By Melissa Stefanec
When you get your college degree, you’ve done something remarkable. Getting that degree proves your dedication to self-betterment. And, not to sound supercilious, but your degree also proves you’ve cleared the IQ bar.
Said more simply, getting a college degree proves you’re a certain level of smart. You should congratulate yourself.
However, as you look to your first job and a meaningful career, it will become apparent this world has a lot of smart people in it. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the United States, “from 2010 to 2019, the percentage of people age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher jumped from 29.9% to 36.0%.”
You’ve proved you are smart, but so has the competition. What is going to set you apart? What skills do you need to get ahead of the pack?
You need more than smarts. You need soft skills—so-called emotional intelligence or EQ.
Your diploma is a representation of your hard skills. Your diploma may say a lot about what you can do, but it doesn’t say a lot about who you are. Soft skills are things like your personality traits, how you behave in groups, your communication style, your collaboration style and how you manage conflict. Honing your soft skills is how you will get ahead.
After approximately 20 years of professional employment, I have some advice to offer. I’ve been privileged to work with a lot of smart people. As I watch them and my peers move through the professional ranks (or stall), there are certain skills that give people a distinct advantage.
Perhaps surprisingly, most of the skills that get people ahead have nothing to do with their IQ. Their IQ qualifies you for a job, but it doesn’t guarantee career advancement. So, in no-particular order, here is a list of the soft skills you should grow if you want to grow your career.
I’ve been privileged to work with a lot of smart people. As I watch them and my peers move through the professional ranks (or stall), there are certain skills that give people a distinct advantage. Here is a list of the soft skills you should grow if you want to grow your career.
1. The ability to listen to feedback
One of the best paths you can set yourself on is the path of the constant learner. You should be as hungry for knowledge at 75 as you were at 18. The best professionals I know understand how much they have left to learn. Hopefully, you end up working for (and with) people who know how to give constructive feedback. Welcome it with open arms. Embrace that feedback. Don’t get defensive about it. Savor it. Ruminate on it.
2. The ability to act on feedback
Feedback is perhaps the greatest tool you will be given, but it’s meaningless if you don’t employ it. After you receive constructive feedback, think about what you’re going to do with it. Put together a feedback action plan. Let that feedback make you a smarter, kinder and better team contributor (and human being).
This one is especially important for people who are part of any marginalized group. Corporate America is not going to advocate for you. That simply isn’t how capitalism or businesses work. Even the best bosses need reminding on how they can advocate for you. Within reason, make your aspirations known. Through your hard work, dedication and quality contributions, make yourself worthy of advocation. Then, advocate for yourself like no one else can.
4. Admitting you don’t know how to do something
I’ve noticed a lot of young people are afraid to admit when they don’t know how to do something. (For the record, I’m sure I was the same way.) I wish I had known earlier that it’s OK to not know things. If you don’t know how to do something that is important to getting your job done, just say that. Then, ask for coaching on how to do that thing. Keep seeking feedback until you’re really good at that thing. That’s called closing the knowledge gap, and employers love it.
5. Practicing equity and inclusion
When you start hearing words like “subconscious-bias workshops” and “diversity and inclusion” listen up. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t think you’re above such things. Even the most well-intentioned of us have hidden prejudices and biases that puppet many of our actions. The only way to grow is to listen, read and learn. Make diversity and inclusion an important part of your professional fabric.
6. Navigating other’s personal politics
There may have been a time where people didn’t talk about personal politics in the workplace. We are not living in that time. You will have to learn how to interact with others when they discuss their personal beliefs. You will have to find a way to keep things respectful and be empathetic. Embrace working with people with whom you don’t personally agree with. Find a way to do this, and you will get ahead.
7. Persuasive communication skills
When you land an interview, you have to know how to sell yourself. Once you are in the door, these skills are just as important. When you have good ideas and solutions, you have to be able to communicate them to others. Whether that’s in a meeting, an email or a presentation, you have to convince other people to buy into good ideas. Look for online courses about persuasive communication. Read blogs about it. Good ideas aren’t enough anymore. You must learn how to sell those good ideas.
8. Capitalizing on opportunities
When you bosses start asking for volunteers or you see a way to add value to your team, capitalize on it. You don’t have to be an always-say-yes person, but you have to seize the right opportunities when they arise. That may mean working a few extra hours or stepping far outside your comfort zone, but you won’t regret it.
Sometimes, there is a discrepancy between what you want to do and what you should do. Sometimes, it’s not clear what items in your work queue are the priority. Ask for clarification. Use self-discipline and do the things that should be done, not just what you want to do. People who know how to prioritize their work make their bosses happy and their lives less stressful.
10. Conflict resolution
When you venture into the professional world, conflicts will be part of your daily life. Some of those conflicts are minor and some are major, but you have to learn how to navigate them with discipline, grace and empathy. Find ways to work with people, even the most difficult among them. Never be too proud to apologize. Make concessions. Listen to others. Stick to your convictions (when it’s necessary). If you learn how to navigate conflict, you will see steps on your career path that you didn’t know existed.
When you start your first professional job, remember, who you are is even more important than what you know. Your IQ may get you in the door, but it’s your emotional intelligence that will take you places.