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Why soft skills matter

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Why soft skills matter

By Guido Gianasso
 
LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report which surveyed 4,000 professionals globally found that training for soft skills is the top priority for them. Advancements in technology, automation and artificial intelligence also make soft skills increasingly important, given that they cannot easily be learned by robots. Here, Professor Guido Gianasso, Associate Dean of Corporate Engagement and Relations and Professor of Global Leadership at Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School addresses some key questions on the issue.

Q: What are the three or four most important soft skills that most employers seek?

We are living in a digital era where Industry 4.0 has created enormous opportunities and challenges. In order to remain relevant and able to contribute in the new setting, employees and students need to develop three important soft skills.

First, cultural intelligence and global operating skills: the ability to work and communicate across geographical and cultural boundaries.

Second, agile learning. This is the ability to work in ambiguous environments, cope with change and conflicting agenda, learn
rapidly and integrate knowledge acquired in multiple areas, innovate, think creatively and outside the box.

Last but not least, teamwork: the ability to work with people with different expertise, communicate across cultures and with people of all levels (‘’360 degree’’), and work in geographically dispersed teams.

Q; Are there some soft skills that are more applicable in some industries than others? For example?

These soft skills are applicable in all industries without exception. Even in the most "technical" environments such as audit, accounting, and IT, what makes the difference between average and great performers is the ability to learn fast and work with others.

Q: If I do not have these soft skills, how can I develop them?

Skills are by definition something that you can learn. Some personality traits of course do help. Individuals who are by nature extrovert and open to experience will find adapting easier. But everybody can improve on this set of skills.

Students for instance can go on overseas internships. Overseas experiential learning is particularly important as it broadens students' horizons and strengthens their resilience and cultural intelligence.

At Nanyang Business School, the 200 undergraduates who did overseas internships in 2018 said the experiences have transformed them.

Our graduate and most undergraduate students go through Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and communication courses. These help our students learn to communicate in public and work across geographical and cultural boundaries.

We also provide personal coaches to all our graduate as well as double-degree programmes students. Coaches can help students to identify their own personality traits, strengths and weakness and work to improve.

Other programmes that can be very useful are innovation and design thinking courses and boot camps. These help participants to think creatively and outside the box. Courses on managing virtual teams can be useful for managers responsible for teams based in different locations.  

For individuals aiming to build their own business or having P&L responsibility, entrepreneurship programmes can be game changers.

Q: What’s the most common misunderstood notion about soft skills?

The idea that soft skills are "nice to have" but not really important for business success. The reality is that these skills are critically important to survive in the new environment - in all jobs and industries, including the most "technical" ones such as IT, accounting or even in medicine or the legal field.  

Q:  How do employers assess whether I have these soft skills during a job interview?

Conventional wisdom suggests that measuring soft skills, attitudes and personality traits is difficult.

This is not the case. An accurate measurement of these characteristics is actually relatively easy and cheap. Companies can design and manage professional recruitment processes.

Personality traits such as extraversion and openness to experience can be measured using personality tests.

Some are freely available online. Communication skills, agile learning and attitudes can be assessed using structured interviews and assessment centres.

Structured interviews (also called ‘’competency-based interviews’’) are a set of questions designed to verify whether the candidate possesses those competencies specifically required by the job rather than general ones.

Academic research tells us that the probability of hiring the right person for the job increases by 50 per cent if we use psychometric tests and structured interviews instead of the traditional "open interview".

Ironically, many employers still chose to rely on open interviews. While these may be less costly and time consuming, they often translate into hiring mistakes, high turnover and poor organisational performance.

Q: All things considered, can I expect to get a higher pay if I have these soft skills? If so, how much more?

For working professionals, these skills have become critically important to survive in our rapidly changing business environment. Managers are expected to be able to drive change, align stakeholders and employees and constantly find new solutions to new problems.

For graduating students, these skills are now a pre-condition to be offered the best jobs. Most fresh graduates who are offered jobs with salaries significantly above market median - which is currently around S$3,000 per month in Singapore - possess superior soft skills.

Leading employers such as Goldman Sachs, McKinsey or BCG are particularly keen in finding new hires with outstanding soft skills.

Accounting firms and Singapore banks now also offer "fast-track graduate programmes" and higher entry salaries to young graduates with superior communication skills joining their Advisory or Wealth Management divisions.

Pay varies across industries. However, those who display strong soft skills and get selected by top brands or for fast-track graduate programmers; starting salaries are typically 20 to 40 per cent higher than average, in the range of S$3,600 to S$5,000 per month.​

The article was published in
Today on 26 February 2019.

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