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Mastering Soft Skills: What They Didn’t Tell You in College

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics

Soft skills or hard skills? Which is more important to helping you attain your dream job and ultimate career you desire? As a professional educator with over 30 years of experience, I receive this question more than any other when I mentor students.

What they don’t tell you in college is that you need both sets of skills to excel in the professional work environment. Career progression requires you to become “a jack of all trades and a master of none.”

This statement means that your abilities need to evolve over time and require a mix of soft and hard skills. The biggest mistake I see in the career environment is that students fail to develop soft skills and try to rely solely on hard skills to advance. Authenticity, alignment and authority are key to mastering both sets of skills.

Authenticity

Authenticity allows you to be your true self and to set the narrative. Setting a narrative means telling people about the skills you bring to the table. It’s about being transparent that will provide clarity and hopefully alleviate negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and second-guessing yourself. This will help you master your pivot and focus on your career trajectory.

Navigating your career is about being thoughtful and identifying roadblocks such as office politics, diversity, and organizational management. Developing a clear and compelling professional narrative sets direction and helps you understand whom you need to interact with to move you in that direction through new career opportunities.

Your contributions to the work environment include having a clear understanding of your dream job and the career progression needed to get you there by identifying your base, also called baselining. Baselining means working on the key skills needed to excel. It also means identifying your strengths. As you advance your base, education, knowledge, expertise and brilliance will also move in your desired direction.

Alignment

Derailing your career is easier than you think. For most people, fear of failure is their biggest critic. As a result, you fail to act on activities that can sharpen your soft and hard skills. According to Dr. Carol Parker Walsh, first, you need to look at life through your own lens, not someone else’s belief of what you should be. External validation is a fallacy; you’ll never meet everyone’s expectations. Most office structures are based on militaristic, hierarchical structures from over 2,000 years ago.

Second, focus on insight, concentration and impact. Most employees’ work structures focus on the size of their office, title and the number of people they manage.

Third, we need to understand that we are all vulnerable. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It takes a village, and chances are someone has experienced what you are going through and can offer sage advice.

Developing a new vision can provide clarity as to what skills, both soft and hard, you need to excel. Vision provides purpose, strategy and direction.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said purpose is the essential element of you. It’s the reason why you are here at this moment in time. Struggles shape you and hopefully make you a better you. Being authentic is important to understand imposter syndrome, defined as people who believe they are undeserving of their achievements, and to clarify your career progression.

In life, social skills are variations along a continuum. Letting go of misconceptions and developing a new framework is directly dependent on soft and hard skills. Successful careers have meaning, impact, and direction.

Authority

Authority means having the will power to use soft skills and hard skills to obtain the job you really want. Intellectually, we know how to complete job tasks, but career success is understanding the path. This includes mentoring/coaching and networking to make definitive moves.

Kathy Caprino, creator of Career Breakthrough programs, says authority means becoming an expert in your field. It means marketing yourself, surrounding yourself with experts, and developing your personal brand. Digital interactions, which are essential in this virtual world, include using social media, writing, speaking with the most influential social and career circles. Marketing your message will help you home in on what you want in your career, and most importantly, what you don’t want.

Common mistakes include failing to realize that your value is based on both soft and hard skills. You will never be a 100% match for a job, and that’s okay. According to my experience mentoring others, dissatisfaction with a career is often traced to 1) the relationship with your supervisor, 2) office dynamics and 3) salary.

In summary, soft skills and hard skills are essential to developing the energy to have a deliberate strategy for career success. This takes time, effort and, yes, initiative.

Career success means taking bold steps and leaving old, outdated ways of trying to excel in the workplace. Simply settling is not an option; the focus on career success means loving what you do. Mastering soft skills and hard skills will provide the freedom to have the career you want.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at the university and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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