Seeking Career Advancement? Ignore These Skills at Your Own Risk

To get ahead in your career, technical expertise is a must-have.  But many experts agree that it’s a mastery of the less tangible qualities – things like leadership, communication and interpersonal skills – that differentiates the great from the good.  You can have advanced degrees, experience and IQ in spades, but if you don’t develop your EQ and other non-technical competencies, your career prospects will likely be limited.

These intangible qualities are often referred to as “soft skills,” which is a term I don’t like and never use because I think it belies their importance.  The word “soft” implies that these things are easy, when really they are simple to understand but hard to do.  If it was easy to be a good leader and communicator, everybody would do it.  But we all know that’s not the case – and it’s typically the people who work hard at these things who rise to the top.

If the benefits are so apparent, what stops people from doing the work?  In my experience, it’s usually one of these common misconceptions:

1.  “Leadership/communication/interpersonal skills are not necessary to get ahead in my industry.”
This is a pretty common theme among my clients who work in the technology and finance fields.  And while it’s true that some industries and companies place more emphasis on hard skills than non-technical skills, it doesn’t mean that you can forgo professional and personal development altogether – especially if your goal is career advancement.

Of course, there are always examples of people who are able to rise through the ranks without great interpersonal or leadership abilities, often as a result of politics or sheer luck.  But these examples are really the exception, not the rule.  If you want to take control of your career path and give yourself an edge, the best thing you can do is bolster your non-technical side along with your technical capabilities. 

2.“My leadership/communication/interpersonal skills are already great and don’t need improvement.”
The truth is that we all have something we can work on, and most of these non-technical skills need to be developed and practiced over time – there’s no such thing as “done.”  If you’re not sure where to start, think back to your past performance reviews and ad hoc feedback.  Are there any themes that have come up time and again? Have you been repeatedly asked to change or develop a certain behavior?  Now’s the time to address it head on.

Even better, ask your colleagues and managers (both past and present) to give you some constructive criticism.  Tell them that you’re working on developing your non-technical skills in order to aid your career progression, and because you value their opinion you’d like to get their feedback and advice.  Most people are impressed by the maturity it takes to make this kind of request, and if you approach the conversation the right way, you may even get a mentor out of it.

3.“I wasn’t born with leadership/communication/interpersonal skills, and I don’t think they can be learned.”
These skills can absolutely be learned.  It might be harder for some people to develop these qualities than for others, but the time and effort is usually well worth it in the end.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the concepts and best practices.  I usually tell my clients to check with their employers first, because many companies offer in-house workshops and classes on things like leadership, communication, conflict negotiation and more.  Or they may be willing to pay for an external course if you can make the case that it will help you be better at your job.

If you’re a self-learner, you can usually find most of the information you need in articles and books (here’s my book recommendation).  You can even find a free or cheap online course on sites like UDemy and Coursera.  And one of the best things you can do is pay attention to the leaders in your own organization – watch how they handle things like communicating difficult information and motivating employees.  If your goal is to be a leader, the necessary behaviors are usually right there in front of you.

But at some point, all that’s left to do is practice, practice, practice.  As I said before, these concepts are easy to understand but hard to do.  They won’t become a natural part of your skillset unless you make a habit out of them.


The bottom line?  If you want to do your job well, improve your technical expertise.  But if you want to have an outstanding career, take the time to improve your non-technical competencies.   The future you will be thankful.


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