to unexpected changes in the market.’ The ability to adapt, without pre-conceived ideas of how things should be, will enable you to move more freely towards the opportunities that await. We will all need to upskill and reskill going forwards, but if we stay adaptable, we (and the technology) can benefit from the process. As noted by the Harvard Business Review: ‘It’s really quite simple: the most brilliant innovation is irrelevant if we are not skilled enough to use it, and even the most impressive human minds will become less useful if they don’t team up with tech.’ Take our quiz: Career agility: which animal are you?

Leveraging your soft skills

Given that soft skills remain harder to quantify than the more practical or technical hard skills, it can also be more difficult to be recognised for your talents. Here are five ways to ensure you don’t go unnoticed.
1. Bring people together
Exercise your collaborative skills by facilitating a knowledge share — and show your commitment to your own and your team’s ongoing development. You don’t have to be a tech whiz; just know someone who is and can talk about it. This could take the form of lunchtime Zoom get-together, a presentation or Q&A. In the words of Erin Urban, a career strategist and executive coach: ‘You can build excellent relationships by allowing others to help you while shortening your learning curve.’
2. Be clear in your communications
Clarity is important and being able to express the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a project, will stand you in good stead. As observed by Dr Denise Trudeau-Poskas, a leadership coach and Co-Founder of Blue Egg Leadership: ‘Through better interpersonal communication on each project or process, your team is built on trust and integrity of word.’ Engaging teams in this way also builds synergy, says Trudeau-Poskas, and increases resilience to challenges.
3. Be an engaged and active learner
Become a presence within your network as someone who genuinely engages with the knowledge and expertise of others. People remember those who take an active interest in what they do. ‘To elicit rich material, use open-ended questions,’ suggests Anne Taylor, executive coach and author of Soft Skills Hard Results. ‘Especially ask questions that start with WHAT as that sends people to the creative part of their brain rather than WHY which sends them to the defensive part. ‘Seek out people to get input from on your work and ideas and have go-to questions for key leaders – for example: What do you feel are our biggest leadership challenges in the next few years?’
4. Be a champion of diversity
Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, argues that the greatest ideas and innovations don’t come from ‘lone wolf’ inventors, but from the intersection of different fields and perspectives. Organise debates, brainstorming sessions or mastermind groups to bring these different voices into the room as you engage with the challenges and opportunities that new tech brings to your industry or sector.
5. Connect soft skills with business strategy
Making the link between the two allows you to demonstrate clearly how the way you work is supporting the overall business objectives. It can also help to identify which soft skills are valued within your organisation in order to align yourself more fully with the culture. This allows you to provide the ‘Why?’ of what you do to managers and employees alike.

View the rest of our future-proofing series:

Future-proofing your career (part 1 of 4): You, technology, and the four questions to ask yourself right now Future-proofing your career (part 3 of 4): Managing change in difficult times Future-proofing your career (part 4 of 4): Setting and achieving goals in an uncertain world


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