Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham take a deeper dive into one of the key areas of soft skills: Individual soft skills. We’re also going to talk about how best to get moving toward improving your soft skills.

Bob Graham ‘0:00’:  Coming up, we’re going to take a deeper dive into one of the key area of soft skills: Individual soft skills.

Graham ‘0:23’: Welcome to Episode 4 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham, and with me, as always,  is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills and I think we are going to show you that with what we are about to discuss. Right, Toby?

Tobin Porterfield ‘1:01’: It should be an interesting topic today.

How We See Individual Soft Skills

Graham ‘1:03’: Every topic is an interesting topic when you and I are looking into it. Let’s get right into it. In one of the past episodes (Episode 3), we looked at listening skills as one of the most important Individual soft skills. I made the case that it was the most important and we sort of wrestled with it a bit. Today we’re going to talk about more of those Individual soft skills and how they show up in people’s lives and in their work. Can you sort of help us set this up?

Porterfield ‘1:31’: In our research we have found over 50 specific skills that are part of soft skills. We talked about how that list can really be overwhelming. We have broken that list into four groupings, with one being Individual soft skills. We call them that because they are so much more internalized.

Porterfield ‘1:54’: Let me list out some of those Individual soft skills so our listeners can get a feel for the type of items. I think they will be able to connect pretty well with them. Working independently, being proactive, attention to detail, positive attitude, being a lifelong learner, being loyal, stress management, ethics, and of course, good old listening skills, perseverance, self motivation and time management. I would think that people could see how we put those together as something that’s foundation, but they’re also ones that we looked at how those soft skills play out in the workplace. So we found these and brought these together because they are ones you bring to the workplace, as opposed to ones you might use when engaging one-on-one, in a group or the ones we would use when we are trying to influence the greater organization. These come much closer to home.

Breaking Down Being A Life-Long Learner

Graham ‘3:13’: As I heard you go through that list, those soft skills seemed like the ones I can work on within the four walls of my cubicle or the four walls of my office. I can be improving on them without dealing with other people. I can be thinking about being a life-long learner. How does that show up? It’s as easy as doing an online seminar, or to prepare for our podcast, I had to learn about podcasts. I listened to about 15 or 20 different podcasts on podcasts. I read three books on podcasting. I spoke to people on podcasting and how to do a podcast. Rather than going, I don’t know how to do it, I’ll never know it, I took the time to develop those expertise. Is that an example of an individual doing the work to develop one of these soft skills, lifelong learning? Of course, that makes me more valuable. And being able to administer this podcast process really helps our company in a lot of ways, as well.

Porterfield ‘4:25’: You touched on a good point here that I hope our listeners pick up on that nuance. We are talking here about the soft skill of being a lifelong learner. But you spoke about being able to manage the software, being able to write the scripts, to do the editing. We’ve said before that soft skills and hard skills go hand-in-hand. The two feed off of each other. Being a lifelong learner means I may be developing my soft skills or I may be developing my hard skills.

Graham ‘5:08’: You just said that and my first thought was oh, I just screwed up in what we are talking about. But I guess they really do go hand-in-hand. It’s not so much being a lifelong learner develops that soft skills, but as we see with the podcast, it helps develop that hard skill.

Being able to do something more is why we are developing any skills, whether it’s technical skills or soft skills. Our goal ultimately is to be more valuable in the workplace, both to achieve better results, but to also position ourselves for better things within an organization or an industry.

Creating Value With Soft Skills

Porterfield ‘5:56’: That’s correct, but also, let’s flip it the other way. If you went out and said I am going to learn how to do video editing and audio editing, and you developed that hard skill by itself, what good does it do you?

You put those communication skills, time management and other soft skills to it, and now you have taken that hard skill that you developed and you have created something of value.

Porterfield ‘6:26’: My struggle is that I believe our hard skills aren’t value creating. They’re resume items; they’re interesting.

It’s fun to learn new things, but I believe we would agree that soft skills are then what takes those hard skills and brings value to yourself and your organization.

Porterfield ‘6:52’: That’s really an exciting side of this and we will get into a few more of these soft skills.

Soft Skills in this Podcast

Graham ‘6:55’: When I came to you with the idea of the podcast, I had to sell you on the idea. There are some soft skills at play there.

Porterfield ‘7:08’: We have to be able to articulate our ideas, our passions, our vision. That’s where we see some difference. We talked in an earlier podcast about listening as an enabler of influence, and clearly you wanted to influence me to commit to and invest in putting this type of information out there through a podcast.

Hard and Soft Skills are Married

Graham ‘7:33’: So the technical skills and soft skills really are interconnected at all levels in a way we saw in the research we talked about in Episode 4 and as we talk through this today. Technical skills and soft skills are really tied together in a variety of ways.

