Soft skills keep agencies alive - don't neglect them

Nov 16 / Liton Ali
Businesses are neglecting soft skills development during the forced home-working era and it’s hurting junior staff most. 
Without the incidental human contact that happens in offices, it’s harder for managers to notice soft-skills gaps than ever. Managers also tend to have other priorities when business is precarious and home life's merged with work. What can you do about it? Everyone should take responsibility for their own soft skills.

One thing I’ve learned from developing private training for PR/comms consultancies over the last decade is that agencies generally value soft skills in junior staff more than technical skills. I’ve also found that junior staff can be confused about exactly what these desirable ’soft skills’ are and whether they can develop them at all.

When you look at job adverts, soft skills seem to include all the things that make someone a desirable employee and good person to work with - things like dependability, reliability, creativity and assertiveness. Many soft skills are considered personality traits, which leads people to thinking you’re either born with or without them. But you can definitely work on aspects of your personality. I bet you know who wasn’t very confident but made a conscious effort to do something about it - i.e. they worked on their soft skills.

What exactly are soft skills?

Berkeley PR’s Alex Kent recently told me ‘mojo’ was one of the important soft skills for junior PR people. If you take the broad meaning of the word as magic power, I think it’s a nice way to think about it. Soft skills are the magic powers that really make people stand out at work.

Often referred to as transferrable skills or employability skills, these abilities are things you usually pick up over time rather than things you’re taught in a classroom. They include social and interpersonal skills, powers of persuasion, problem-solving ability and flexibility. These magic powers can make you seem amazing at your job even if you aren’t.

These qualities and attributes sit alongside and enhance your professional skills. Knowing exactly when to call a national news-desk with a story may be part of your hard skill set, but to persuade someone to use your story, you’ll be working those soft skills, such as building rapport and being persuasive.

You can see why agencies find soft skills so valuable. With PR and marketing being such a rapidly changing industry, an agency professional’s technical skillset has to change all the time. The soft skills simply transfer to support new hard skills. As more changes powered by automation and AI work their way into our industry, soft skills like critical thinking and creativity are becoming more valuable than ever.

Soft skills aren’t considered often enough

Soft skills are vital to any agency that wants to stay in business. A balance of the right hard and soft skills are vital when it comes to keeping your clients and making sure your company keeps growing. It’s why they’re becoming more valuable to agencies than ever.

But while agencies (and probably all businesses) find teaching hard/technical skills is straightforward; teaching intangible soft skills proves much trickier, so a lot of them don’t bother. Managers tend to talk a lot about soft skills when they’re recruiting and doing annual reviews but forget them in their day to day opportunities to develop staff. But every day presents opportunities to work on them. Taking responsibility for your own soft skills means you can seize these opportunities to develop your abilities constantly.

Soft skills can be learned and taught

When you’re working in an office, you learn soft skills by observing and working closely with other people and getting feedback. A lot of soft skills development happens by accident - and not all of it at work. Whether you’re reliable and dependable for example, are usually a matter of habit. You can work on developing good habits that build these attributes whether you’re at work or at home.

Now that you’ve become a distance worker (at least for some of the time), you need to take charge of your soft skills development. Your starting point is self-awareness - the key soft skill you need to develop your other soft skills. Find out the soft skills you need for the direction you want your career to go in, work out where you are now and make plans to fill in the gaps. That’s easier read than done, so ask people for help and honest feedback with this.

How do you go about acquiring these intangible skills that sound like personality traits? The same way you learn anything properly:

1

Adopt a technique.

2

Practise and experiment.

3

Make it a habit.

4

Optimise your habit.
The best way to learn soft skills is generally through observation - that’s where you find the techniques you need to develop skills. In the absence of having people to observe, you’ll probably need to ask someone or do research to find out how to do things better. Let’s say, for example, you need to get better at concentrating on work because home and smartphones are really distracting. You could:

1. Adopt a technique: Try ‘timeboxing’ - working in 25-minute sessions with mini-breaks.

2. Practise and experiment: Start using an app such as Forest to give you timed work sessions, and stop you messing with your phone.

3. Make it a habit: Open the timer app before you start work and use the stats to look at your progress.

4. Optimise and keep sharpening your habits
. Try combining other focus techniques to increase your concentration once you’re in the habit.

Ten soft skills for junior staff to focus on

Empathy

I’d argue that this is the PR consultant’s most important soft skill. The ability to see the world from other points of view and understand the feelings of others are vital in both teamwork and client service. Empathy also underpins much of the hard skills, such as building audience personas or coming up with brand messaging. Yes, you can develop empathy as long as you’re willing to work on it.

How to Be More Empathetic - The New York Times

Critical thinking

Businesses rank this as one of the most important competencies for future leaders. In the agency world, it’s vital to working strategically, especially if you’ll be giving advice to clients. It’s about your ability to analyse facts and logically connect ideas to form judgements. You need to be able to assess evidence, balance arguments and question findings.

3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking

Creativity

You can easily learn to be more creative. One of the most important things you could do is learn more about how ideas come about so you can adopt creative working processes and habits. I've always thought the quickest way to become more creative is to ask more questions and make a habit of being curious.

How to be more creative - Penguin

Positive attitude

If your job involves pitching journalists, being optimistic is going to help a lot. People are drawn to people with positive attitudes - worth remembering when your job involves serving clients.

11 Tips for Maintaining a Positive Attitude Every Day - Lifehack

Resilience

You’re in a job where you’ll have to deal with rejection and criticism, probably daily. So learn to deal with it well. You’re in a creative function and people are depending on you for results - so you need to have failures if you’re going to succeed. Resilience is about knowing how to bounce back from setbacks and deal with stress. It’s not just about developing a thick skin, you can work on your resilience.  

How to be More Resilient at Work - Positive Psychology

Initiative/proactivity

If you read the job ads, everybody wants ‘self-starters’ that can work on their initiative. Agency teams don’t work well if everybody needs micromanaging, so the more you take initiative, the more valuable you become as an employee.

3 Steps to Develop More Initiative - Inc.com

Time management

You need to know the difference between being busy and being effective. This group of soft skills includes the ability to prioritise well, manage your attention and meet deadlines. It’s something you’ll need to work on throughout your career. Being fully aware of how you spend your time is the first step to good time management.

Time Management Is About More Than Life Hacks - HBR

Decision making

This is one of the key skills of working autonomously because you’ll encounter so many decisions every day. The agency and clients need to be able to count on everyone to make the right decisions, rather than holding up momentum by waiting for others to help with every decision.

Steps to develop good decision-making skills - Capterra

Active listening

It’s easy to dedicate the time you’re not talking in a conversation to thinking of what to say next, especially when you’re trying to look good in front of a client. Active listening makes sure you get the intended message.

10 Steps To Effective Listening - Forbes

Teamwork

This is a broad combination of soft, interpersonal skills that makes you reliable, easy to collaborate with, good at communicating and valuable within your working communities. One of the most important aspects of teamwork is to gain the respect and trust of your colleagues and clients.

Be A Team Player  - Monster.com
We’ve been helping PR people learn soft skills for more than 30 years and we’re relaunching in 2021 with courses focused exclusively on soft skills for agency staff. We’d value your input, so please get in touch if there are subjects you’d like us to cover.

Liton Ali, Learning Director

Learning consultant, brand foundations specialist
About me
Liton helps agency professionals upgrade their performance by adapting their business techniques and building good habits. A former PR consultant, he has worked at numerous agencies, done a stint in-house and even worked as a journalist. 
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