Hard and Soft Skills: Pieces of a Successful Career as a Contractor (or an Employee)
Take Home Points:
- Hard and soft skills are equally as important to be successful in your role—whether as a contractor or in an employed setting; and there are plenty of resources available to help you understand and develop these attributes. Ideally, these skill sets should support each other.
- Hard skills are technical, learned skills while soft skills are often personality traits that strengthen and mature over time.
- Considered a component of emotional intelligence (EI), soft skills refer to personality traits that enable us to deal with stressful situations and relationships and navigate office politics. Although not easily measurable, they cannot be overlooked.
- Punctuality and collaboration are two soft skills that every employee should possess and most employers expect.
The best job candidates have a solid mix of hard and soft skills; but what exactly are they and what is the difference between the two? Can both be learned? Are they job-dependent skills or are they transferrable between different types of positions? Are they needed in every type of job? In every organization?
In this article I will discuss hard and soft skills and how to define, evaluate, develop, and measure these attributes as they pertain to a contractor whose success with signing and keeping clients is often tied to a strong skill set in both. As independent consultants and often small-business owners, the ability to communicate effectively, yet diplomatically, with potential and existing clients is the key to growing your business. While your technical publication skills, whether copyediting, proofreading, or writing, etc. could be stellar, if initial conversations or contract negotiations don’t convey a respectful approach with your patron then chances are they will move on to another talented consultant whose tone was more professional.
When you finish reading this post, you will be well-positioned to identify and fine-tune these highly important skills to not only help you get new clients but, more importantly for those actively working, keep those clients you already have. Although this post is directed toward contractors, much of what is included here can apply to employees as well.
Often referred to as technical skills, hard skills are job-specific, can vary in positions and seniority levels, and encompass needed job-related knowledge and abilities to effectively and accurately meet assigned responsibilities. Different roles require different learned skills; in general, organizations should have the right people in the right jobs with the right set of hard skills, for both the individual and the organization to be successful. Hard skills are what an employer will look for during an initial job screening. They are the tasks and abilities you list on a resume that attract attention. In other words, they get you in the door for an interview for potential employment or an initial assignment as a contractor. It is the soft skill set, however, that can make the difference between turning that initial encounter into an offer of employment or, for contractors, turning an initial assignment into a long-term/renewable contract.
Sometimes called human skills, soft skills are linked to innate personality traits that help navigate professional and social situations effectively and help to successfully perform interpersonal tasks. These skills are more evident during an in-person interview. While some soft skills can be learned in a certification or degree program, it is more common to develop these skills independently over time by observing how others handle situations and listening intently when in a meeting, presentation, or an annual review; and acting on what they have heard. These traits are cultivated over a lifetime of experience and exposure; help all workers thrive professionally; and include characteristics such as self-awareness, empathy, persistence, honesty, reliability, and humility.
Often, hard and soft skills are viewed in opposition to the other. However, they are both necessary and, ideally, should be complementary to one another. No one set of skills is more important than the other. For example, if a copyeditor has incredible technical abilities but cannot adequately explain to the client their approach to the edits they have made, can’t work with a team, or communicate properly, then they may not be a good fit for a particular role. Essentially, an organization needs every team member to have a good mix of hard and soft skills so that they can be successful in their role. Punctuality and collaboration are two soft skills that every worker should possess and, quite frankly, most organizations expect. Filling a job is more than just filling an empty seat; it reinforces the company mission and culture; a candidate who embodies a strong set of both hard and soft skills can be a rare find.
While the list for hard and soft skills is evolving and ever expanding as the job market continues to remain fluid and flexible, a short list includes motivated, adaptabe, flexibile, honest, work ethic, time management. Additional attributes for each skill set have been identified by numerous sources including Valamis.
Evaluating Hard and Soft Skills
How do you know if you have the skill set for a particular role? In the publications field, hard skills would include copyediting, proofreading, content management, familiarity with different workflow software products, etc. Soft skills, however, are difficult to learn as they typically are related to your personality. Are you a collaborator? Can you diffuse tense situations? Do you embody empathy and/or compassion which can translate to co-workers? Are you understanding? Organized? Ambitious? Can you placate an agitated author… or editor for that matter?
We’ve covered a lot of great soft skills but do people really know if their soft skills are lacking? Clients and employers definitely will. For example: you are an editorial assistant with solid technical skills but are a younger professional who may lack experience in the larger publications’ arena. You are being mentored by a senior staff member with the hopes of ascending to a now vacant managing editor role and this person is sharing their years, maybe decades, of experience with you to help you develop more effective communication and negotiation skills. You realize they are currently better suited for the open role and are feeling anxious about them “going after that job.” You raise this question with them and they reply a hard “No” to which you reply, “Good, because you’d have quite a fight on your hands if so.” Reasonable response? No. A better way to get the message to the mentor would be along the lines of, “I truly appreciate your time, expertise, and guidance in training me to secure this role. It is clear why you have advanced to your level in our company.” Message sent and received without damaging the mentoring relationship.
Including hard skills on your professional portfolios, resumes, presentations, and job-related assignments that are role-specific, is critical. Soft skills, however, are better assessed by asking situational and behavioral questions, observing an individual’s overall personality traits, and evaluating responses during a mentoring or coaching exercise.
Soft skills, often considered a component of emotional intelligence (EI), encompass many critical interpersonal skills and the ability to identify and respond to your emotions and those of others when interacting with clients or team members.
