Stop Letting These Misconceptions About Professional Skills Hurt You

Stop Letting These Misconceptions About Professional Skills Hurt You
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Professional skills are what makes you shine at work.

That is no exaggeration.

Take for example two fresh graduates from the same university. They are expected to have the same academic training, the same technical knowledge about their job, and all that.

But in reality:

If you hire them in your company doing the same job, there is no guarantee that both of them will do equally well.

The difference between these two potential employees is the professional skills they possess.

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Professional Skills Are...

There are several definitions for professional skills, and these definitions can be somewhat confusing.

Sources don't just disagree:

They contradict each other on how they define the term "professional skills."

For instance, LiveCareer's Angela Copeman defines professional skills as the competencies that bring value to the company, adding that these are often called technical or hard skills.

According to Copeman, soft skills should be referred to as "personal skills," or those that might bring value to the company.

Here's the truth:

Hard skills are those abilities that can be taught, which can also be defined and measured. On the other hand, soft skills are those that are less tangible and more difficult to quantify.

Therefore, by Copeman's definition, professional skills are capabilities that you can learn from school.

But not everyone agrees:

Sources such as the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, define professional skills as the opposite: these abilities are not developed by your coursework, nor are they taught in school.

So which one is correct?


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Stick with us, we'll break it down more clearly.

Professional skills are not just purely soft skills, nor are they just exclusively hard skills. They are a combination of both.

More importantly:

Professional skills are all the competencies you need to do your job right and succeed.

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Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills

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Hard skills are pretty easy to determine. If you are an administrative assistant, your hard skills are being able to type fast, to take dictations flawlessly, and to file things correctly. (Just for starters, obviously, most admins have many, many more.)

These hard skills are also easily quantifiable. For instance, typing skills are measured by words per minute.

In Short:

Hard skills are what would make you qualified to be an administrative assistant.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are what would make you an excellent administrative assistant.

Being able to communicate with people effectively or being able to handle problems on your own are soft skills that help you do better at your job.

This short video will help you understand the distinction between the two:

And more on soft skills:

Technical skills

We've briefly touched on technical skills. Like soft skills, these are important as well.

You probably know:

Businesses will not hire sales associates who do not know the first thing about selling.

And it makes sense that you simply cannot hire programmers who cannot write a single line of code.

These are the skills that are taught in school, and these are easily measurable. You can have applicants take some standardized tests and discover their aptitude for the position you are seeking to fill.

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The problem is:

When the focus is too much on technical skills, we can neglect the development of our soft skills. For businesses, they can focus too much on that resume and not enough on the actual candidate

But that's not the whole story:

Where the confusion starts

Professional skills have been called soft skills for so long. However, that term does not capture the importance of these capabilities.

​Consider this:

There are people who take issue with just using the term "soft skills." People such as former dotcom executive and author Seth Godin has called for people to stop calling it as such.

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Because the term makes it sound as if these skills are optional and secondary when they're not.

These skills can help you land a job, and will help you keep it. What's more, these skills will help determine how happy and successful you will be at your current workplace.

More importantly, you can use your soft skills in any industry and company, not just your current one.

Professional Skills Are Super Important

What are the top three skills that most companies are looking for in their employees?

The answer is not what you expect:

It's not the technical knowledge that you need in order to do the job. Nor is it how fast you can type or how proficient you are at working with computers.

It's not even how good you are at writing and submitting reports. Or what your college diploma says.

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These are all important, but not as essential as, you guessed it, professional skills.

These skills can help you land a job, and will help you keep it. What's more, these skills will help determine how happy and successful you will be at your current workplace.

More importantly, you can use your soft skills in any industry and company, not just your current one.

And here's the proof:

According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the top four skills hiring managers are looking for in new employees are:

  • 1
    The ability to work with a team.
  • 2
    The ability to make sound decisions and solve problems.
  • 3
    The ability to communicate verbally with people both from within and outside the company.
  • 4
    The ability to organize, plan, and prioritize work.

