If you’re returning to work after a career break, think of the soft skills you possess as a hidden stash of gold that you’ve been spinning from straw over the course of your lifetime. It’s your superpower — unique to you — and it’s a key job search asset that can help you formulate your return to work strategy so you can launch your new career.
Soft skills form a core part of who you are and how you relate to others. They can reveal your best self in action and can set you apart from other candidates. But here’s something you should also know and it’s key: you have to understand what makes them valuable and proactively talk about them to recruiters and hiring managers … who might not know to ask you about them.
In this post, we’ll get clarity on the difference between hard and soft skills and add a concept called competencies to the mix, and learn nine tips about how to position yourself to recruiters and hiring managers to highlight the soft skill combination that is unique to you.
Soft Skills. What are they, Exactly?
Sometimes it’s easier to define soft skills by first describing hard skills. Alison Doyle, career expert and recognized by Forbes as a creator of one of the Top 100 Websites For Your Career, says this:
“Hard skills are the specific knowledge and abilities required for a particular job. These are typically skills that can be clearly defined and measured. Soft skills are more difficult to define and measure – they are the interpersonal or ‘people’ skills that help you to successfully interact with others in the workplace.”
What Alison says is true but let’s take that a step further. One concept that will expand your understanding of soft skills is the idea of “competencies”. HRSG, a competency-based talent management firm, writes this:
“Skills give us the ‘what’. They tell us what types of abilities a person needs to perform a specific activity or job. But skills don’t give us the ‘how’. How does an individual perform a job successfully? How do they behave in the workplace environment to achieve the desired result?”
As you’re building your soft skill portfolio, remember the critical distinction between WHAT you did versus HOW you did it.
Let’s look at these scenarios.
#1. If a hiring manager needs a back-end developer who has 3 years of Python programming language experience, then Python is a core hard skill requirement for that job. If Candidate A doesn’t have Python experience, no amount of having fantastic oral communication skills will make her successful in that role.
#2. Now, that same hiring manager has two candidates who have the basic minimum requirements: Candidate A and B are each equally capable of developing code in Python. Candidate A, however, also demonstrated a stronger competency in the area of encouraging and developing positive team relationships. Candidate B has worked in a team environment but didn’t demonstrate the same level of competence as Candidate A when it came to teamwork. In this instance how Candidate A did her job set her apart from Candidate B.
Here’s something to ponder. How did the hiring manager know to focus on Candidate A’s competency in teamwork? In this scenario, it was probably a preferred qualification and was listed in the job posting as such. But what if it wasn’t listed? What if it was a soft skill that you know adds value and you happen to be especially good at performing, but that wasn’t a focus during the interview process? Perhaps Candidate A focused on it in her cover letter or resume, or she articulated it in a conversation with a recruiter or team interviewer. This opportunity exists for you too.
Here’s the deal. A recruiter or hiring manager probably won’t ask the perfect, exactly right question that takes your amazing soft skills into account. You’ve got to shine a light where you want a recruiter and hiring manager to look — at the skills that set you apart and make you better qualified than someone else. Connect the dots so they can see what you know to be true for you.
Take this to heart: It’s your job to amplify your skills, particularly your soft skills.
Which brings me to the question of what matters most to hiring managers (and the recruiters who recruit for them). Sometimes these are called “pain” points and it’s a wise idea to understand and address them. Here are three considerations to use (among many) in your connect-the-dot strategy:
- Managers are only as good as the individuals that work for them. You represent them if they hire you, so how will hiring you benefit them?
- Managers must spend less money than they make to stay in business. Anticipate and answer the question of how you can you help them better manage their profitability.
- 77% of employers think soft skills are equally as important as hard skills in the workplace (CareerBuilder). Focusing on soft skills is a win-win that will benefit both you and the hiring manager.
9 Tips to Help you Amplify your Soft Skill Competencies
1. Identify your soft skill assets. Perform a Google search for “soft skills” and you’ll find several links to soft skills that you can use to compile your personal-best list. The lists you find online might help you consider aspects of yourself that you hadn’t thought about before. Dig in and do some research. Here’s a short list to get you started:
- Analytical Skills
- Dealing with Ambiguity
- Conflict Management
- Creativity and Innovation
- Customer Focus
- Building and Managing Relationships
- Time Management
2. Identify every asset you have. It will increase your ability to get the job you want more quickly. So while the brief list above is helpful, get granular and specific about the soft skills you have or risk selling yourself short.
3. Treat the skills you’ve developed and honed during your career break as part of your soft skill repertoire. It might be tempting to downplay what you did during your pause but please don’t go that route. If you don’t believe you added to your soft skill set during your pause, there is no way a recruiter will believe you did. And if your career break contains a large gap, you need some extra gasoline to get you to the finish line.
4. Google search behavioral interview (BI) questions that pertain to each of the soft skills you possess or that are listed in the job posting of the job you want. Or check out the book, High Impact Interview Questions: 701 Behavior-based Questions to Find the Right Person for Every Job by Victoria Hoevemeyer, to give you an in-depth list of competency-based questions that you can use to validate your soft skill inventory.
5. Remember to think about HOW you did a job, not just what you did. This expansion into describing competencies will help recruiters and hiring managers connect-the-dots without doing any work on their part. Use the STAR method to practice answering BI questions. Alison Doyle has specifics on the STAR technique when answering BI questions in this article and here’s a quick run-down:
Situation – describe the context succinctly (no rambling)
Task – describe what you did – this is the WHAT
Action – describe how you completed the task – this is the HOW and a perfect time to talk about how your soft skill adds value
Result – describe the results of the action – tie this to the hiring manager’s pain points
6. Tie your Results answer from STAR to the hiring manager’s pain points. Google search “why are (insert your specific soft skill here) important in the workplace.” Do this for each of the soft skills you intend to emphasize to set yourself apart from other candidates. You’ll get a better understanding of how to differentiate yourself.
7. Identify 3-4 success stories for each soft skill you mention on your list. Think of a time when you successfully used the skill. Read this blog post by Criscillia Benford on interview storytelling. And, as Criscillia says, practice, practice, practice.
8. Identify 1-2 turn-around stories for each soft skill. The coolest thing about soft skills is that even when you fumble (and who hasn’t?), the way in which you describe what you learned from such a failure is simply another soft skill (learn more about Growth Mindset here) that, if articulated well, further indicates just how awesome you are. Turn-around stories are the times when you didn’t use the skill in the most productive or useful way. We’ve all been there. In fact, a recruiter or hiring manager who is looking for the best person to fill an open position will be more curious about how you handled failure than they are about how you handle success.
Don’t view this as a plot to trip you up or make you look bad. Rather, think of it as an opportunity to show your Grit, Tenacity, Self-awareness, Growth Mindset, Humility — all profoundly valuable soft skills that hiring managers need on their teams. Don’t forget to jot these down as competencies that you may possess if you haven’t done so already.
9. Prepare well and practice. Some of this might seem like overkill. But candidates who are prepared are more likely to progress further in the interview process and get the job offer. As Thomas A. Edison once said, “there is no substitute for hard work.”
You should now have a list of soft skills that you possess, stories that reveal them in action and how the actions you took added value. You also understand the difference between hard and soft skills, as well as the notion that competencies focus on HOW you did something (not just that you did something).
I hope I’ve given you a better idea of how to position your soft skill competencies to recruiters and hiring managers in a way that will help you articulate value that increases your chances of getting hired. Remember, it’s your job to discuss and amplify your soft skill assets in an interview. How you articulate the value of your soft skills is power play you want to make.
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