Feel Behind at Work? 5 Soft Skills You ‘Need to Prioritize Today,' Says Career Development Expert

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Want to gain an edge in today's competitive workplace? It's time to brush up on your soft skills.

Pandemic-era changes to how we communicate and solve problems at work require skills like critical thinking and strong communication.

And yet, 39% of employees say their top workplace frustration is that their employers don't provide effective soft skills training, according to research commissioned by CFA Institute, where I am a managing director of professional learning.

As a result, many of us are forced to cultivate these skills on our own. Here are the five you need to prioritize today:

1. Curiosity

Curious employees challenge the status quo; they ask pertinent questions that expand the scope of an idea or project.

The most curious people are able to see new possibilities that are typically hidden behind the blur of everyday work and life. Sharpening your curiosity skills will help you come up with great solutions faster and more creatively.

How to develop curiosity skills: Educate yourself about a topic you're not familiar with. Recently, I decided to learn more about how the brain works. I read two books about neuroscience, and gained deep insight into how people process new information.

2. Innovation

Curiosity can help you generate new ideas, but innovation drives the collaboration and invention required to bring an idea to life.

For example, when I worked as a consultant, I noticed that the people who found innovative solutions to client problems were the binding force that made everyone else excited to work together. As an added bonus, these employees were often rewarded for their innovative spirit, both in accolades and in pay.

How to develop innovation skills: Your coworkers and customers are your best allies in coming up with unique, actionable ideas. Collaborate with them. Prioritize networking and have conversations about your work that go beyond getting your daily tasks done.

3. Speed

Speed involves the ability to absorb knowledge quickly, apply it, and convey it. Thanks to technology and the wealth of information instantly at hand, decisions that used to take weeks now are made within a matter of days, if not hours.

Now, when I'm interviewing someone, I ask them to give me an example of a challenging professional situation where they had to meet a hard deadline. If they can explain to me, with specifics of how they made it happen under time pressure, I feel much more confident hiring them.

How to develop speed: Volunteer to take on an appealing task when it's offered to you, and pay close attention to how you manage your time.

Maybe you waste time recouping information because you don't take thorough notes in meetings, or maybe you lose productivity in the afternoon because you overschedule your mornings. Recognize these as opportunities to improve and make changes.

4. Communication

Our capacity to communicate and connect emotionally is what distinguishes humans from robots. We have the ability to reflect on the past and reimagine the future.

In years past, strong communication was all about a firm handshake, eye contact and attentive listening. Now, the skill and intentionality it takes to craft a great Slack message or Zoom opener is an essential investment for success in any job.

How to develop communication skills: Take a course or join a public speaking club, such as Toastmasters International.

When I found myself in a role that required a lot of public speaking, I decided to take a communication course taught by a former TV presenter. Being forced to face my fears and work on structuring my speech made me a more confident and in-tune communicator.

5. Vulnerability

In her book "Braving the Wilderness," Brené Brown writes: "The foundation of courage is vulnerability — the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure."

It may seem counterintuitive, but this soft skill is particularly relevant now amid the trend of job switching.

Consider the standard job interview challenge in which you're asked to explain handling a difficult situation or even a mistake. The most desirable candidates will go beyond the mistake and the solution to demonstrate what was learned, how that knowledge was applied going forward, and how it benefited the organization.

How to develop vulnerability: Be open about your own shortcomings. I am quick to admit my own mistakes — and I do that not only for my own growth, but to set an example for those who work for me.

Barbara Petitt, Ph.D., CFA, is the managing director of professional learning at CFA Institute, where she applies her 25 years of experience designing, developing, and delivering digital education products. Prior to CFA, she served as the director of online studies at Laureate Online Education.

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