Elena Borodina explains hard skills vs soft skills

Until recently, well-developed hard skills were key to a successful career, or at least to finding a good job. However, in recent years, employers began increasingly focusing on soft skills such as creativity, communication, conflict resolution and others. These talents became worth their weight in gold in the labor market. While some 10 years ago, a good hard/soft skills ratio was 70/30, now it is the other way around. Elena Borodina, a competency assessment specialist and career coach, Vice-President and Full Member of the International Academy of Management, shared with Invest Foresight which skills are really in demand for senior business executives. She also clarified the difference between hard and soft skills, explained what moral competencies are, and gave a few tips on successful employment in top management and remaining a sought after professional during change. 

Competences from A to Z

Elena Borodina, competence assessment expert, career coach, Vice President and member of the International Management Academy. Photo: Reena Bo

Let’s start with the hard/soft skills concept. What do they actually include?

– Hard skills refer to a specialist’s professional expertise. They come up when you ask yourself: “What is it I can do?” Accordingly, hard skills are very different – they could be anything from being able to drive a car or hammer in nails to writing tax reports or creating sophisticated Excel spreadsheets. Soft skills are the attributes and abilities you would list to answer the question “How do I do it?” They are more about the cognitive aspect – how well you communicate with people, click with them, and how flexible you can be in workplace interactions. They are about being able to pick clear signals and important clues from large arrays of data, isolate them from “white noise,” in a short period of time.

Are you talking about emotional intelligence?

– You might say that, although soft skills are a much broader concept. For example, a person can be good at reading others’ subtle moods, but can fail to draw the necessary conclusions from what they read to build a communication strategy, extinguish a conflict, and do it in a productive way.

Most career specialists list 10 most valuable soft skills, although other schools may have more.

What is the main difference between hard and soft skills?

– I would not put it this way. Hard and soft skills aren’t opposites; they complement each other in the employee’s professional profile. There are strong professionals who are completely unable to reach an agreement with their managers or colleagues. And vice versa, almost every company has a “nice guy” who might not be technically a good professional, but they help the team by talking and negotiating.

So basically, there are two groups of competencies that define a modern specialist.

– In fact, there is a third group, and it refers to personal qualities. I believe the most accurate term would be moral competencies. In fact, they are the most important attributes, even fundamental, if you like. They refer to your moral reference points and principles; they determine what you are ready/not ready to give up and shape your individual value platform. You might have come across the increasingly popular term “metacompetence.” It refers to a set of overarching skills, which includes soft skills and moral competencies.

What qualities do large companies look for in an employee?

– Until recently, large companies put an emphasis on hard skills (hard/soft skills ratio 70/30). Now, it is probably the other way around. But what is the most important is the balance of hard and soft skills. If we speak about management, it is crucially important that a manager is not only an inspirer but also a professional. As for line managers or working professions, hard professional skills must be prioritized, while sellers and consultants should be people with developed soft skills.

Does it mean that hard skills are better monetized?

– It is important to note that hard skills per se do not have anything to do with monetization. You can be a genius painter but not able to sell your work. Soft skills also do not have to be monetizable and may not bring money. Yes, you are able to find common ground with people and settle conflicts but how will it bring you revenue? It is especially hard to imagine moral competences being in any way related to money-making. I want to emphasize again that the balance and the right correlation of all skills in each particular case is the most important.

But what competencies account for successful employment?

– Any top manager enters the market to monetize their competences: to have fun and receive a decent pay. However, it is possible to achieve this goal only if you not only have hard and soft skills, but also moral competencies. Only your unique product based on the synergy of these skills will be sought after. It can become your unique selling proposition, an exclusive combination of professional knowledge, cognitive skills, and moral values. In this case, you will be not selling yourself but this product which costs a lot, first of all, due to its uniqueness.

Succeed in 13 seconds

It is not an easy task to create a unique product at the confluence of several kinds of competencies. Can top managers do it by themselves?

