A couple of years ago when interviewing for a leadership role in product management, I was fortunate to learn a lesson about the value of soft skills in product leadership.
I interviewed with the CEO of the now public company. I anticipated that I would be asked several questions in regard to product strategy, product market fit, or product development process. Instead, I was asked several questions pertaining to how I would handle hard situations with people I would work with. How would I handle a difficult conversation with a colleague? How would I handle a disagreement with the VP of engineering? How would I correct an employee sharing incorrect information at a company lunch?, etc.
I’ve realized more and more that soft skills are what separates great product leaders from mediocre product leaders. Soft skills are not learned in a book or in a formal learning environment. It’s hard to measure soft skills. They are learned through failure, self-assessment and constant practice. I’ve learned that soft skills are hard skills.
WHAT ARE HARD SKILLS?
Hard skills are things learned in a book or formal learning. There are great resources available to learn and assess hard skills.
I can go to a service like Pluralsight and gain knowledge in hard skills like software development, IT operations, data security, etc. and take an assessment to prove my knowledge of such hard skills.
I can download an application like SketchApp and learn by taking a course, or simply by tinkering, how to put various shapes, images and layers together to create a product design. I can show the designs as a portfolio when interviewing for a product design position. In a nutshell, hard skills are specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured.
By contrast, soft skills are less tangible and harder to quantify, such as emotional intelligence, how we react to adversity, and how we interact with others.
WHAT ARE SOFT SKILLS?
Unlike hard skills, like coding, where the rule for doing it perfectly is always the same, soft skills depend on your emotional state, external circumstance, and people you interact with.
Soft skills are about inner strength and interpersonal effectiveness, as long as you work with people, these skills are valuable to your career.
You can reach a level of competency with soft skills, but you can always run into new situations or people that will test you and push you to learn more. I’ve learned that soft skills are about psychology, people and the ongoing journey of learning.
“Success in any field, but especially in business is about working with people, not against them…” Keith Ferrazzi “Never Eat Alone”
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
I thought about how soft skills apply to a product manager or product designer today. Here’s what I came up with:
Skills You Will Need:
- Ability to listen to feedback from manager(s) or colleagues
- Don’t criticize the customer, saying “They’re clueless”
- Can address issues directly with people — you’re not passive aggressive
- You do what you say you will do
- Take responsibility for failure, without blaming others and seek to improve
- Have hobbies outside of work and ways to deal with stress
- Don’t think you are the smartest person in the room
- Don’t get frustrated when people don’t quickly get your point
- Has the ability to embrace change; organizational changes, team changes, vision changes
I took this further by finding a job description on LinkedIn for a product designer at InvisionApp. I found it interesting that almost 50% of the job description was looking for soft skills. I highlighted soft skills in green and hard skills in red.
As I’ve researched more about soft skills, I’ve broken these skills into three categories:
How you perceive yourself and others. How you manage your personal habits and emotions and react to adverse situations. Some skill areas that I have identified are:
- Emotional Intelligence- To be aware of, control, and express emotions and handle interpersonal relationships with empathy and fair judgement.
- Emotion Regulation- Being able to manage your emotions, especially negative ones, at work (e.g. anger, frustration, embarrassment) so you can think clearly and objectively, and act accordingly.
- Self-Confidence- Believing in yourself and your ability to accomplish anything. Knowing that all you need is within you now.
“Those who believe in themselves have access to unlimited power.” Kung Fu Panda
- Stress Management- Being able to stay healthy, calm, and balanced in challenging situations. Knowing how to reduce your stress level will increase your productivity, prepare you for new challenges and support your physical and emotional health, all of which you need for a fulfilling, successful career.
- Resilience- Being able to bounce back after a disappointment or setback, big or small, and continue to move onward and upward. Don’t have to take the first no, but you need to know when to back down.
- Persistence- Being able to maintain the same energy and dedication in your effort to learn, do, and achieve in your career despite difficulties, failures, and oppositions.
- Patience- Being able to step back in a seemingly rushed or crisis situation, so you can think clearly and take action that fulfills your long term goals.
