The Not-So-Secret Skills Every Young Professional Needs

Lately, I’ve been hearing a common theme from managers of millennials. They’re hiring you for your record of strong performance, and you deliver. But two little words are holding you back: soft skills.

Most professional newbies are unaware of a paradigm shift that happens when you segue from school to the workplace. Your whole life you’ve been striving to deliver the goods to earn the grade, but in a professional setting, performance is merely the price of admission. Managers won’t judge you solely on your work product — which is expected to be stellar — but also on your image.

In fact, you might be disappointed to learn the relatively small impact performance actually has on your success. In the book Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Game Revealed, Harvey Coleman shares his version of a “PIE” chart: He has found that of career success, “productivity” counts for 10%, “image” counts for 30% and a whopping 60% comes from “exposure,” or your visibility and relationships within the company.


Three Stereotypes Killing Your Success

To boost your own “exposure,” you’ll have to break down a few common stereotypes about young professionals. There’s an easy fix for each one of these, and the answers are all about upgrading your soft skills.

The complaint: Millennials think they know everything.
The “soft skill” fix: Show respect.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” — Stephen Covey

I’m sure there are times you feel like rolling your eyes at an old-school policy your company clings to. But no one likes a steamroller, and it’s never the best way to get others to see your perspective.

So the next time you find yourself about to say something like, “I can’t believe our database isn’t online,” stop. First, ask why. Sometimes, believe it or not, there’s a good reason. After listening and learning, then offer an opinion. Even if you choose to go ahead with your idea anyway, you’ll earn credit for showing respect. Remember that if you want respect, you have to give it.

The complaint: Millennials are distracted.
The “soft skill” fix:  Let them know you’re engaged.

“Little choices make big impressions.” — Keith Ferrazzi

One of the best ways to look engaged is to always be prepared to take notes when your manager is offering an assignment. Jot down the key points and don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify a detail; it’s a great way to show you’re looking ahead.

You might have another habit that’s sending the signal you’re disengaged. Believe it or not, people do judge you for wearing earbuds even though that’s how you focus. So, to avoid having your coworkers think you’re zoning out, give them a heads up: “Hey, I’m putting in my earbuds so I can really concentrate on this. Feel free to grab me if you need to.” Don’t just assume they know why you’re wearing them.

The complaint: Millennials don’t show urgency.
The “soft skill” fix: Demonstrate your understanding of pace and timeline.

It’s part of millennial culture not to make many plans in advance. But in the workplace, your manager needs to know you understand a deadline and the path you’ll take to get there. Keep your manager informed about your progress during an ongoing assignment, and if something is going to derail you, let them know as far in advance as you can.

Here’s a bonus trick: Whenever you can, come in ahead of an agreed-upon deadline. It’s a guaranteed way to make a boss love you.

Finally, don’t overlook the importance of fessing up to mistakes. Everyone makes them, especially when you’re new, and your manager totally gets that. People aren’t going to judge you for the mistake, but they are going to judge you on how you handle it. Don’t pretend it’s no big deal — because it probably is a big deal to someone. As soon as you realize you’ve made an error, admit it and offer a solution. If you own it, they will remember the recovery, not the mistake.

What soft skills are most important to you? I’d love to hear your tips and stories in the comments!

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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