You may have undertaken lots of technical training and be at the forefront of industry issues and developments, but highly successful professionals are not just technically aware, they possess ‘soft’ skills, which are becoming increasingly sought after.
Many of us worry about whether we will have good jobs in the future, but the outlook for technical experts who have good soft skills is that they will always be in demand. So how does this relate to you? Your technical skills are important and you should develop your expertise, but these are not the sole means to higher-level opportunities for most people. To climb the ladder you need to be able to clearly and concisely share your technical expertise with your colleagues – this is non-negotiable.
If you are failing to recognise the growing importance of soft skills you could be missing out on excellent opportunities, so identify which skills you have by considering what you do well (and don’t) and how you approach certain situations and problems.
What are soft skills?
It isn’t possible to survive as single entities within the workplace; you have to be able to see the bigger picture, to appreciate your role as a team player and to bring additional personal skills to your profession. It is also important to be familiar with both marketing and financial aspects of the organisation for which you work, as levels of efficiency and productivity are likely to increase with a better understanding of these. Desirable soft skills for engineers include:
Interpersonal skills: These include the ability to lead, motivate and delegate. They are important at every level of organisational responsibility and should always be evident. Being the most technical person in your field is not always enough to succeed unless you can combine this with the ability to convince others that what you are doing is important.
You will certainly need to demonstrate exceptional interpersonal skills if you are to progress professionally. Almost without exception, senior-level vacancies specify interpersonal skills as essential qualities for successful applicants. For example, consider a time when you utilised your interpersonal skills to effectively communicate your ideas to others and obtained their agreement, or when you developed a relationship with a co-worker that you disliked in order to succeed for your company.
Team working: There are two issues a team must consider as a group. Firstly, and most commonly addressed is the task at hand and problems that might be involved in completing it. The second and most overlooked consideration is the process of the teamwork itself and what procedures will ensure the group works cohesively. By acknowledging both of these issues you will be able to clarify group objectives and enhance your team working capabilities.
Lack of evidence that you can work effectively as part of a team is a sure-fire way to eliminate you from the recruitment process. It is absolutely imperative that you have the skills to interact in a group situation. You can demonstrate this by recalling, for example, a successful project that you were a part of, what your role within it was and why the project was a success.
Negotiation skills: Negotiating in a way that means you are able to achieve desired outcomes and still maintain successful ongoing relationships with others is also beneficial. Influencing positively will help you achieve more of what you want and build relationships based on openness, trust, understanding and mutual respect.
Being able to see a situation from another person’s perspective is the key to successful negotiation because appreciating how they are thinking will enable you to present your own thoughts in the most favourable way. An example of your own negotiation skills might be a time that you and your colleagues effectively identified a common goal, assessed different approaches to reaching that goal and considered the suggestions of all participants in order to achieve the best possible outcome for everyone involved.
Communication skills: The ability to communicate ideas to others effectively is an absolutely essential requirement for technical, engineering and IT professionals, as the nature of the industries make them dependent upon shared knowledge. In fact, communication skills could be the deciding factor in determining whether or not you are promoted, so without them your career progression could be severely impaired.
Speaking clearly and coherently will allow effective verbal communication with others. Bear in mind that how you speak is more influential to the person that you are communicating with than what you actually say, so think about your body language and tone of voice when you are talking.
The ability to present comprehensive written ideas will enable you to put forward professional documentation of your thoughts and is a highly regarded skill. If you write so that misinterpretation is minimised you’ll find that people are far more receptive to your suggestions.
Communication is a two-way process so listening is therefore an essential aspect. Listening is more than just hearing what is being said. Effective listening encourages others to listen to you and respond to what you say. If communication skills are an area that you feel you could improve on, set about identifying ways in which you could develop them.
Time management: Demonstrating time management skills means controlling and using your time as effectively as possible. Learning how to prioritise can be difficult in a new role, but categorising your responsibilities into two types can help. Visible tasks like filing and clerical duties are those that can build up on your desk waiting for completion, while progress tasks such as planning and long-term strategies do not have a physical presence. Plan so that you have a balance between the two, trying not to neglect the need for progress tasks to be carried out.
Some people are able to produce their highest quality work under immense pressure, while for others meeting tight deadlines can affect their ability to carry out a task efficiently. The best way to prepare for this is to ensure that you plan ahead by identifying the objectives, the tasks that will need to be completed to meet the objectives and the time you expect it to take to complete.
When delegating work, you can decide whether or not the task must be followed precisely or whether a degree of the individual’s own contribution is appropriate. The more you are able to delegate, the less you will be required to dedicate your own time to the task. In addition, an individual’s dedication to a task is likely to increase with greater responsibility.
How do I identify my soft skills?
Think about which soft skills you use in your current job – what would your manager say were your strengths? These personal traits make you unique. Maybe you never miss a deadline or perhaps you have a great attitude. Ask friends, family or colleagues to write down your good and not-so-good traits and have a look at consistencies in their responses. This will help identify your strengths and allow you to work towards improving your weaknesses.
Look into the skills and experiences that would be required in the type of job you are seeking. You can do this by contacting a recruitment consultancy that places engineers in the particular role you are interested in and asking what the fundamental requirements of this role are (don’t worry about asking recruiters, as this is part and parcel of their job.) Job postings and vacancy specifications will also give you an idea of what personal qualities are desirable. How can previous experiences and scenarios be used as examples to support your application for this position?
If you are looking to apply for jobs that are a bit different from your previous roles, you may be put off because you feel you have no previous relevant experience. While in the strictest sense it could be true you have no exact experience, there may be aspects of the role you have done in the past, but in a different context. Skills you have learnt and developed in one situation that could be used in a different situation are referred to as ‘transferable skills’. Having identified these skills, you can see which would apply to the job you are considering – transferable skills can demonstrate more experience than you might think.
Once you have assessed your current competencies and identified areas that need improving, you can begin developing new skills. Traditionally many technical employees have embraced new technical skills and neglected their soft skills, but as with any change you need to be aware of your readiness to change as well as knowing what you want to achieve.
Demonstrating your skills
The demonstration of your key skills should be something that you do through your CV initially, then follow on throughout the interviewing process and should then be ongoing through your working career.
Demonstrate your strengths by finding an example of when you used a certain skill. Think about the whats, whens, whys and hows of every situation and this should help to communicate your selling points and enhance your credibility. Try to show your employers new and alternative materials that distinguish you and your interpersonal skills from the rest of the candidates – presentation footage can demonstrate verbal communication skills, while reports can be used as evidence of your writing capabilities.
Developing new skills
Having identified certain skills that you need to improve and develop to match job criteria, you should then develop a plan, identifying your goal and the steps needed to achieve it. Keep the steps small and manageable and put them in a timeframe, defining how you will know when you have reached your goal to measure your success.
Ask others for help. Soft skills by nature involve working with others, so ask for help in developing them. Share your plan with a mentor or talented co-worker and ask for their assistance. Locate a person who does well at what you want to learn and request feedback as you develop. You can also tap into educational, developmental or training opportunities at your work. Meetings, seminars and volunteer work can all help improve certain desirable soft skills.
Finally, continue to challenge new soft skill sets. Research tells us that continual learning keeps our brains active and therefore our minds healthy. Few jobs exist that do not require learning new skills regularly and everyone can improve certain areas of their soft skills capabilities.
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