- Perceptiveness- Giving attention to the unspoken cues and developing cognitive or emotional empathy of other people’s situation and perspective. Often times, we are too busy thinking about ourselves and what we are saying, and we leave little room to watch and understand others’ actions and intentions. If you misinterpret others’ intention or don’t try to put yourself in their shoes, you can easily encounter difficulties dealing with people and not even know why.
- “Growth Mindset”
I read the book, Mindset by Carol Dweck a couple of years ago. It teaches some incredible principles regarding emotional intelligence and soft skills. The main principle is focused on maintaining a “growth mindset” over a “fixed mindset.” In many situations we have the opportunity to learn, grow, and change. Focusing our attention on improving ourselves vs. changing or blaming others is key.
Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is static and have a desire to look smart, while those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed and have a desire to learn. As a result, those with a fixed mindset plateau early and achieve less than their full potential, whereas those with a growth mindset reach even higher levels of achievement.
“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” Dale Carnegie
How to best interact and work with others so you can build meaningful work relationships. Some skill areas that I have identified are:
- Communication- Being able to actively listen to others and articulate your ideas in writing and verbally to any audience in a way where you are heard and you achieve the goals you intended with that communication. This also include languages skills if the spoken language at work is your second language.
Listening Continuum by Stephen R. Covey
- Teamwork- Being able to work effectively with anyone with different skill sets, personalities, work styles, or motivation level to achieve a better team result.
- Interpersonal Relationships- Effective at building trust, finding common ground, having emotional empathy, and ultimately building good relationships with people at work and in your network. Also referred to as your “social skills,” this skill is closely related to communication skills. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you must have social graces in order to get far in your career.
- Presentation- Effectively presenting your work results and ideas formally to an audience that captivates their attention, engage their input, and motivates them to act in accordance to your desired outcome. While presentation skills are a form of communication skills, I decided to list them separately given the ability to present plays a huge role in any business profession, especially as you move up in your career.
- Meeting Management- Leading a meeting to efficiently and effectively reach productive results. At least 50% of meetings today are a waste of time.
- Facilitating- Being able to coordinate and solicit well-represented opinions and feedback from a group with diverse perspectives to reach a common, best solution.
- Selling- Building buy-in to an idea, a decision, an action, a product, or a service. This is not just for people in sales.
- Management- Creating and motivating a high-performing team with people of varied skills, personalities, motivations, and work styles.
- Leadership- Defining and communicating visions and ideas that inspire others to follow with commitment and dedication.
- Mentoring / Coaching- Providing constructive wisdom, guidance, and/or feedback that can help others further their career development. If not mentoring, how are you at being mentored? How do you handle feedback?
People skills that you won’t find in a job description. Essential to your career success. I call it tribal because it is more “insider knowledge” that you gain from work experience.
- Managing Up- Proactively managing your relationship with your boss, his expectations of your work, and his perception of your performance. Whether you are challenged, given opportunities, or recognized at work heavily depends on your ability to communicate, manage expectations, and build a good relationship with your boss.
- Difficult people or personalities- Being able to still achieve the work result needed while working with someone whom you find difficult.
- Unexpected Situations- Being able to stay calm and effective when faced with an unexpected or difficult situation. This includes being able to think on your feet and articulate thoughts in an organized manner even when you are not prepared for the discussion or situation you are in.
- Office Politics- Being able to understand and proactively deal with the unspoken nuances of office and people dynamics so you can protect yourself from unfairness as well as further your career. Office politics is a fact of life. If you don’t choose to play, it can play you.
- Influence / Persuasion- Being able to influence perspectives or decision-making but still have the people you influence think they made up their own minds.
- Negotiation- Being able to understand the other side’s motivations and leverage and reach a win-win resolution that you find favorably, satisfies both sides, and maintains relationships for future interactions.
- Networking- Being able to be interesting and interested in business conversations that motivates people to want to be in your network. The bigger and stronger the network you have, the more easily you can get things done (e.g., find a job, get advice, find business partners, find customers, etc.).
“The human body essentially recreates itself every six months. Nearly every cell of hair and skin and bone dies and another is directed to its former place. You are not who you were last November.” Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Following is a list of books that I’ve read to better understand soft skills, leadership and emotional intelligence.