Never Forget the Worth of our Own Skill Set!
Brendan Pigott is a long-term Professional CDAA Member from the ACT Division. His passion is working with individuals to build greater career resilience, competitiveness and understanding of their accomplishments and transferrable skills. At the organisational level, he looks to improve workplace culture and results through the provision of options papers, performance measures and tactical advice.
Not recognising and appreciating the importance of our essential communication and relationship building abilities can be detrimental to both career practitioners and their clients.
No doubt most CDAA members would be aware of the brilliant research and advocacy that Ann Villiers has done over recent years to prevent the term ‘soft skills’. Using this undersells and consequently diminishes the broad range of social, interpersonal and employability skills that research demonstrates are increasingly required and valued in the workplace. Despite that, ‘soft skills’ remains a pervasive term, used with considerable frequency in articles about employment and careers.
The National Skills Commissioner, in his Real Future of Work address, noted that “skills are the new currency of workforce development”. So, it’s incumbent on all of us to support the use of the correct terminology within our sphere of influence, whether we’re dealing with policy makers, the media, employers, recruitment firms or training designers. And of course, in our work with clients, who may well have unconsciously accepted what Ann describes as the false dichotomy of hard and soft skills.
A discussion at an ACT Private Practitioners Networking Meeting earlier this year highlighted perfectly the extent and variety of our professional skills that go beyond simplistic terms such as 'soft' or 'hard' skills. This lively, informal exchange worked through different scenarios and challenges we had encountered when delivering services, and how we responded by employing our skills and knowledge and knowledge to achieve positive outcomes with and for clients. Then, using a fictional (but entirely representative) client interaction as an example, we compiled a list of actions and responses that demonstrate the sophistication and intricacy of our work – summarised briefly below:
- Quickly establishing an effective, professional working relationship with a diverse and unpredictable client base
- Negotiating and agreeing services, deliverables and pricing, often in a time and cost sensitive environment
- Asking well-structured, challenging questions and listening actively for key pieces of information and further discussion points
- Maintaining composure when faced with unanticipated behaviours or difficult client stories
- Demonstrating the emotional intelligence required to know when to probe further and when to provide more space – and the capacity to shift seamlessly between these modes
- Analysing and interpreting unformed examples to help build well-rounded, persuasive stories that increase clients’ chances of success in selection processes
- Understanding how much support and intervention each individual needs, based on their experience, confidence and access to other resources
- The capacity to comprehend and explain both macro level and local labour market information and data
- Knowing when to apply theories and when to work in a more instinctive manner
- Acknowledging, where appropriate, the boundaries of our knowledge and practice
- Undertaking all of the above in accordance with the Professional Standards for Australian Career Practitioners
This list (which as noted is merely a summary) shows clearly that these human skills – so fundamental to our work as practitioners – are anything but soft, ambiguous or somehow less substantial. And while they require relevant qualifications and significant technical knowledge, I would agree that we should also avoid describing them as ‘hard’ skills. There is simply no need to classify them along these lines, as this would further entrench an artificial, Orwellian-style skills hierarchy that serves no useful purpose.
That said, for most of us the skills we demonstrate in our work are certainly ‘hard-won’, through formal study, ongoing learning (including from our mistakes), varied life experiences and the ethical application of our so often under-valued expertise.
Unfortunately, like many of our clients, we can at times underplay (or indeed not recognise) the true scope of our abilities. While unintentional, given the nature of much of our work, this can perpetuate the unhelpful and largely meaningless ‘soft’ skills catch-all – and negatively impact how others may choose to view our profession.
Hopefully this article will serve as an invitation for us to reflect on our own skill set and work style, and resist the temptation to use unhelpful language when we collaborate with clients and colleagues, and promote our profession.