How to get the soft skills that can help advance your career

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Whatever your career aspirations, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is an exceptionally powerful framework in which to keep yourself focused, structure achievable goals over a realistic timeframe, and enhance fulfilment and satisfaction in your current role along the way.

Yet the benefits of CPD are not limited to the new skills and knowledge that you gain on the course or training day. As well as learning how to do new things, you can significantly improve your soft skills too – making you a better team player, enhancing your life outside work and increasing confidence.

‘It’s important to understand what CPD actually is,’ says Frances Gorka, CPD and Careers Executive at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). ‘It’s a lot broader than attending a course or upskilling a certain area of your role. In fact, it’s the whole process of evaluating your priorities, understanding where you want to go and embedding a habit of critical reflection.’ When we frame CPD in this way, Gorka says, it’s easy to see how soft skills can be improved just as much as hard skills – if not more so.

Communication skills

Perhaps the most undervalued resource in business, strong communication skills can be the difference between a co-operative, forward-thinking organisation and a regressive, stagnant one. Every member of the organisation, from CEO to brand-new employee, can always improve their abilities to empathise with other people, express ideas effectively and generate positive attitudes that lead to growth and innovation. ‘We constantly have to communicate with others throughout the day,’ says Gorka. ‘So it provides a rich set of learning opportunities. Communication is about lenses: ways of taking in information.’ In order to communicate effectively, we have to understand our own lenses and also those of others. ‘We tend to communicate to others as we would like to be communicated to ourselves. Then, we also need to understand the lenses of those we interact with.’

‘We’ve all come across someone who is undoubtedly knowledgeable about their given subject matter, but simply does not have the soft skills in order to disseminate that knowledge in a meaningful and understandable way,’ says Adrian Richards, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins LLP. ‘That does a disservice to them but equally does nothing for the business – how you disseminate knowledge and interact with the business’s customers is vital.’ CPD will thus help the company whilst also helping the individual. ‘Ensuring that we all understand what the business customer or client wants is fundamental. The ability to listen and then advise is a skillset that needs in many cases to be learnt.’

Creative thinking skills and problem solving

The more you learn, the greater perspective on essential life skills you gain. ‘CPD can involve considerable training of yourself to see things differently, to be able to gain multiple perspectives when faced with a problem,’ in Gorka’s words. This is an important factor of creative thinking: professional development rests heavily on developing the awareness of self and others. ‘CPD enhances your metacognitive skills (thinking about thinking),’ Gorka explains. ‘Viewing your thought processes as a third party observer not only allows you to identify and question assumptions, but also helps you to approach choices with greater clarity.’

This impacts hugely and positively on decision making. ‘Research suggests that meta-cognitively aware individuals are more strategic and perform better when solving problems.’

Can soft skills in themselves benefit your longer term career or lead to promotion in your current job? Absolutely. Employers are increasingly valuing empathy, reasoning skills and confidence as valuable career milestones. ‘A well-planned list of professional courses and qualifications can tell your current employer – and potential employers – a lot about your soft skills,’ says Eluned Parrott, Director of Parrott Communications and former Shadow Minister for the Economy, Science and Transport in Wales. ‘It’s often seen as a sign of maturity and is particularly helpful to less experienced candidates, because it demonstrates that you think strategically and are objective about your own abilities. It also proves that you are able to balance work and outside commitments effectively and are a good manager of your own time.’

Personal benefits

For Parrott, enhancing your soft skills gives you the ability to manage your work-life balance effectively and widen your social network too. ‘We spend one third of our life in “the office” – it’s easy to become institutionalised and blinkered. Use your CPD choices to open your options and your horizons and you can gain personally as well as professionally from that investment of time.’

And as Parrott points out, there are many personal benefits to CPD that are perhaps overlooked when it comes to choosing courses and weighing up the advantages of the extra-curricular work you undertake. ‘It provides you with the intellectual stimulation, variety and interest that can help keep you motivated and interested in pushing forward your career, perhaps further than you knew was possible. For those whose social life has come to revolve around the office,’ she says, ‘enrolling onto a CPD course introduces you to other professional people with similar interests but perhaps different backgrounds. It can help you broaden your social circle, your outlook on life and your professional networks too.’

Key points

  • Soft skills are undervalued – Perhaps the first step to recognise the importance of soft skills is to rename them. ‘ “Soft skills” sounds pejorative,’ says learning and development specialist David Thorp. ‘If we rename them “interactive skills,” they might be recognised more fully.’
  • Soft does not mean soft – ‘Investing your own time and perhaps money into CPD throughout your career not only helps you to build new skills for the workplace, but it sends a message to employers that you are serious and professional about your career,’ says Eluned Parrott.
  • CPD makes you confident – ‘Learning increases self-efficacy, which increases confidence and allows us to be more resilient to life’s challenges,’ says Frances Gorka. ‘You can feel comfortable that you’re prepared for changes and you’re flexible enough to adapt and change your skillset.’

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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