The rest of the list is a combination of technical and soft skills.

Your company knows you lack the skills, too

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Here's the kicker:

Most companies are aware that their employees lack the soft skills needed to do their jobs right.

Eight out of 10 companies say they do not think their employees demonstrate critical thinking.

Another three out of four wish their employees were more innovative.

Here's another thing to think about:

Around seven out of 10 managers are not comfortable talking to their employees.

Imagine that the person you hired to guide, train, and teach employees doesn't even like talking to them.

That's not going to work.

Most of the time, however, the recruitment process is focused on whether or not that manager has an MBA, or had a similar job in the past. The focus is on assuring they know how to manage, analyze trends, crunch the numbers, gather information, and have a paper trail to prove it.

But these skills are never enough.

Understanding the concept of professional skills will help you give equal importance to both soft and hard skills

The Professional Skills That Are a Drop Dead Must

What are the professional skills that you need to have in any job? Different references have their own list.

But listen to a pro:

Seth Godin offers five different categories of skills that you should develop.

1. Self-control

There are tasks that we put off just because we do not feel like doing them. However, these assignments and activities are essential somewhere down the road.

Self-control involves knowing what tasks are essential in the long run and being able to do these tasks without your personal quirks, biases, and other distractions getting in the way. Literally, it means being able to focus on the task at hand regardless of our distaste for it.

But it's not as simple as it sounds.

There are many facets to self-control:

  • 1
    Being adaptable to changing needs or requirements
  • 2
    Consistent behavior
  • 3
    Picking yourself up after failing
  • 4
    Having a collaborative mindset.

It also entails having a high EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient, and willingness to learn from criticism.

And that's not all:

It means being able to grit your teeth just to see the project until the end. It will test your sense of humor, confidence, and awareness and your ability to handle stress and risks.

Self-control means getting the job done and working collaboratively, regardless of how much you are "feeling it" today.

2. Productivity

Knowing how to do your work and getting it done are two different things.

It's crazy:

Some of the best employees know what to do at their jobs, but they still fail.

Either they encounter a problem, or they run out of time to work on it.

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Or perhaps they finish, but screw up on some details.

Others get stuck on some problem.

And then there's this person:

Who has too much to do and isn't able to share the work with their colleagues. That lack of ability to delegate will cause them to be unable to get the job done.

When you do something, there is always a mix of vocational and non-vocational tasks. Productivity skills focus on moving the non-technical tasks along to help you finish the technical aspects of the work.

3. Wisdom

Wisdom-related skills are those that you get from experience and not readily available from textbooks you read at school.

These skills might involve creativity in handling challenges, being able to deal with the most difficult people, being able to work in an intercultural team, or having good taste.

Wisdom also involves:

  • 1
    Social skills
  • 2
  • 3
    And being able to empathize with users, vendors, and co-workers.

It also relates to mentoring and being able to resolve conflicts.

4. Perception

These skills relate to being able to see things clearly and being able to anticipate situations before they become occur.

For instance:

Your mindset should be similar to that of design thinking. The Interaction Design Foundation describes design thinking as that process wherein you try to understand the users, including what they want or need.

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Question everything:

This set of skills also involves being able to challenge assumptions, and even redefining problems so that you can come up with alternative solutions that might not have been obvious from the start.

5. Influence

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Being able to persuade others to act is an excellent example of skills that are related to influence. A competent worker should be able to assert themselves when it matters.

But that's not all:

This category also includes charisma and being able to communicate effortlessly. You should be able to inspire and lead at the same time.

It's when you can write for impact or have outstanding presentation skills. On the flip side: It's when you can lay down, and accept, constructive criticism without ego.

But wait, here is everything here in a nutshell:

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Plus all the technical skills that you need in your job.

How to Learn Professional Skills

As you have probably realized there are tons of professional skills that you need to have right now or skills that you should develop right away.

That is enough to get anybody rattled, but stay focused.

