Soft skills are the true differentiator that helps people with strong technical skills earn jobs and transform their organizations, the hosts explain while answering listener questions.


Bob Graham (‘0:20’): Welcome to Serious Soft Skills, Episode 16. With me is Dr. Tobin Porterfield.  For you newcomers and those of you who have been with us for a while, you may or may not know we have uncovered a list of 55 soft skills. We dug this list up though academic research and our teaching of college students and work in various industries. Paying really close attention to these soft skills we are now doing this podcast to discover what each of these soft skills means and how they fit into our lives. Today we are going to extend that into a new direction and take some listener questions. It’s always exciting. We’re picked some really hard ones. Hopefully, we can find our way through them.

Soft Skills Are Not Teachable

Graham (‘1:16’): The first one comes from Anonymous, and you are going to see why in a second. Anonymous says, “Why do you guys care so much about soft skills? We either have them or don’t so why are you spending so much time on them?” 

Dr. Tobin Porterfield (‘1:46”): I like to question things. I have a skeptical mind. I want to ask if this is real. The argument that sets it up most. We kind of tee this up in the beginning of our book. The business environment has really changed. The business world is hyper competitive. Things are changing quickly. Technology change is coming on. The workplace has changed. The type of work we do has changed. It has made soft skills more important. It’s not that they haven’t existed. There are ones of us that have stronger sets of soft skills, stronger in some areas. But it’s something that we need to bring to the workplace these days. A recognition of what they are is critical, as is a solid, honest self-reflection of where we each are on those soft skills is essential to the success of organizations. We have to say soft skills are there in the workplace, and if an individual has been able to avoid developing soft skills for a long time, that avoidance time is passed.

If we are going to be effective in the workplace today, soft skills are not optional.

Graham (‘3:02’): I would agree with all of that. I would add that you and I have countless examples of students we have taught who performed better when looking for a job and get the job because they have more soft skills. They are more in demand. We know that from research, and not just our research. Employers are looking for soft skills like problem-solving, written and oral communication. When they see people that can offer those skills, those are the people who are getting hired. I tell my students all the time that there are thousands of people just like you with that same engineering or writing degree, or whatever degree. How do you differentiate yourself? 

You all know the same technical expertise. It’s the soft skills, how you are going to apply them, how you are going to interact with people, that ultimately separates some from the pack.

Porterfield (‘3:57’): You said it and that is how we position soft skills. They are not in place of technical skills. It’s how we implement and integrate those technical skills in the workplace. The people and the organizations that have valued and strengthened soft skills are better performers. They are able to take the same engineering skills, which we can hire into any organization if we have the money to hire people, but whether we are actually able to innovate, solve problems or transform an organization using those soft skills, that’s where the soft skills are going to come in and make a huge difference. Soft skills are the differentiator between who gets the job and who doesn’t, between whose successful and who is not, and which organizations are successful and which ones are not.  

Did You Guys Make Up that List of 55 Soft Skills?

Graham (‘5:00’): Our next question comes from BiBi. I don’t know if that’s a man or woman, boy or girl. You talk about your list of 55 soft skills. Where did your list come from really? I think that question is code for, I think you guys are making this list up and just doing a podcast on stuff you made up. Can you walk us through how that list came about because you did the hard work on that list?

Porterfield (5:27′): I was at the same place. I’d heard of soft skills. I felt like this was soft skills. Then I  heard that that was soft skills and that was soft skills and other things were soft skills. We came together to do soft skills research out of frustration. We wanted to really figure out what soft skills are. We made the decision that we should look into the research, starting with academic research and books that have been published related to soft skills to see what all of these soft skills perspectives are. We went back through. I am embarrassed to say I don’t remember the number of articles, publications, journal articles, papers going back into the 1970s that somehow mentioned soft skills.

Chasing Down Our List of 55 Soft Skills

Porterfield (6:02′): The wonders of technology today enable us to search for the key words like “soft skills,” “professional skills,” “non-technical skills” and do these searches. We got back 10s of thousands of resources, but we wanted to find the best resources to explain what soft skills are and are not.  Let’s not look at blog posts and things like that. Let’s look at academic research that’s been done at credible universities and books that have been written by credible authors. Typical of research, as we started to accumulate that list, we started to see duplication of the terms — oral communication, speaking skills, being able to speak clearly. We saw that different terms meant the same thing so we had to link together the synonymous terms. We also had to separate the terms when they were new. We had to make those judgments. This one talks about presentation skills, which is a little different because it brings in the technology and the visual aspects. We parsed all of that and were left with a list of 55 soft skills. But as often happens when you are doing research, when you are searching for a topic, you find repetition. We got to a point where we said we think we have the full list. We got to a point where we saw repetition and nothing new coming in. We felt we had a good, comprehensive list of soft skills. But we also recognized that when we go forward with this list, someone’s going to read what we are writing or hear what we are saying, they are going to tell us that we forgot about this or that. I know there are probably more than 55 soft skills. I hope we get to that point. We are willing to add to that list of 55 soft skills. I think we have the most full view of soft skills that we have ever found. People came at them from different angles from their needs and their interests. We wanted to cut across that and come up with the real portfolio, because the list of soft skills is so large. Out of that set of soft skills, different people and different organizations need to say we need strengths in these areas and those other ones are not as important to us right now. The ability to treat it like a Chinese menu and pick off what you want is important.

Which Soft Skill Will Help My Career Most?

Graham (‘8:42’): That leads me now to the next questions. Trevor asks, If I want to improve my career, which soft skills should I work on first? Do you mind, Toby, if I take a stab answering that one?

Porterfield (8:56′): I was hoping you would take a stab at answering that one.

