A Hard Look at Soft Skills


Image credit: Robyn Stevens

I recently had the amazing good fortune of being invited to speak to approximately thirty aspiring—and in some cases current—Olympians, at the USA Track and Field Athletes Advisory Committee retreat in Bermuda. I spoke to the athletes on the topic of “what’s next?” What can they do after their Olympic careers have ended?

Not surprisingly, the athletes fell into many different categories. Some have advanced degrees and a real sense of what they’d like to do after their athletic careers end. Their chosen fields range from the obvious, like coaching or somehow staying in their sport, to the less obvious like, say, architecture.

As part of the weekend retreat, we administered the Strong Interest Inventory (SII) to all of the athletes. The SII is an online assessment of interests, likes, and dislikes that we use in career counseling.  We then used the results for two of the athletes as examples, and generally discussed next steps. In my follow-up conversations with many of the athletes, I was struck by one recurring theme. Among those who were unsure about their next steps, I heard the constant refrain of, “what do I have to offer to an employer?” And that got me thinking. . .

Self-awareness is a funny thing. Many of the athletes simply didn’t see how their plentiful “soft” skills could transfer to other aspects of their lives.   And that got me thinking further. . .

There are two basic facets of almost every job. And these same two things are what every decent hiring manager looks for in candidates. One, of course, is subject-matter expertise.  Some jobs require this with no apology. You can’t be a constitutional lawyer without being an expert in constitutional law. You can’t be a retinal surgeon without years of medical school, residency, and a fellowship.  But, not all jobs require such specific subject-matter knowledge. Many sales, business development, and account-management jobs, to name a few, require less subject-matter expertise than the lawyer or surgeon jobs. But ALL jobs, regardless of the amount of specific technical knowledge they require, call for other skills beyond just technical expertise. Every great employee has a solid work ethic, gets along well with others, sets and achieves goals, respects chain of command, is coachable, and perseveres in the face of long odds.  Sounds a lot like Olympic athletes to me!

The broader lesson here is that many job seekers, Olympians and non-Olympians alike, fail to recognize their “soft” skills and thus don’t understand just how marketable they truly are.  Instead of under-appreciating what you have to offer, maybe try looking at things a bit differently when you get ready to apply for that new job. Here are some tips:

  1. Subject-Matter Expertise (SME) —Lack of SME can certainly take you out of the running for a job, but not always. I got hired as CEO of United Healthcare of the Mid-Atlantic with no previous healthcare experience. The easy question to ask yourself is whether the SME that is required is something you can learn on the job or whether it requires additional education, like the retinal surgeon.
  2. Personal Characteristics—Assuming you can get past any relative lack of SME, do you have the personal characteristics or general training for the job? This may be in the form of demonstrated leadership skills, “coachability,” ability to work in a team environment, or other similar characteristics. Look closely at the job description and see how your so-called soft skills match up.
  3. An Open Mind Is Still A Realistic Mind—Don’t spend your time applying for jobs that are absurd long shots. Can you see yourself sitting in the interview and keeping a straight face while truthfully saying you can do the job? If so, then, by all means, throw in an application. When I applied for the job as CEO for United Healthcare of the Mid-Atlantic, I had previous CEO experience, albeit in a much smaller setting. I knew what it took to run an organization and had demonstrated some skill in that area. So, I only had to learn the subject matter, not the entire role.

Determining your “soft” skills can sometimes be challenging, in a world that is increasingly focused on technical knowledge. Give us a shout if you’re having trouble doing so on your own: call 301-520-9511 or email bob@epi.coach.