by Peggy Klaus
Avoid these dead giveaways on a resume or cover letter that suggest you aren’t.
Soft skills have finally come of age.
Until recently, companies believed that only hard skills impacted the bottom line. After all, how could anything described as soft be valued in the hard-charging, results-driven business world? Conventional wisdom dictated that hiring the very brightest people with the best academic credentials, factual knowledge, and technical skills would automatically make a company successful.
Now, however, a flurry of studies are telling us it’s the soft skills — behaviors and traits such as self-awareness, adaptability, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, teamwork, communicating, likeability, risk taking, and time management — that determine the bottom line and will make or break an employee’s career.
Soft skills are becoming a significant consideration for firms during the recruitment process and gaining the respect they deserve. They are being linked to positive performance appraisals and salary increases. For example, if you have all the technical skills and fancy pedigrees in the world but can’t get along with people, sell your ideas, get your work in on time, and demonstrate competency in countless other soft skills arenas, you’ll be going nowhere fast.
With soft skills more important than ever before, how do executive job-seekers credibly portray them on a resume or cover letter?
Perhaps one of the most important things to recognize up front is that your entire approach to the job hunt can speak volumes about your soft skills.
Don’t make the mistake on your resume or in your cover letter of claiming soft-skills competency without substantiation. Providing solid examples that demonstrate your soft skills in a resume or cover letter is far more effective than making empty promises, such as: I possess solid leadership, people, and communication skills. Show me! This is especially important, given that many hiring managers — as associate publisher of Quintessential Careers Katharine Hansen points out in Top 30 Executive Resume Pet Peeves of Hiring Decision-Makers — don’t like to see a laundry list of soft skills on a resume.
Instead, weave in past accomplishments that highlight your soft skills in action. If you are having a hard time coming up with specifics, ask yourself: What have I done that demonstrates my problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities or my ability to lead and motivate others, especially under challenging circumstances? Try to recall a time when a supervisor or colleague complimented you on how you handled a situation.
And make sure your examples are relevant to the position for which you are applying. For instance, what would be more relevant to a non-profit charitable organization — that you raised a substantial amount of money for a do-good cause, motivating hundreds in your company to participate, or that you sold more widgets in China than any other division?
As one HR director remarked, “I hate it when the candidate assumes we will connect the dots for them. Instead of writing a cover letter that brings the relevant experience forward, critical points remain buried in the resume. Connecting the dots is their job, not ours.”
As I often tell professionals when approaching any business communication situation, start out by tuning in to your listeners’ favorite radio station, what I call WIFT-FM, or What’s In It For Them? This helps you to identify the potential needs, objectives, and goals of your audience. In other words, why should they be listening to you in the first place?
Separately, make sure when providing references to include people who have seen you maneuver situations that showcase your soft skills. Your reference list is where HR decision makers often turn to substantiate soft skills competency (along with, of course, in-person meetings with the candidate).
Give Employers What They Ask For
One hiring manager — who echoed the sentiments of many others — says she can spot what she calls a soft-skills imposter in seconds.
“In our executive-level job postings, we purposely ask candidates to explain how their experience will translate into helping grow our organization. You would not believe the number of responses we get from very senior executives who fail to address our question, much less even mention the name of our organization in their letter!” Translation: The job candidate is taking the “throw spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks” approach by using one-size-fits-all- communication. As for those applicants who don’t follow the instructions in her postings, “If they ignore me, I ignore them.”
The hiring manager also noted, “Would you want this person leading your organization and presenting to clients? Communicating, listening, critical thinking — even at the most basic level — these are all very important soft skills.” A loud message is sent when an applicant fails to highlight details most relevant to the position, follow simple directions, or show signs of having bothered to visit the company’s website.
Final Thoughts: It’s All in the Details for Job-Search Success
First impressions count more than ever in today’s virtual world where face-to-face meetings are becoming an endangered species. When your resume formatting is messy or your follow-up note demonstrates poor writing skills, spelling errors, and incorrect word usage, you will be demonstrating your soft skills, or lack thereof, loud and clear!
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Want to test your soft skills in a number of key areas? An online “Take 24” automated self-assessment quiz that tests and tallies an individual’s soft skills savvy is available at The Hard Truth About Soft Skills. People respond to 24 items online and receive instant feedback on which soft skills areas they need to improve, along with customized advice from Klaus. A Fortune 500 leadership and communication coach, Peggy Klaus is the author of the newly released book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills — Workplace Lessons Smart People Wished They’d Learned Sooner and BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It. Klaus has lectured at Harvard; the University of California, Berkeley; and Wharton. She lives in Berkeley, CA. For more information, visit Peggy Klaus.