Porterfield ‘7:46’: As we look at a few other of these soft skills on the Individual side, we start to see some of the nuances of them. We look at something like time management. Sometime a person in our circle might say we always show up late and can’t seem to get the priorities done each day. A lot of times that’s attributed to our ability to manage time. That’s one where there are certainly tools out there to help people to organize and structure their time. There are apps all over the place these days to do it. Some of these Individual soft skills – managing our time, setting our priorities, organizing ourselves so we accomplish what is important each day – there are materials out there to provide the knowledge in how to get that one going.

Obviously, Not!

Porterfield ’8:50’: But there are others in that same set of Individual soft skills – like loyalty, and similar to that – where those are not so obvious. There’s not an app for perseverance. Unless you get your app for exercising and it motivates you to persevere and to get out and do your steps each day. That’s a little removed from actually developing the soft skill of perseverance. What we see is that these soft skills get developed through experience, as we have mentioned before. We need to have that experience of successfully persevering, successfully being proactive and seeing the positive results from that. Sometimes we can go through a self-reflective process, the need to persevere. If people self-reflect and then act upon that, and they say there’s this issue and I have been meaning to talk with my coworker about. I am going to take that effort and go out and do it and see those positive results. That’s great, but having a peer coach to come alongside us and tell us, “Hey, you said you were having trouble being proactive. What’s one thing you want to address this week?” Have that followup. Have that accountability, some coaching, some mentoring, some followup. Others of us might be able to lead ourselves through a self-reflective process and self-evaluation to be able to make progress on that.

That process of making progress on soft skills is one of the challenges of soft skills and one of the reasons why soft skills haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

Porterfield ’10:54’: Learning algebra, learning to do an analysis in statistics – we can cookbook that. We can give problems, exercises and homework. We can give feedback on that. And then people go back and work on it and get better. Those hard skills are learned still through experience, but it is a different experiential process. It’s different from developing a soft skill. We see some of those difficulties in developing a soft skill compared to a hard skill.

Why People May Walk Away

Porterfield ’11:28’: The difficulties might encourage someone to say, “That’s too tough. I’m not going to deal with it.”

Soft skills can get sidelined.

Graham: ’11:37’: There’s another way for me to develop some soft skills, which is just watching people who are successful and saying this person is did this, they achieved this. What can I learn from that? What did they do? To me the lesson in perseverance is to look at one we talk about a million times: Steve Jobs and the glass screen on the iPhone. If you want the movie or read the book by Walt Issacson, you see it was going to a glass screen. They said it can’t be a glass screen. And Jobs said it has to be a glass screen. They said it won’t work, it won’t work, it won’t work. But lo and behold, he perseveres and achieves. Whenever I am faced with a situation in my career where I don’t think I can succeed, I go back to Jobs and say, “Maybe this is my glass-screen moment.” And I need to persevere. It can be a big thing or a little thing. That’s just one example from me.

Finding Other People’s Gold

Graham ’12:48’: I like to look at other people, what they do that’s successful and what they don’t do that might have made them successful. Some of them have great ideas and achieve great results. Some have great ideas and don’t achieve great results. Sometimes dissecting what didn’t work can be very instructive in knowing what in the future could work.

Porterfield ’13:19’: Let’s tie it a little closer to home to the eye of the hunter. By now, I hope our network is a little more sensitized and they are seeing those soft skills in action. It might be something where we can be just a little more attentive to our interactions with a group of people and see soft skills in action in other people. We can look at how they persevered, when they pulled back on a topic and let it ferment some and when they introduced it. How did they manage that conversation to, in the end, influence the direction things would go? We all probably have some great examples in our own circles that we can draw. That approach also gives us the opportunity to speak to that person and say, “Wow, I saw how you did this in the meeting. Wow, how did you learn to do that? How do you know when to do that?”

We all have that opportunity to create what I call an ad-hoc mentoring relationship.

Porterfield ’14:24’: It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, but we can say, “I respect how you did that. Help me understand it because I want to be able to use that soft skill.”

Trying Someone Else’s Glasses On

Graham ’14:37’: I have been blessed in my career with people who I have been able to go to after a meeting or after they did something and say to them, “Walk me through your thought process.” It is amazingly insightful to hear someone describe their thought process in using a soft skill. You realize that their internal logic is somewhat different from your own.

It can be incredibly enlightening to see how someone else perceives how something happened.

Graham ’15:10’: All it requires is to ask someone. Usually, they are very interested in the opportunity because it’s a way to recognize someone who’s doing something successfully. It doesn’t have to be formal. I hear from my students all the time is the question of whether it should be a formal mentoring relationship, a written contract kind of thing. Mentoring doesn’t have to be formal. It can be as simple as I want to be more like Toby in some way, and I may never tell Toby what that thing is. I just start to look at how you do that thing and I start to think about how I can do it better from watching you do it.