Graham (9:05′): Any one soft skill isn’t going to make all the difference in the world because we have that portfolio of 55 soft skills. As we discuss in earlier episodes, we talk about different groupings of soft skills. We talked about Individual soft skills, Nexus or one-on-one communication soft skills, Group soft skills and Enterprise soft skills. You could go back and listen to those episodes and you might do best to start with the Individual category that includes things like empathy, patience, respect, perseverance. Those soft skills are the ones I would think of as foundational. They are the ones we really need to have inside us to go on to the next level and really expand. If I was going to pick one to start with, I would start with the one Individual soft skill I am weakest at, then the next one and the next one after that. Even the ones I am really good at, I would ask people about how you are with them. The feedback can be that you aren’t excellent at it. They might tell you that you are not the worst or okay at it. That’s the thing about this list of 55. There’s always improvement to make. It’s like running. You can always come up with another personal record. If you shave 5 seconds off your time today, that means you get up tomorrow and you hope to shave off another second off that day. 

Porterfield (’11:03′): That really gets at the root of the issue. Do you have another listener question?

Should Soft Skills Be the Focus in Interviews?

Graham (’11:23′): Our last question comes from Evan K. If soft skills are so important, why aren’t they the focus of job interviews? And he asks the logical next question. Should they be?

Porterfield (’11:37′): We are starting to see soft skills being more of a focus of job interviews. Certainly, we have a lot of different types of organizations out there that are starting to focus more heavily on soft skills. With our research, we looked at job descriptions as a way to vet our list of 55 soft skills. We found them out there in job descriptions, online job postings, prevalently. It’s a process. Soft skills are recognized now. We are seeing them in the job descriptions. I know when we talk to our students when they come back from job interviews, they are often amazed that soft skills came up. They expected to be talking about their knowledge of marketing, or the case they worked on, or this supply chain problem I solved. They come back and tell us that you won’t believe that they asked a situational question. They asked the student to tell them a time that you had to persevere to get through to what you wanted to accomplish? The student says she wasn’t ready for that kind of question. I say cheers to the company. That’s great. Recognizing that those soft skills are important, even when it’s in the job description, and teasing them out in the interview process is difficult. Now, we are faced with the challenge in our classrooms to prepare our students to be able to articulate those soft skills in the interview. They can’t say that they are really uncomfortable with that question and not answer it at an interview. Not answering is the ticket to the door. The company wants to hear you think on your feet and really be able to respond to questions like tell me a time when you had to deal with conflict or tell me a time when you had to come up with an innovative solution. How did you drive that and motivate your group? We not only need to know what our strengths are with soft skills, but we have to be able to story tell.

Graham (’13:20′): With the students, it’s often about helping them to understand what soft skills are in the first place. If you are not aware of soft skills, it’s really hard to have that storytelling around them. It’s awareness of soft skills and their role in organizational growth that comes first, then how do soft skills fit into what I am doing now. 

Forecasting the Future 

Graham (’14:00′) Frankly, as we have evolve with soft skills, we are going to get to that place where people will seek out internships and opportunities to boost their soft skills, maybe as much, if not more than their technical skills. Typically, we choose internships and jobs on the technical skills. Wouldn’t it be interesting to choose a job based on your soft skills. If you have the ability to manage projects and solve problems, those are transferrable skills. Some people call soft skills transferrable skills. If you could take those skills to another job. You can learn how to make the widgets at a different company, but if you can manage projects, pretty much once you know what they are doing, you can manage a project. That’s part of the beauty of soft skills. They are no longer confined to one company. It’s no longer only what you learned at that company about how they make products or deliver their specific services that matters. When you go to a new company, you are no longer a blank slate. You are someone who has all that experience and all those opportunities to build your soft skills portfolio, and now you have the chance to leverage them at the new company.

Porterfield (’15:00′): That thinking is right on track with how we see soft skills and soft skills development., A lot of what you bring is experience to a job is your ability to apply your knowledge to the discipline. You have done that marketing campaign, you have done month close in accounting. Those are awesome experiences. But those experiences related to working in a group, teamwork, innovation, problem-solving, those are the ones that really bring great benefit to your current and next organization.

Next Week

Next week, we will dig into another one of the 55 soft skills. Look for that and more next week on the Serious Soft Skills Podcast.

In the midst of all the big issues facing the world right now, one issue that can easily be put to bed is whether to call all skills not encompassed as technical skills either “soft skills” or “non-technical skills.” Non-Technical vs. Soft Skills Sign

Academics generally seem to favor non-technical skills, which does give a good contrast to the technical skills that most colleges and universities are primarily teaching. We have published several articles focused on “non-technical skills,” a phrase which outside of academia seems to have even less traction than “soft skills.” “Soft skills” suggests a key factor in their use; these skills are fluid and sometimes difficult to pinpoint.

The Air of Business

Soft skills can be likened to air. We know it exists because we are breathing it, but we really cannot see it or put our finger on it. Soft skills can be like air, essential to our success in jobs and relationships, but impossible to put your finger on. If you asked 10 people who worked for someone if she was a good boss, not everyone would agree that she was. Nor would they agree on why.

Each of us responds to soft skills differently. Some of us respond well to those who can talk about anything easily and engagingly, while others might find that verbal person annoying. Others might prefer someone who is a great listener, a man of few words. Which is right? In both cases, soft skills of communication and listening and interpersonal skills are being employed.

Of course, critics will charge that if you have “soft skills,” then “technical skills” must be called “hard skills.” The term “hard skills” in many ways fits the rigid nature of the aptitudes and testable knowledge on which they are built. But it feels weaker and less reflective of the reality of what it describes.

We favor soft skills because it just feels right. We hope you agree? But if not, feel free to explain why not.