Even if you're starting with no skills at all, here are the four things that you should prioritize:

Now that you know that leadership, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills are what most companies are looking for; then it's time to take stock and be honest with yourself.

  • How are you with these skills?
  • Can you improve on them?
  • Can you learn them?

1. Learning skills: Just do it

One of the biggest booboos you can make when learning professional skills is to read as much material as you can.

For example, you want to learn more about selling more effectively.

You order dozens of books on Amazon.

Or, you search for the "best sales blogs" on Google.

Maybe you even...

join mailing lists that offer tips and tricks on sales.

Look, there's nothing wrong with all of these. That is probably why you're here reading this.

But be careful not to drown in all that reading.

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The problem is:

You might get overwhelmed by all the things you are reading, especially when trying to learn new professional skills.

Most of the time, though, you find yourself not taking in any new information, and you have no idea how to apply all the stuff you have learned.

The trick is to practice. Or as that shoe manufacturer says:

Just do it.

Author Josh Kaufman had a TEDTalk on this. Kaufman says that you only need 20 hours of practice to learn a new skill.

You dive into the new skill and learn as you go.

Or you can observe

However, there are professional skills that we cannot dive into. For these skills, you can start by observing first.

Think about this:

If you want to be an excellent public speaker, you can attend talks and speeches and see what the speakers say.

More importantly, look closely at how they deliver their spiels.

Observe somebody who is doing a presentation and try to see what that person is doing right and what needs to improve.

Of course, you could do this:

Read up on books and get up to awkwardly address your audience, but you will probably want to make sure you know what to do first.

But, why would you?

Resources such as this video are beneficial. Note that on top of the lessons, tips, and tricks, the video also uses Ellen DeGeneres as somebody that you can observe, emulate, and learn from.

I mean, who doesn't want to be as cool as Ellen?

It also shows you clips that will drive home the point better than hours of explanations can.

2. It helps to break up professional skills into tasks

Professional skills are often made up of smaller components, which we shall refer to as tasks.

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If you are learning graphic design, you might be better off learning how to use Adobe Photoshop first. Once you have mastered Photoshop, you can easily do image manipulation.

Then you go to the next step:

You can learn about the technical aspects of creating images. Do you know how to draw?

Do you know when you can legally use an image?

Once you have a project that requires graphic design, you will be able to put all of these smaller capabilities and see how they work together. The project will allow you to put to use all the tasks you have mastered over time.

3. Create something every day

Practice, practice, practice.

You know what they say:

For you to acquire a particular talent, you should make it a point to create something daily.

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Keep this in mind:

It's not enough to just know how each tool in Photoshop works, try to do some image manipulation such as turning a selfie into a photograph that looks like it has been shot in the 1920s.

For tomorrow, you can learn how to crop images so that you can change the background.

Killing two birds with one stone: Learning soft and hard skills together

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So little time, so many skills to learn.

Some people might prioritize learning technical skills and put everything else on the back burner. That is because most companies right now measure hard skills more.

The thing is:

You don't have to prioritize one over the other, you can learn professional skills alongside the technical knowledge.

While professional skills are often described as "not taught in schools," learning these skills can become part of your academic training.

In other words:

You don't have to think of soft and technical skills as mutually exclusive concepts, and you can learn these alongside one another.

A great example comes from the Rigas Stradina Universitate, a medical school in Latvia.

And what they are doing will blow your mind.

The university has simulations for their students that allow them to learn how to perform various medical procedures, while also learning soft skills such as teamwork and communication.

When should you begin developing the professional skills you need?

The short answer to that question is:

As soon as possible.

You can never start too early when developing professional skills. It does require some things:

  • 1
    Knowing what you want
  • 2
    Knowing what skills are needed to achieve that goal
  • 3
    Working on acquiring those skills

The thing with professional skills is that learning, developing, and mastering these take a lot of practice.

But you already knew that.

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With technical skills, you pretty much wait for formal training. You can learn it during your time in college. You can acquire new skills through company-provided training or seminars.

Or you can get it on the job.