The First Step To Start Improving Your Soft Skills

Graham ’15:46’: The other thing I wanted to throw out there because we are talking about this and how we do this as an individual, saying, “I’m going to be a better listener” or “I’m going to manage my time better.” We have to ask what would that look like? What are the steps I need to take to make that happen.

The first step is really saying to ourselves, I am going to try to be better at this soft skill.

Graham ’16:23’: We have a list of over 50 soft skills. It would be impossible to work on all of the soft skills at one time. If you could work on two at any given time, that would be great. You may also find the case where you are working on your listening skills because you have a day-long retreat at work and that‘s a great day to work the soft skill of listening. But another day, you are meeting with a vendor and you may have to be working on the soft skill of being proactive because you know problems are coming up. That soft skills landscape changes situationally. Just talking through this, you can’t always know which soft skill you need to be working on. It changes quite quickly and sometimes we might be addressing more than one.

Those Individual Soft Skills Are…

Porterfield ’17:12’: That’s a good way to assess it. Let’s wrap it up with what we identify as those Individual soft skills. Maybe people can use it almost as a scorecard. We can provide the list of these soft skills on our website at SeriousSoftSkills.com. If you want to go through and kind of rate yourself, we’ll have them there. Let me go through them. You can see where you rank on them and think about where you might want to do some work to get better.

  • Working independently
  • Being proactive
  • Being detail oriented
  • Having a positive attitude
  • Being a lifelong learner
  • Being loyal
  • Stress management
  • Listening skills
  • Persistence
  • Self-motivation
  • Time management

They are in no particular order, but those are the soft skills we pulled together out of the 50 soft skills and said those are the ones that start with me.

Making Improvements

Graham ’18:18’: I counted five that I need to work on. I guess I have my work to do before the next episode. Some might say I need to work on seven or eight of the list of what nine or 11 we put out there. No one has to know that you are doing this. This is something you can do that you can assess this on your own and do this on your own. You may find someone saying you are different or better. For instance, someone might say, “You’ve been on time to meetings a lot more. What’s going on?” Or you may never get that kind of feedback. But inside, you know you have gotten better at these Individual soft skills, which start the ball running toward some of these more complex soft skills.

Next Week’s Episode

Porterfield ’18:59’: Bob, this is a good point to wrap up this episode. We’ve spelled out and identified those Individual soft skills, which are really close to who we are. In our next episode, let’s expand from there and look at those soft skills we use in one-on-one interactions.

Graham ’19:15’: Thanks for doing that closing, Toby, but you forgot two things. You forgot to thank people for listening, telling them to have a good day, and of course, your favorite thing, good soft skills.

 

 

Our mind is constantly evaluating the angles, possibilities, benefits and drawbacks of countless decisions, though we rarely think much about what is going on in our minds.

If I ask my boss for a day off next week, will I miss out on an opportunity? Should I tell HR that someone has been reporting his arrival time at work as far earlier than the reality? Should I tell my boss I am looking for a new job or should I keep her in the dark until I have one in place?

Each of these questions – and a million others that come up each day – requires a careful analysis of the situation. Consider the list of soft skills necessary for each of the questions raised above:

  • Listening – Paying attention to what others did in similar situations to learn the rules of the road.
  • Critical Thinking – Using the information obtained from listening and other stimuli to formulate an appropriate response to the situation.
  • Presentation – Evaluating other people’s words and actions through their presentation of information, and preparing a possible presentation of the information regarding the situation. Also, being able to talk coherently so that the people involved understand and appreciate your concerns and interests.
  • Negotiating – Determining what should be done and how to handle it with others involved.
  • Conflict Management – Being able to deal with any negatives outcomes or consequences that arise from your choices.
  • Adaptability – Being able to alter your actions as the situation evolves. For instance, if your boss seems distracted when you enter her office, recognizing the signals and putting off the discussion for later in the day.
  • Responsibility – Taking responsibility for your career and your success and for the requirements of your job.
  • Proactivity – Being proactive about your career and situation
  • Loyalty – Weighing the requirements of loyalty against what you need to succeed for yourself.
  • Confident – Having the confidence to admit to yourself that you are ready for a new job.
  • Ethical – Deciding what is best to do to meet your own ethical standards.

Most of us take action without much thought. We might do what someone else told us to do. We might just do what feels right. We might follow our instinct or our gut.

But breaking down the individual skills at play gets at one of the core realities of soft skills. They rarely, if ever, operate in isolation. One soft skill is dependent on other soft skills. Notice how many of the ones listed above play off of one or another of them.

Even though soft skills usually operate in concert with one another, we often cannot identify areas for improvement unless we look at them individually. And as we work on one soft skill, it influences and affects the others. Further complicating matters is that some soft skills are more in use than others, and some work more closely with others.