How to advance in your career
Six soft skills that make a difference in the workplace
Working in the industry has exposed me to a few approaches to excelling in projects, gaining crucial collaborations, and fostering coworker/customer relationships. I have not mastered any of these skills by any means but am continually looking to improve them. Let me walk you through what I’ve seen.
Skill #1: Build a support system to help you through the toughest of times.
Navigating through your career can be a daunting task, considering how vast the beginning of any profession can be. I remember when I first started my internship, I was a bit overwhelmed. I couldn’t grasp “the corporate world.” I also didn’t understand what proper etiquette was or how to interact with my peers. Things felt as if they were moving at a quick pace.
I always felt on the move, trying to get tasks done, meet with my managers, schedule, and attend meetings while working on my plan and continuing to make a mark for myself. However, what did help was my support system, which in part existed but also unintentionally found. Let me explain.
I consider myself blessed to have a great relationship with my family. This relationship immediately gives me the confidence to take on more risks with jobs, career moves, or simple challenges such as question a colleague’s ideology on a particular development process or a manager’s decision not to include a project feature. Having my family behind me makes all the difference. However, I couldn’t rely solely on this support every time I stepped out of the house. I had to create one at work also.
At work, I had another support system that emerged — my colleagues, managers, and past employers. During one of my previous positions, I had worked in a research lab where I met brilliant young minds aiming to work towards the next wave of regenerative medicine, vaccines, and various other treatments. It was also here, at my alma mater, where I met a lot of my close friends who I could fall back on whenever I needed help the most. I was also fortunate enough to receive a large amount of mentorship that provided me with insight into how an engineer should strategize on projects, what it meant to research ideas, how to think (yeah, that was a thing), and what skill sets an engineer should have that isn’t taught in school. To this day, I am forever grateful to those that took the time to walk me through their careers and offer advice.
The biggest slap in the face was that soft skills were deeply valued compared to technical skills. Being able to communicate, for example, can make a huge difference.
Without any guidance or support system, not only does it become difficult to envision your future career, but the road ahead may also become lonely.
Skill #2: Listen to be heard.
Keeping an open mind is imperative. Applying a filter helps and is recommended, but listening helps expose yourself to different viewpoints you may not have already considered. I believe that you should listen and focus on what the other person is saying so that you comprehend and digest the message entirely. Your commitment to that person ensures that you care about what they have to say. I also see it as a means of benefit. Hearing someone is not the same as listening. Listening implies comprehension.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”― Ernest Hemingway
Having reserved opinions comes second nature, but listening to what someone is saying does not. This is where the opportunity to grow comes into play. You don’t necessarily need to agree with the other person, but giving them your attention is enough to make you aware of additional viewpoints that you may not have already considered. Being mindful of other perspectives allows you to form better decisions. You can also map out different scenarios ahead of time and anticipate situations that you wouldn’t be able to remain closed-minded.
Now being closed-minded does have its perks. Sticking to your beliefs can give you a sense of direction or purpose. It all depends on the intentions of your actions and whether or not you believe that being open or closed-minded can help you in a particular situation.
Skill #3: Use introspection as an internal feedback loop to propel you forward.
Another soft skill that has helped me in the workplace is being conscious of your impact. I am not talking about your impact on the company. Mainly the effect in general — your persona. How you interact with coworkers, clients, vendors, stakeholders matters much and speaks a lot of who you are, which also goes hand in hand with how you work. Ensure that you try your best each day (I know, I know. Easier said than done.) not just in being productive but by lending a hand to a coworker or taking on challenging tasks beyond your skillset. Be open to new opportunities; they may lead to better experiences and more success in the long run¹.
In general, introspection can alert you of unwanted shifts in your path. These nudges allow me to understand their point of origin, correct them, and hopefully not undergo the same issue again. One quick technique that helps me is writing a weekly review. I use this time as a self-check-in to see what I did, how I am doing (physically, mentally, spiritually), what I need to correct, and what I am thankful for. Sometimes a quick reminder of how much we accomplished makes a big difference and can change your outlook on what’s happened and what is to happen.
We need very little in life to make us happy, provided we have the frame of mind to enjoy whatever we have. — Ronald Ng
Skill #4: Let your work do the talking.
Demonstrating instead of describing is worth more. Showing a prototyped assembly from a mocked-up sketch or walking thru the experimental protocol allows the listener on the other end to better connect with what you’re trying to convey or the work that you have already done or plan to do. One quote that has always resonated with me comes from a Chinese Philosopher, Lao Tzu, who stated:
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
Actions speak louder than words. Working towards a viable design is best demonstrated through diagrams, presentations, or mock-up replicas through rapid prototyping. Being able to communicate effectively is vital in the workplace. When speaking, it helps to have an essence that complements your story. It also helps to be as knowledgeable about the subject as you can. This takes time.
