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The Invisible Dealbreaker

You had the skills. Why didn’t you get the job? The job description read like it was written for you. You know you're good at what you do. So why did they choose someone else?

There's a lot of possible reasons why. For one, they may have longer-term plans for that role that involve skillsets that weren't on the job description. For another, they may simply have been faced with a half-dozen candidates who all had the qualifications. But I have seen a lot of job searches dead-end because candidates either lack "soft skills", or the ability to communicate them in an interview.

What are soft skills? There are hundreds, and every job requires a different set of them. But the core soft skills for most IT roles include:

  • Written communication ability (can you write clearly, and come across as positive, friendly and open?)
  • Spoken communication ability (similar to above – can you get your message across and keep the tone positive and approachable?)
  • Team skills (can you collaborate closely with others, take direction when needed, and take the lead when asked?)
  • Professionalism (do you have a good work ethic, are you committed to quality work, do you refuse to allow other factors to stop you from giving good performance?)
  • Enthusiasm (do you project a can-do attitude?)
  • Conflict resolution
  • Creativity
  • Time management (are you an organized self-starter with lots of initiative, or will you require a lot of hand-holding and moment-to-moment management?)
  • Flexible thinking (do you learn quickly, and adapt well to unexpected and new situations?)
  • Ability to take criticism and redirection (do you avoid blaming others, and do you have a realistic sense of your own strengths and weaknesses?)

Consider, for a moment, the soft skills that make a good police officer, a good sports coach, a good building contractor. And think about the soft skills that are common in your work environment. Which bosses and teammates have you enjoyed working with the most? Odds are that they are not necessarily the ones with the really superstar technical skills, but the ones with the best soft skills.

There's more to this dynamic than just enjoying a working relationship. An employee with good soft skills is an asset in a measurable dollars-and-cents way to their employer. When you have someone who communicates clearly, takes responsibility, gets along well with others, and can deal with the unexpected, you spend less time resolving conflicts and micromanaging. You have a "wild card" employee who can be deployed into a variety of teams and challenges.

So how do you come across as someone who has the potential to be one of those assets?

First, take a hard look at yourself and your performance in various environments in the past. Where do you do your best? When did you do not so well? Are there any common factors in the not-so-well situations? Are there any weak areas in your own "soft skill" set that you could work on?

If you were originally trained in another culture or another industry/career area, are there any habits from the old environment that have been particularly useful in your IT placements? I have known employees who drew on their past experience in retail sales, bartending and even firefighting to become more effective IT specialists. On the flip side of that coin, I have seen communication patterns that worked well in the old environment cause friction in the new one. Take the time to do a little analysis on your best and not-so-good moments.

Second, look over the list of skills above. For each one, think of a specific situation where you showed that ability. Practice telling the story to a couple of friends so that you can communicate it quickly and clearly, but with enough detail to make it interesting and "real".

Identify the soft skills you think of as your best. Don't wait in an interview to be asked whether you are good at conflict resolution, or time management, or whatever you are best at. Explain what your stand-out abilities are, and (even more important) how they will offer a significant advantage to your employer. For example:

  • Your high organization and time management skills make you good at "scoping out" projects and making sure they always come in on time
  • You are a quick learner, so you are able to "hit the ground running" and become productive on a job right away
  • Your tact and ability to resolve conflict makes you a good person for roles that involve keeping customers happy

Finally, always be on the lookout for ways to improve your soft skills as well as your technical skills. Check out courses and books and articles. Watch and listen to your co-workers and figure out what makes them good (or bad!) at certain interpersonal skills. Almost everyone, whether they are your boss, or the person who prepares your take-out sandwich, or the contractor who worked on your home, has something to teach you.

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