What is more important when getting hired for a job: hard (technical) skills or soft (cultural) skills? Answer: trick question! They both are. Technical skills will get you hired, but it’s often a poor cultural fit that leads to leaving — or being asked to leave — a company.
Here’s another way to think about it: Technical skills speak to your ability to get the job done; Soft skills indicate how you get it done.
For example, I could be an amazing executive assistant technically: I know Word, Outlook and Excel and type 80 words per minute. I never drop a call when I transfer it. But within a few weeks at my new job I’ve alienated half the staff with my abusive communication style and inability to receive feedback. Do my superior technical skills save me from getting fired? Nope.
I didn’t truly understand the impact of culture fit until I was recruiting for Amazon; It was there I honed my ability to identify soft skills. Since then, I’ve been able to apply what I learned to every type of professional culture you can imagine, from healthcare to retail, Fortune 500 to start-up. There isn’t a single job out there that doesn’t require certain soft skills to be successful.
When preparing for an interview, take a look at the company’s values, usually found on their website. There’s your soft skills cheat sheet. Barring that, here are some of the most common soft skills companies are looking for today and how you can address those skills in an interview setting.
I’m going to assume you know what it means to be collaborative. Anyone can say they’re collaborative, but how do you demonstrate this in an interview?
- Using “I” vs “we”
A simple pronoun choice can speak volumes about how you get your job done. When you use “we” you demonstrate partnership and collaboration with your team. But beware the overused “we,” which can start to sound like you, personally, never led anything. It's a tricky balancing act, but there's a simple hack: be honest. If a success was truly shared by the team, make that clear. But if it was all your doing, don't be afraid to take credit where it's due.
- Problem solving
When discussing how you solved a problem in your workplace, use an example that required you to gain partnership with others in the organization to solve that problem. For example, you may have voluntarily sought input from your team or cross-functionally that informed your actions. And, incidentally, building partnerships speaks to another coveted soft skill: leading through influence.
Adaptability, flexibility, resilience — these are all variations of the same idea. Life moves fast, especially in our technology-driven era. Are you stuck in your ways, or can you pivot in reaction to new situations or information?
- Be up front about learning curves
Talk about those tricky few months of a new job where you were out of your depth and had to get up to speed quickly. We learn the most when we are uncomfortable; Don’t be afraid to shine a spotlight on your ability to step outside your comfort zone and pick up new skills.
- Highlight the differences in workplace environments in which you’ve excelled
For example, say you went from a small privately owned company to a large Fortune 500. Even if you’ve been with the same company for a long time, chances are you worked with different teams and had to adapt to each in some way. You can also talk about different leadership styles you’ve encountered and how you successfully worked with each.
Ability to learn/be self-reflective
You know those people who come across as if they know everything, have nothing left to learn and therefore always have the best ideas? Yeah, nobody wants to work with those people.
- Talk about failure
We all make mistakes, and if you get asked about one in your interview, don’t dodge it, own it. I screwed up! And then follow it with what you learned, and how you’ve since changed your approach or behavior to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Talking about your mistakes is a short-cut to a number of soft skills and a question I almost always ask in my interviews. “I don’t really make mistakes,” is the fastest way to shut down an interview.
- Share feedback you’ve received
Good or bad — both are opportunities to learn and grow. Talk about how you’ve taken feedback to heart and incorporated it into how you approach your job.
Show me a job description that doesn’t list “excellent communication skills” as one of their criteria. It’s overused, yet still very important and should go without saying.
- Assume every interaction is being scrutinized
If there are misspellings in your emails or resume, that will be noted. How you speak with every person in the interview process, from the admin to the CEO, will count. Certain interactions should be more formal than others. Being a strong communicator doesn’t mean being stiff and corporate-y all the time. Just use proper grammar and spell check.
- Be succinct and read your audience
Your interpersonal communication style will subconsciously inform your interviewer whether you’re a good culture fit or not. Stay on topic and be sure you’re answering the question that’s asked, rather than trying to wedge in your own agenda. Don’t ramble, and if you are telling a more involved story, check in every so often — “Am I answering your question?” “Am I going into too much detail?”
Showcasing your soft skills in an interview requires a two-way street. You need an interviewer who leads you down that path or has a more conversational interviewing style. Hiring-savvy organizations understand the need for balanced hard and soft skills and will ask questions to identify those qualities. The key is for both parties to be open and authentic.