Op-Ed: Why you should focus on soft skills to succeed
By Edmund Chien
I still remember my first day of boot camp in the Canadian Armed Forces. It was 1995 and I was in my first year of university.
We were all standing at attention, side-by-side on a parade square being scrutinized by an intimidating airborne paratrooper. The way he walked reminded me of a lion, menacing and stealthy. His uniform was pristinely put together with not a loose thread or button undone. In fact, all the instructors were dressed the same way and held themselves with a similar confidence. By comparison, my uniform looked haphazardly cobbled together, my composure broken and nervous. It bothered me that I had no idea what I was doing. I was fearful in that moment but oddly also in awe. I had to become one of those daunting lions.
Seven years of brutal training later, I became exactly that: a formidable airborne paratrooper teaching boot camp.
What does this have to do with soft skills? Everything.
The first thing you learn in boot camp is how to dress and carry yourself with confidence. We call it “dress and deportment.” Recruits have often asked me what polishing boots, pressing uniforms, and forming a beret have to do with combat training. Sloppiness in the small things will develop into sloppiness in the big things in your life. If you develop high discipline in the little details, you will build a foundation upon which you can build an empire.
As a trained private, I learned to look and carry myself with confidence, so much so that I was often mistaken for a soldier that was two ranks higher. This is the epitome of the saying “look the part” and “act as if.” I would later see this as learning soft skills (qualitative aspects associated with dress, etiquette, charm, and interpersonal abilities) before acquiring hard skills (quantitative abilities that can be taught, like reading, writing, math, and other academic skills).
For much of my working life, soft skills have preceded any new foray I undertook. A component of soft skills can be categized as high emotional intelligence. Travis Bradberry, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, cites that since the appearance of emotional intelligence in 1995, decades of research point to EQ (emotional quotient) as a major contributing factor in as much as 90 percent of top performers.
Today I'm also a veteran of Bay Street. After 10 years in the military I spent close to a decade and a half on the front lines in high finance. I worked in a private equity firm, a bank owned brokerage firm, and one of Canada's largest insurance firms. It was soft skills that helped me gain credibility quickly in my new environment. In my first year in finance, I was a cold caller. We called it ‘dialling for dollars.’ I remember watching Wall Street and visualized Bud Fox calling and hustling. All I did was act that part, and sure enough, a few years later I was the head of a 25-person team.
What people don’t realise is that the year I enlisted, I was also in my first year of university for theatre. It was there where I learned how to create, write, and direct productions, and further hone in on the development of my soft skill repertoire. You see, when you perform on stage, you have to be believable in the roles that you play, whether that’s pretending to be a lawyer, stockbroker, or soldier. When it comes down to it, actors are some of the best soft skills people. They completely lack the hard skills in those professions but can make you believe that they’re better professionals than the real deal. That’s the power of soft skills. All I did was take that off the stage and project it into my real life as my hard skills caught up.
Though I was required to attain the same hard skill qualifications as others to work on Bay Street (Canadian Securities Course, Conduct and Practices Handbook, Professional Financial Planning Course, and Life License Qualification Program) I believe it was the soft skills that I learned through my studies in theatre that helped me become a successful senior investment advisor in the industry.
In theatre, one learns that what you say, the script, is only one-third of the production. A lot of effort is also applied to how the actors look and how they deliver their lines in order to play a role that is convincing. Some would say that when it came to being a soldier and investment advisor, I was playing a role and did so to the point of being considered a professional in that field.
Inspiring confidence begins with how you carry yourself. This is true when you enter a stage pretending to be someone you are not, it’s true in the military when you display ice cool confidence in the face of battlefield chaos, and it’s also true when delivering calming insight in the face of the 2008 credit crisis.
Today I teach soft skills to sales people. Our training starts much like the first day of boot camp, with dress and deportment. It’s all about the details to look out for when donning your “uniform.” How you present yourself says a lot about who you are. Sloppy and ill-fitting clothes can discredit you very quickly, especially when it comes to client-facing roles. We provide styling cues and help guide individuals to understanding how to dress for their own body type, occasion, and occupation. After all, it’s just as bad to be overdressed for your target market (say, wearing a three-piece suit at a tech startup) as it is to be underdressed.
We then move on to attitude. Taking the time to contemplate and show gratitude is not only good for your mood but for your health, too. According to Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, those who consistently practice gratitude show 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been connected to a long list of health problems over prolonged periods of exposure. We are constantly bombarded with various scenarios throughout the day that force us to make decisions, which can have an impact on our mood. The mindset that we use to approach these circumstances makes a big difference.
It is becoming a common understanding among high performers that placing importance on appearance, cultivating a disposition of gratitude, and investing in emotional intelligence development, has a big effect on your success.
As unfair as it may seem, you are constantly being judged by anyone and everyone. Soft skills get you the best defense lawyer around.