Laura Wilcox, director of Management Programs at the Harvard Extension School, believes “Emotional intelligence is no soft skill. We should see hard and soft skills as working in concert with one another,” she says. “Emotional intelligence bolsters the hard skills, helping us think more creatively about how best to leverage our technical chops.”
Writer, psychologist and renowned author, Daniel Goleman has been touting the merits of EI for over 20 years. Data reinforces the value of soft skills he espouses in his extensive research in books like Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ; Working with Emotional Intelligence; andin his Business Voice interview. His data indicate that IQ and technical skills alone do not help people advance at work; in fact, EI accounts for 90% of those successes. Research conducted in over 200 worldwide companies determined that EI was two-to-four times more important than technical skills, depending on the position, in determining top performers. And finally, in a survey of over 500 C-Suite leaders, EI was selected as a better gauge of success, experience, IQ, or technical skills. Goleman says in the Business Voice interview, that EI skills can, be “learned abilities” but it is not easy. Cultivating EI involves the hard work of undoing old “over-rehearsed” habits and building new ones
Developing Hard and Soft Skills
Often times we have skills, both hard and soft, of which we are unaware or have not considered as skills at all, says Julia Martins in the article from “The difference between hard skills and soft skills: Examples from 14 Asana team members.” These skills, important to building a successful career and colleague network, can be attributes you have learned along your career journey and automatically implement without thinking about it. Showing up on time for work and meetings and staying late until a task is completed represent a strong work ethic, but you might see it as “just doing what needs to be done.” This is a soft skill learned over time and, when combined with hard skills, makes you a powerful and effective team member. Never be shy about listing these talents- perseverance, dedication- on your resume; others do and so should you. Let your client or prospective employer know what value you bring to the table.
The website valamis.com defines hard skills as “the requirements necessary to properly perform a job; when you offer employees hard skills training, you are providing them with the tools necessary to learn and strengthen specific capabilities needed to carry out job functions.” As previously stated, individuals develop hard skills through education and on-the-job practice, while soft skills, cultivated through various, life-long professional and personal experiences help us to cope and react to challenging situations in a level-headed, reasonable way. For example, an IT specialist can learn a new program by taking a course or being certified in that product; however, it is the ability to convey those learnings to non-IT team members who may become frustrated or confused that will affect the organization most. To learn effective communication skills, that specialist may do a team building exercise in or outside of the office or join a sporting team where communication and working together leads to success. Companies like BizLibrary offer soft skills trainings because they believe that “Soft skills in the workplace are the competencies that allow your employees to interact effectively and productively with others, no matter the role or the setting.”
Measuring Hard and Soft Skills
Hard skills are specific competencies, skills, knowledge, and abilities needed to perform a specific task or role and can be learned through education and professional development. All of these components make hard skills easily measurable.
For those in the publishing industry, specific skill sets around content building, issue production, proofreading, writing, and copyediting competency, are visible in the final product. If a journal’s content is accurate and current, the issue launches on time, and the manuscript is grammatically flawless, a supervisor sees the quality of that editor’s hard skills, and these competencies can be graded and evaluated. The hard skill is demonstrated by the successful completion of the task and the compilation of workplace statistics measuring that success.
Soft skills, however, cannot be quantitatively measured because there is no end-product evidence to assess. So, it is not that easy to determine if someone has the right soft skills until colleagues and supervisors get to know them and/or they are faced with a work situation where these skills, or lack thereof, are evident. A good manager needs to evaluate an employee objectively based on feedback about their interactions with other employees balanced against their assessment of that person’s engagement throughout the organization.
In a perfect situation, soft skills present what your hard skills discover. They are required to effectively present data derived from hard-skill activities and to make a case based on those findings. A judicious blend of both soft and hard skills is essential to achieving professional and career success.
Now that you know the difference between soft and hard skills, it’s time to analyze which of these you need to work on to be more successful. Are you nervous about an upcoming presentation? Take a public speaking course to shore up your presentation and communication abilities. Does editing tables and graphs raise your anxiety level? Go to YouTube and watch one of dozens of legitimate videos on graphical data interpretation to raise your confidence. Unsure of reference format? Check out the AMA or APA Style Guide for detailed guidance.
Those most successful in their careers never stop developing their skill set and seek out resources, professional organizations, and networking opportunities to build their arsenal of talents. Anyone looking to advance professionally and personally needs a solid set of both hard and soft skills because, one skill without the other may be acceptable in one type of work but, to be able to collaborate, negotiate and gain consensus with a group is the only way to ensure success for yourself and your organization.
The Washington State University, Carson College of Business Articles. The Importance of Learning Hard and Soft Skills. March 21, 2023. https://onlinemba.wsu.edu/blog/category/articles/. Accessed 7/2/23
Beheshti, Naz. Are Hard Skills or Soft Skills More Important to Be an Effective Leader? September 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2018/09/24/are-hard-skills- or-soft-skills-more-important-to-be-an-effective-leader/?sh=68968c8e2eb3. Accessed 7/6/233.
Rao, M.S., Ph.D. CEOWorld. “Why Does Soft Skills Training Matter for Women Leaders?” https://ceoworld.biz/2020/08/28/why-does-soft-skills-training-matter-for-womenleaders/#:~:text=Women%20chief%20executives%20are%20often,to%20excel%20as%20successful%20CEOs Accessed 7/6/23