Gain more soft skills – or your career will stall

As technology rapidly features more in our daily lives, a natural response would be to fit jobs into the gaps that technology can’t handle very well. However, evolving technology means those gaps will become smaller and people will be squeezed out. At the same time, our planet is raising vital issues that we all must deal with, like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. Virtual and augmented reality etc, will have a huge impact on careers, along with other tech innovations like facial recognition, language translation, voice-operated devices, chatbots, and intelligent personal assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana. Your best solution is to strategically gain more soft skills – or your career may stall.

We need to strengthen our soft skills

Soft skills are basically non-technical skills that enable a person to interact effectively and form positive relationships in the workplace, and with external stakeholders, according to McKinsey consultants in 2019. These skills are vital to organizational performance and can impact culture, mindsets, leadership, attitudes and behaviors. Soft skills fall generally into these categories:

  1. Advanced communication and negotiation skills
  2. Interpersonal skills and empathy
  3. Leadership and management skills
  4. Entrepreneurship and initiative-taking
  5. Adaptability and continuous learning skills
  6. Teaching and training skills

Analyzing 10 million job postings from 2017 to 2019, McKinsey found that many employers were rewarding workers who had hard (technical) skills. McKinsey reported that the skills outlook from the World Economic Forum showed several of the top 10 growing skills to be soft skills, including creativity and emotional intelligence. However, if such skills aren’t rewarded in proportion to their supposed value, then top talent won’t have the incentive to focus on them, choosing instead to focus on acquiring hard skills. McKinsey said in their article:

“Bringing the full range of human skills to the workplace—empathy, communication ability, leadership, compassion—requires that these [soft] skills be rewarded in accordance with their value. Otherwise, as much as leaders proclaim the value of soft skills, the focus will be on what is actually rewarded. It will only benefit organizations to accurately track—and effectively reward—soft skills; otherwise the soft skill shortage will remain, and perhaps grow, in the coming years.”

Soft skills vital in PR

In a 2022 interview with PR Daily, Liz Kaplow, founder and CEO of US agency Kaplow Communications, said it is vital to gain soft skills:

During the pandemic, we saw brands fully understand the importance of how humanity, transparency, and humility moved their companies forward. We were all going through a collective trauma, so as an agency, we became both the communicator and the audience.

It allowed us to gain empathy. We took a step back and put ourselves in the audience’s shoes, asking ourselves as consumers: “What is it we would want or even need to hear at this point in our lives?

We have found active listening is one of the most critically undervalued skills today…Especially now when so many meetings have shifted to video calls, we need what I call a “seventh sense” that helps us understand each other…People pick up on our cues that show we’re actively engaged in what they have to say. On a video conference call, it’s much harder to get this across, yet it’s crucial to help people feel not only heard, but also know that their ideas matter.”

16 soft skills needed by professional communicators

Regardless of the specific duties of your job, you need to gain more soft skills as a professional communicator to ensure continued career success. Sixteen members of the Forbes Communications Council were asked in 2022 to list the range of soft skills needed in a comms role. These are 16 of the most important soft skills they listed (not in priority order]:

Image source: Forbes article, “16 soft skills every professional communicator must master,” 23 May 2022.

“We need to do the jobs only humans can do”

Joseph Aoun, President of the US Northeastern University, reported in a 2018 paper jointly prepared with Gallup experts, (“Optimism and Anxiety: Views on the impact of artificial intelligence and higher education’s response”):

The single biggest threat to future job growth in the United States is the surge of artificial intelligence. As many as 47% of jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced within the next 20 years.

I am convinced that the answer to greater artificial intelligence is greater human intelligence…As machines continue to improve, we can too.

According to Professor Gerald Kane in the MIT Sloan Management Review in 2017, technological change will be uneven and unpredictable. Employees whose jobs will be at risk in one industry will need to be able to switch to a new career in another industry, with core skillsets enabling them to stay useful in a digital business world.

He says employers are more likely to build a workforce with central long-term employees who have strategic skills and who can use teams of contract workers for projects, creating more flexibility for the employer.

During my own career I have commonly seen recruiters hire people with limited skills mainly because they have come from the same industry as the employer, rather than hiring people with better overall capabilities who come from a different industry, but who have the capacity to adapt. This basic mistake is likely to happen less in the future as employers realize that strategic, transferable talents are more valuable than narrow, specialized capabilities.

PR and professional communication careers

Communication careers will be less disrupted than many other careers because our role requires a range of strategic and tactical communication and problem-solving skills, planning ability, social skills and professional judgment to confront widely varying situations. These capabilities will always be in demand. This 2017 New York Times article and interactive chart explain how these types of jobs are better placed.

Nevertheless, a study led by Jean Valin for the UK’s Chartered Institute of PR in 2018 estimated that already 12% of PR skills were assisted or impacted by artificial intelligence.

Technology such as apps and specialized software already undertakes tasks such as data analysis, horizon scanning, and data management. Originally these were performed by practitioners starting out in their careers. Valin also found the use of technology is likely to rise to 38% within 5 years due to the further development of software and machine learning. Artificial intelligence will impact key areas of public relations and comms management, including stakeholder mapping, risk analysis, auditing, and behavioral analysis. The likely extent of AI in professional communication is shown in the chart below,

Image: Stephen Waddington

Are attributes more important?

Keep in mind that some observers believe “attributes – not skills – determine whether you ‘cut it’ or not.” In a 2022 McKinsey interview, former US Navy SEAL commander Rich Diviney maintained attributes are more important than visible skills when examining ‘raw performance’ of people. “Attributes are characteristics like patience, situational awareness, and adaptability.” He said “Those types of attributes, those types of qualities, inform us about how we show up and perform in any environment.”

Diviney said he believed attributes are about the five specific categories of grit, mental acuity, drive, leadership, and team ability: “The key is you can’t teach anybody else attributes. You can’t train anybody else in attributes. You have to do it yourself, and it’s all up to you. It’s all your choice.” Yes, but to what extent are attributes derived in a martial environment relevant to a business environment? How does he know about “any environment”? Also, we don’t just throw away the fact that extensive business research shows we need to gain more soft skills to succeed in tomorrow’s working world.

Essential to master new skills

The overall lesson for communicators is that you will need to gain more soft skills throughout your career – not just basic implementation skills using the latest tech etc, which will become outmoded, but higher-level, more strategic soft skills that will remain valuable and adaptable to new roles. This will require you to engage in lifelong learning. Those who think gaining new professional knowledge finishes at graduation will find their career will stall unless they adapt to the new era of constant learning. My article, “Soft skills of good communication and relationships essential to career success,” discusses further aspects of your potential career enhancement.

That’s why the information in this website is intended to be evergreen – to always be topical and valuable into the future, and to support you in gaining new knowledge and learning how to master new skills.

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