Hardening the “Soft” Skills
Every time performance review season rolls around, I find myself having conversations with my peers in similar roles, discussing the topic of quantifying soft skills. At first blush, it might seem like building relationships, listening to people, and facilitating healthy communication sound like fluff in an interview or evaluation, but there are a lot of concrete ways you can use and measure these skills to demonstrate the impact they have on a team.
First and foremost — we need to stop calling these “soft” skills. The ironic thing about these skills is that they are some of the hardest skills to learn and deploy. They need to be worked on and honed, and they are called upon in almost every interaction in a work setting. Yet we call them soft — we imply they are fluffy, fluid, intangible, or difficult to measure.
Soft skills are generally categorized as interpersonal and communication skills, often synonymous with emotional intelligence (EQ); which fall into the domains of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (https://hbr.org/2017/02/emotional-intelligence-has-12-elements-which-do-you-need-to-work-on).
When you define traditional “hard skills” in the abstract (if that’s even what they’re called), they are just as intangible as traditional “soft skills”. The soft skill “ability to build rapport” is just as vague as “technical ability” — neither give you deeper insight into the what or how. Instead of only defining and building out examples and artifacts to back up technical skills, I challenge you to do the same for the leadership and communication skills — and I think you will find that they are not so intangible anymore.
Here are three strategies I use to demonstrate impact in jobs or projects reliant primarily on “soft skills.”
Break down & document the steps to solve the problems you are focused on solving
I think in spreadsheets. Anytime I start to think through a problem in my mind, I begin with how I can arrange it in a beautifully formatted table with filters and conditional formatting. I know the answer to all of my questions will eventually be somewhere on that page. But this piece is not about my love for spreadsheets, we can save that for another day — this is about the importance of getting things out of your head and into a tool you can refer back to.
Whether you like using spreadsheets, lists, or other tools like Trello or Asana — list out the core problems you are trying to solve, the actions you are taking to solve them, and what you’re measuring to track progress. Listing out the steps allow you to see the full scope of the problem you are trying to solve, identify where you will need to rely on the help of others, and give you a sense of the potential timeframe for solving it.
Let’s say a problem you have identified is a lack of transparency in decision making. While it might sound hard to measure the work going into solving that problem, start by writing out all of the steps you would do to solve this, and see what happens.
Here’s an example:
By the time you get to the last step, you have a fully formed pilot program where you have collected inputs from your team, tested a hypothesis, and collected results. Artifacts like these help you articulate your process for solving problems, give you a platform to discuss solutions with your team based on data, and shape a path to validate assumptions. Whether the problem is solved or you have to go back and test alternative solutions, you will be able to learn from what you try and share what did and didn’t work with your team.
Don’t discount qualitative analysis
The qualitative analysis is where a lot of the nuance lies in understanding what is really going on in a situation. If most of your job is spent talking to people, summarize the trends you are finding, the sentiment of the team, opportunities to move the group from where they are today to where they want to be in the future. The ability to reflect and analyze how people are feeling is a critical skill, and leveraging that skill to solve complex problems is where it really can shine.
Capture your qualitative findings and summarize them in tables, charts, and graphs; point to the conclusions they draw. Ask questions that dig deeper into the problems you are trying to solve, and explore alternative reasonings for how things got to be the way they were.
Returning back to our example of solving transparency in decision making — the team likely did not always have this issue. Perhaps the team grew quickly, maybe leadership changed, new competitive forces are driving innovation in an area the team isn’t equipped to solve — these are all things that you can learn by talking to people and asking questions. Challenges with communication based on a team growing quickly vs a team not having the necessary skillsets are very different, and require very different approaches to solve. Your qualitative analysis is critical in identifying how to move forward.
Capture your process
There are few problems we solve in our jobs that never need to be solved again; and one of the best practices to set yourself up for success in the future is to document your process as you go, or immediately after you finish something.
Documenting processes takes a little time, but will not only help you save time in the end, it will also give you a resource to help scale your productivity. To get started, think to yourself, “what would I need to show someone if they were coming into this project with no prior understanding or context?” Make an outline of all of the steps you follow in your process, and then group them into buckets. For example, there are many steps to film production, but the buckets are generally pre-production, production, post-production. The buckets will allow you to level up and out of the weeds as you go back through to talk about the most critical things that have to happen. Be judicious about the level of detail you include, covering the critical steps or things that come from your insider knowledge so that someone can reasonably follow it, but you didn’t spend weeks writing it. Add visuals wherever possible to further clarify and reduce the need to write as much.
If you’re overly ambitious and have the tools to do so, build a microsite to house the process and any resources you’ve collected to refer back to and point people to if they want to follow along.
One of the most common reasons I observe people being spread too thin is because they have kept too much of their process in their head and have not gotten it down on paper. Spread the wealth — writing out and sharing your process gives you the space to level up and focus on the most critical things, not on the things you are blocking others on. Scaling yourself increases your impact and puts you back in the driver’s seat.
Bringing it all together
And with that, you have yourself concrete and tangible examples of utilizing these important skills, and demonstrating how to use them to solve complex problems. Keep a running list of what you are working on and how you are spending time, keep a record of the decisions you have helped to facilitate and what they enabled for a team, set goals for yourself and measure your progress against them. Do not sell yourself short by vaguely describing your contributions in these areas; and don’t fall into the trap of thinking of these as lesser skills — focus on the framing, and others will recognize their importance, just as you do.