Skill #5: Knowing the unknowns.
Becoming a subject matter expert (SME) requires years of practice. However, the learning rates are different for each person and subject. Being introspective helps in this area. Understanding what you do not know can help you figure out what exactly you need to know. Searching through handbooks or knowing what journal articles to examine for or which material choice best suits your application is the first step. Potential implications may arise due to the unknown’s dependency on the known. Uncovering the novel part is already a step in the right direction. The next part, yet, beckons these two questions: what do I need to do to turn that unknown into a known, and what are the requirements to satisfy the possible knowns.
Once discovering the unknowns, the task becomes more straightforward. Thinking in simpler terms at the beginning of a project makes a big difference.
Recently, I created a schematic for our new machines. This schematic was going to function as a blueprint for laying out different subsystems. The first thing I did was list out which components existed and which features may be needed. It turns out that this simplified the planning process because now I could focus on adding these modules to the schematic, grab measurements, and include those models. Working on trivial tasks first can propel you much faster towards completion. Understanding what you don’t know is the first step to figuring out what is necessary to move forward.
Last but not least, #6 — Be responsible.
The last point I want to cover deals with responsibility and what it means to own a task. Assigned action items can either guide or hinder a project. It is up to you to figure out how best to complete them and when. Of course, the timing relies on a project schedule. At times, setting up a good pace with the project benefits not only you but also everyone on the team. Adequate allocation of design time allows for the project flow to continue naturally.
Showing ownership goes a long way. It isn’t enough to have your name next to a task. You have to dictate it’s every breath. For example, earlier, I mentioned a schematic I had to complete for one of my projects. After that, the next task was to gather all possible models of each subsystem and create a mockup configuration of the entire system.
So, I got to work.
I figured out what modules I knew we needed and added a few others based on the team’s feedback. Then I was able to locate the majority of the models from the manufacturer’s website. I also designed a few from scratch and added those in as well.
I had to layout as much of the system as possible to determine what the machine would look like, what was needed to build it, and what the investors could expect shortly.
The completed draft allowed me to share it with the team, which led us to develop the equipment.
During my undergraduate and graduate years, students missed out on what soft skills were, which ones were essential in the workplace, and how to cultivate them to ensure success.
Some of the skills or attributes I have noticed include:
- Build a support system — Find mentors or role models. I received a sense of direction from the help of my mentors. It gave me confidence in what I had set out to do and showed me that not only is this possible but really that I can define my path. I don’t have to take the same approach as my mentors. I never wanted to. I’ve always wanted to create something that says me, that is defined by who I am.
- Listen to be heard — Learning to listen is a skill in itself. It pays to listen and not speak. By listening to the other person, you focus all your attention on what they have to say. You take in each word they give with each breathe, ensuring you understand where they’re coming from. Your awareness demonstrates to the other person that you care about what they have to say.
- Be Introspective — Be conscious of the impact you create. It doesn’t matter to what degree that impact is; a rock of any size can create a ripple in the water. My self-awareness introduced me to continuous introspection throughout my career, which also acted as an internal feedback loop to keep me on track. By checking yourself, you make sure you don’t wreck yourself.
- Let your work do the talking — Show me, don’t tell me. The cliche holds truth: Actions speak louder than words. Having status updates that show completed tasks, viable designs, prototypes can better convey the idea across. It removes uncertainty in the concept and allows everyone to understand the same language.
- Known unknowns — This is a tough one because it requires some form of initial expertise. Be patient and gain as much knowledge of the subject as possible. As you gain more experience in one area, begin to question each piece of information and ask yourself where this information may become relevant and what other bits of information do I need to know to better understand or do something useful with it?
- Be responsible, own it — Your name matters more than you know. Each time your name is assigned to a task, action, or project, that’s a commitment you’ve agreed to. You need to pull through; otherwise, you and your team fall through. A chain is as good as its broken link. Don’t be the broken link. And if you see some broken links, lend a hand!
These tidbits of information fall within the scope of work and everyday life as well. As I learn more about myself, I am always surprised by how many parallels I can draw between my day-to-day work interactions and life outside of work.
In college, I used to focus on developing the latest skills to impress employers. Our curriculums were guided in cultivating technical skills that allowed engineers to succeed in their future positions. Little did I know that these were only just one piece to the puzzle. Harnessing soft skills is the new wave of personal and professional development.
 Heckman, James J., and Tim Kautz. “Hard evidence on soft skills.” Labor economics 19.4 (2012): 451–464.