You don't have to wait with soft skills

With soft skills, you have more flexibility. You do not even have to wait for opportunities to learn. You can be creative and learn on your own.

Here what we mean:

This Forbes article illustrates that you can start learning how to be a good leader even when the company you work for does not provide leadership seminars.

Being creative and looking for hidden opportunities to learn is how you can get around that.

First things first:

Forbes suggests that you get to know your team and the company inside out.

One trait of an excellent leader is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, and you can learn this just by spending time talking to people.

Or you could do this:

Help a colleague out.

Offer a hand to a co-worker that has been swamped with work. Doing so can help teach you how to prioritize what's needed most, collaboration, communication, and other traits that great leaders share.

With soft skills, you have more flexibility. You do not even have to wait for opportunities to learn. You can be creative and learn on your own.

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Or how about you just:

Take the initiative by doing more than what is asked will help you learn more about your workplace and the processes it has.

Employers love that.

Asking for more responsibility that you can take on without sacrificing your job is not only the best way to get noticed but also an opportunity to learn something new.

What's the takeaway of the whole Forbes article?

You can practice your professional skills every day.

Even without formal training.

Taking Advantage of Your Professional Skills

Here's the skinny:

Your professional skills will not help you land a job if you do not tell a recruiter about it.

Believe that.

That's why it's always a good thing to know how to best highlight these capabilities in your resume or interview.

Professional skills and your resume

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People often wonder if they can put professional skills in a resume.


You should highlight these skills so that the recruiter can easily see them. To include professional skills in your CV, here are some tips you should remember:

Check out the job posting or job description

Some employers put out job ads.

If they get a lot of responses, they will scan the resumes and cover letters to see if these have the keywords they used in their postings.

So, doing this only makes sense:

Match your skills with the company's phrasing, and get your foot into the door.

For example, if the company is looking for a graphic designer and they specify "Expert level mastery of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator" in their job ads, use that phrasing instead of just saying "Familiar with image manipulation and enhancement software."

Research about the company

But here's the bad news:

Some companies don't reveal what they are looking for on their job postings. Or they may not have listed everything down.

What professional skills should you include then?

There's only one thing to do:

Research the company culture.

  • 1
    What kind of people do they usually hire?
  • 2
    What are their current employees like?
  • 3
    Which traits are considered essential?

Choose the professional skills that align with these values.

For example:

If the company values innovation among its employees, highlight your ability to think out of the box. If they like people who are dedicated to users, highlight your customer service orientation.

Where can you find information about a company?

newspaper icon
  • Newspaper or magazine articles
  • Company brochures
  • The local chamber of commerce
  • The company's website
  • Official social media accounts
  • Friends who are employees or customers
  • Job posting

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Where to put skills in your resume?

Every resume should have a skills section.

If the job posting included specific technical skills, then you should put the skills section high up on your one-page resume (maximum of three pages for senior-level positions).

If not, you can put the skills section in your areas of expertise, or a sidebar.

You should also highlight your skills throughout your CV.

Helpful hint:

It helps to demonstrate professional skills with your previous work details. For instance, you can highlight being able to multi-task while enumerating responsibilities in a former job.

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How to highlight professional skills in an interview

The job interview is one of the best chances to flaunt your professional skills.

FORTUNE Magazine writes that you should emphasize your professional skills, but admits that it is a challenging thing to do.

Here's the thing:

You can write down all the professional skills that you have, but you will probably have a difficult time demonstrating that you do indeed possess them.

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FORTUNE suggests coming up with examples of previous experiences where you have put these skills to good use.

Some of the examples you can use:

  • Managing a team of freelancers from all over the world, while delivering all the projects on time.
  • Coming up with a more efficient way to communicate between departments, offices, and branches.
  • Persuading a group of people to come to a consensus.

Professional Skills at Work

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Here's the skinny:

Your professional skills will not help you land a job if you do not tell a recruiter about it.

Believe that.

That's why it's always a good thing to know how to best highlight these capabilities in your resume or interview.

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