Soft Skills or Superpowers?

Sophie Solomon is a Global Marketing Executive with over 20 years of experience. She is the Senior Manager at Accenture and speaks four languages.

 

I remember an instance when I was looking to hire a project manager for one of my clients. This role required a few years of work experience and specific technical skills. I posted the role, and once the resumes started pouring in, two caught my attention. They could not have been more different from each other, and yet, I was equally drawn to them. 

The first profile described a Harvard graduate with impeccable credentials (maybe overqualified for the role) and a couple of internships and roles in Fortune 500 institutions: a very promising prospect for sure! 

The second one had only a couple of years of community college credentials and an eclectic professional journey that piqued my interest. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure how the latter’s profile aligned with the actual role. 

I conducted interviews with both candidates. As a recruiter, I have a rather unconventional interviewing style; I let the candidate drive the conversation by asking them to tell me about themselves and what I need to know about them. The first candidate dominated the interview with a plethora of accolades about his schooling and his employers. I walked away from the interview with a great appreciation about the rigor that is required to get into Harvard and to graduate and get hired in a Fortune 500 company. 

The second candidate walked me through their professional journey in detail, describing at length how they tackled the work, what they enjoyed the most about each role, how they managed challenges and problem solved, and how their vision for the future aligned with the role I was hiring for. I learned about the individual, recognized that although they had no relevant formal schooling, they were the perfect fit. How did I know? They had the superpowers (AKA soft skills) required to be successful in this role. 

Jailbreak the degree

A degree alone is not a guarantee that an individual is going to succeed professionally. Just like I was intrigued by the profile of an individual with the acclaimed schooling performance and burgeoning professional journey, I came to the realization that the overall picture was not what I was looking for. 

Degrees, brands, and recognizable labels are comforting, predictable and easy items to latch on to. They provide security because they are a seal of endorsement. Who questions the excellence that comes out of Harvard, Oxford, or Sciences Po? Why question the endorsements from a Fortune 500 institution? And yet, the critical components that can be overlooked are the “how” the individual practices. 

Academic performance speaks of someone’s intellectual aptitude. But is this intellectual aptitude an indicator of this individual’s ability to perform in a real work environment? Not necessarily. The idea of jailbreaking the degree relies on the ideological concept of considering someone’s intrinsic qualities and interests and track record as the primary qualifiers for a role. Technical skills and institutional knowledge, although essentials to the overall performance, remain secondary to the innate and intrinsic personal skills. To put it simply, you can go to school to be a project manager, a controller, or an attorney. But where do you find schools that teach problem solving, curiosity, a can-do attitude, and courage? Although education and degrees can be foundational, they are not the primary indicator of an individual’s ability to succeed. As an employer, it takes courage to jailbreak a degree and choose to take a chance on uncertified measurements such as communication skills, problem solving, inclusivity, and accountability, just to name a few. However, it is those skills that often prove to be the key ingredients in one’s ability to succeed, thrive, and grow. 

The pandemic, social justice protests, and recent global political instability are influencing the criteria that make a professional successful. What used to be labeled as “nice to have” or “soft skills” have slowly but surely been reframed as “superpowers” that, in most instances, are essential to succeed and thrive. 

Knowing a trade and mastering the execution of a discipline are no longer enough. Furthermore, what a talent brings beyond what is required in their job description is becoming essential to their ability to succeed. The only constant in the world we live in is change. Our ability to deal with change and adapt are essential skills for our personal as well as our professional survival. No matter what the degrees and technical skills that we have, if we do not have the personal and emotional skills to cope and thrive when face with uncertainty, we may find ourselves at a disadvantage. Recognizing those skills, building on and using them may very well be a best indicator for our success. 

Superpowers are the skills that we do not learn in school. They are not acknowledged with diplomas and graduation parties. They are the unspoken forces that shed light through a web of complex business riddles. They provide optimism and humor when faced with rejection and adversity. Or they can become the glue that binds opposite forces in unforeseeable collaborations. Superpowers are the secret sauce that cannot be measured and yet are often essential.

But let’s go back for a second to my interview with my two candidates. Why was this moment pivotal? I reflect on what drew me to both of their profiles and my approach to the interview. I know today that my approach is what unleashed the information I needed to make my decision (by the way, I’ll reveal later if my intuition proved to be right). My questions to the candidates were intended to tap into their qualities beyond their technical skills: “Tell me about yourself.” “What do I need to know about you?”

When I opened that door, I unleashed a flood of information about the person: what mattered to them, what was near and dear to their hearts. In a subtle way, I gave them license to disclose what was top of mind and what defined them with no preconceived judgement or opinion. In addition, when I inquired about the how they approach their job, I created a window into their professional soul. I opened the door for a more intimate dialog that recognized the intrinsic qualities, their humanity. After all, my assessment was only based on a 10-second scan of their resume and a peek at their LinkedIn profiles. 

That spontaneous response cracked an opening into the core of each candidate. I got a peek at their priorities, their values, their thought process. I was able to have a small taste of their human side and build a tiny bond of trust where they could disclose what mattered to them. Our conversation was brief, candid, and authentic. And that is where I got the defining clues that guided my choice.

The modern workplace calls for current and innovative ways to select talent. Degrees and technical skills alone are no longer indicators or talent capabilities to perform. In addition, employers have an opportunity to rethink the way they choose to recruit, to rely first on identifying key skills and aptitude rather than technical skills. 

I can appreciate that this may sound too radical (maybe outlandish!). So what about rethinking how to prioritize what is deemed essential and promote superpower as essentials? Technical skills are important — you wouldn’t expect an actor to be a translator. But you may consider asking a fabulous project manager how they would describe their cross-team collaboration approach and how they foster a culture of emotional safety. Superpowers are transferable essential skills that only DNA or the school of life can teach — there are no degrees for it. Technical skills can always be acquired in professional organizations.

The global shortage of talent is giving us all, employers and employees alike, an opportunity to rethink what we are looking for in a job and how we recruit. What we have learned is that employers are struggling to find talent, and employees are looking for more meaningful experiences that go beyond their ability to perform: meaningful relationships, human connections, growth, and sense of purpose are rising on the hierarchy of priorities for employees. Employers have an opportunity to look at talent beyond their technical skills and expertise and assess the human qualities with equal importance. Tools such as the Gallup StrengthsFinder are effective mechanisms to drive assessment from a scientific approach, but nothing replaces firsthand experience and the personal touch. Driving employment decisions from a human lens provides a whole set of opportunities to establish more meaningful experiences for all. In addition, it creates a greater likelihood to retain talent that is appreciated for their human qualities and for forging a sense of belonging.

And yes, the candidate that I hired thrived beyond my expectations and is today a very successful executive in a technology company that shall remain unnamed. 

As they told me later,  “I owe so much to you for providing me the opportunities in the industry and setting me on a path to mindfulness and future thinking! “

Technical skills can always be acquired in a classroom. But aptitude, attitude, and mindset are where the magic happens!