– In my experience, top managers are not very good at selling themselves. They can easily defend a financial model, explain a budget, brief the client about the company and present a new product, but it is hard for them to talk about themselves. And this is a huge problem. They often cannot present themselves and do not put enough work into their personal brand. At best, they create an account on social networks. In the meantime, it is very important to do all this because it is the only way to realize your own competencies, create your unique product and learn to present it. Naturally, it requires time, efforts and sometimes money.

Can one learn it?

– Yes, of course. For instance, we do not teach top managers to search for a job or a new project. Instead, we suggest they find themselves, understand their uniqueness based on their values, moral and human qualities, as well as professional skills.

But how can the unique product be presented in a CV? It is what potential employees look at in the first place.

– It is not easy; 99% of CVs that I see are made very unprofessionally. The way they do it is a not just a thing of the past, but the ancient past. At the same time, they are confident that everything is fine because they paid an agency or a CV writer for it. I do not like this approach; it is like surrogacy to me. This is why I tell my clients that we do not write a CV, we give birth to it.

It is a difficult task that requires accurate wording, which also causes problems with underscoring the important parts and using verb forms. In many resumes, I see only nouns: process organization, launch, assistance, participation, etc. And the employer is not interested in a process manager, they want to see managers that bring results. Thus, we need verbs: create – created, reduce – reduced, increase – increased, as well as by how much and how quickly.

What does a good CV look like

– I believe that you can create a well-written, effective resume solely on your own, if only with assistance from a specialist. Obviously, a CV should include your hard skills – that is, your specific abilities. It is also important to present a portfolio of projects and successful cases to showcase your soft skills, plus a document that describes five or six skills most relevant for a particular industry. These could include crisis management, ability to build teams, ability to increase sales, or create large business structures. You should not boil this section down to personal qualities, such as stress resistance or work capacity; it should include relevant skills to produce results in a particular market or industry.

Is an effective CV the only key to success?

– Of course not. Along with describing your skills, you should also mention options you can apply them in the context of your responsibilities and their efficiency for the company, as well as ways your managerial outcome could be generally integrated into the business. All this should be backed up by facts and examples. Your CV should look as succinct and concise as possible. Therefore, we add a resume business card to the CV to be looked through for no more than 13 seconds.

Indeed, not everyone is willing to read long texts today.

– This is another reason why, along with presenting your competencies on paper, you should also speak about them – and make it as succinct, appealing and to the point as possible. Remember a story claiming that Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page received investments while riding in an elevator (although this is most likely a tale)? So you should be ready to present yourself or your project, depending on your tasks – and do it within a minute. This is more than realistic, a skill that can be mastered.

Yet, recruitment also depends on HR services. How much of a barrier is that?

– A successful selection process is not easy as HR employees often fail to have sufficient competencies to hire the right people. In this case, they become sort of filter that eliminates managers actually required by the company. After all, it makes no sense to see a 30-year-old employee ‘interrogating’ a top manager who has the experience of leading several companies. Sadly, this is often the case today.

Are there any tips for handling this?

– There are effective strategies to tackle such filters – such as certain steps to help you move to the stage of communicating with those who make the final hiring decision (or have an effect on it), including the company owner. This is also a matter of counseling. But obviously, you have to remember that such a meeting should not turn into a survey (or interrogation of sorts).

As I often say, “Do not use the expression ‘job interview’ but go with ‘job talk’ instead.” A properly structured conversation allows both participants be on equal terms. And top managers should agree solely to this format to immediately change the course of the talk if necessary, be prepared for it in advance, and be able to switch from the role of an interviewee to the equal role of a conversation partner. This will allow you to stick to it in your work after being recruited. As the saying goes, as you call a boat, so it will float.

Moreover, all the skills that we spot during a consulting process or teach the candidate are highly necessary and relevant for the job. For over eight years, I have provided consultations to more than 500 top managers; we still work with many of them. Most of them have noted that actualization and efforts to find ways to balance hard skills, soft skills and personal qualities provide a new impetus to the development of a management career, allowing you to work efficiently, without burning out and being disappointed, and find new, previously missing solutions.

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