The soft skills you need to succeed
Everyone knows about the hard skills you need to be able to succeed in economics or in academia in general: excellent writing and proofreading skills, the ability to extract information from what are often dense scientific texts, and being able to evaluate and analyse data effectively, among other things. But they aren’t the only skills you need to have. There are, of course, the dreaded soft skills – a slippery term that can mean anything from being able to clearly communicate your ideas to another human being to more abstract concepts like emotional intelligence. But what are the most important soft skills to have, and how can you develop the ones that need some more work?
At the top of every list of essential soft skills seems to be communication. Effective communication doesn’t just mean being able to talk to another person as though they are a human being (although this is obviously useful on a day-to-day basis) – it also means being able to adapt your communication style to different people based on their seniority, age and relationship to you. It means having the ability to adapt your presentation skills, according to whether you’re talking to five people in a thesis workshop or five hundred at a conference. It means being able to write a pithy research proposal for your PhD thesis, slog out a decent essay introduction that remains concise and yet easy to understand, or compress your ideas into a couple of sentences to efficiently get across exactly what it is you do, want, or need. It also means shutting up and listening to someone else speak in order to learn and grow. This last part includes emotional intelligence, something very important for effective communication. If you can’t empathise with people, it’s impossible to communicate effectively with them.
Communication skills will help you in every aspect of your life, from forming new relationships with people (this doesn’t necessarily mean friendship, but rather contacts; an essential part of networking is communication) to listening to what others have to say even when you disagree with their opinions. So how to improve these communication skills? A good way is to surround yourself with people you know are good at communicating – whether that means getting someone who can hold an audience to help you with your next presentation or sitting down with a colleague who seems to know absolutely everyone to help you improve your networking skills. You could also take a course in communication (yes, they exist), or throw yourself in at the deep end by forcing yourself to present and talk to people as often as is humanly possible.
So what’s next, once you’ve learned how to effectively communicate? The next step is using this skill effectively as part of a team. Humans are social animals, and two heads (or three, or four) are almost always better than one. Solving problems with other people means you’ll hear ideas you would have never thought of by yourself, while additionally becoming familiar with disparate perspectives and means of deciphering complications. But it’s not just about coming up with solutions. It’s also about simply working together with people in the same office or classroom, and being flexible with their plans so you can work together when it’s convenient for both of you. It’s about listening to other people, respecting their viewpoints, and being able to articulate yourself so you can disagree or agree when necessary – being polite while maintaining your integrity. Essentially, it’s about being able to trust others to help you, whether that’s planning and organizing a task together, making important decisions as a group, or using all of your brains to solve a problem. All of this can come in handy when, for example, you need to work with other students or researchers on group projects. Collaborating on a university project can be a great way to improve your teamworking skills.
Time management and self motivation
The flip side of this, of course, is that it’s also imperative to be able to work by yourself and manage your time effectively. Working by yourself involves having some self direction – that is, motivation to work when there’s nobody pushing you to get stuff done – as well as the initiative to know what to do next. Prioritising can be a difficult task in and of itself. It involves making sure you know what’s most important to get done – not only for yourself, but also for the other people in the team and the company in general. Delegation can be helpful when prioritising, leaving you to get on with more critical tasks. Another technique is to keep a to-do list in order of priority – but make sure organising your to-do list doesn’t become a stressful task. Perhaps most importantly, learning to say no will do wonders for your time management. If someone asks you for help and you think it will distract from more important tasks, or if it’s something that shouldn’t be delegated to you, or if you simply can’t find the time, it’s okay to apologise and say no. The alternative is to take on too much and stress yourself out, leading to lower-quality work, or worse, simply not getting everything done.
Being a leader
What was the soft skill LinkedIn said was going to be the most likely to get you hired in 2018? That would be leadership. Leadership is the quality of being able to inspire people, talk clearly to them about your ideas, and actually see things through. Leadership is really a combination of many different skills, including most importantly communication, but also being hardworking, delegating, being responsible, going above and beyond your expected work, and creatively finding solutions to problems. On a more basic level, though, a leader is someone people are willing – even happy – to follow. It also includes skills less related to working and more towards people – being open, empathetic and communicative with your employees and a person to whom they can come with questions and concerns is vital. You need to retain the ability to be professional while not coming across as too ‘corporate’, meaning being social while acknowledging the inevitable hierarchies of the workplace. It means listening to your employees’ ideas and judging their utility fairly. Leadership is perhaps the hardest skill to improve as it encompasses so many other qualities, and it seems that some people are simply born leaders.
But despair not. There are a few things you can do to improve your leadership skills. Classes exist on refining body language, problem solving, and management and leadership skills. Improving your communication skills can also help you become a more effective leader, opening you up to other people and making you more empathetic (or at least seem so). Other more abstract ways of improving this skill are maintaining a sense of integrity and being passionate about what you do. People are often drawn to leaders who are obviously passionate and genuinely care about what they are trying to achieve. There are many different types of leaders – coaches, dictators, authoritarians, democrats and partners, to name a few. Each of these styles has upsides and downsides. Find the leadership style that fits with your aims, personality and strengths, and hone your other soft skills as best you can.
Get to work
In the end, soft skills are just as important as the hard skills with which we’re all familiar. Unfortunately, they’re usually more difficult to hone. But it can be done, and employers and bosses love to see them in action. However you choose to improve yourself – through classes, by surrounding yourself with accomplished soft-skillers, by throwing yourself in at the deep end, or a mixture of all three – try to spend at least a little bit of time improving your communication, teamworking, time management and leadership skills. If you do this, you’ll be nicely set up for the myriad job interviews you’ll undoubtedly be attending in later life.
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