Many people think that the best thing you can do if you want a job is to be better at the job description than anybody else. If it’s a sales job, be an amazing people person. If it’s a tech job, know more about computers than anybody else. And on one hand, this seems obvious. The most important part of a job is the job itself, anything else must be incidental. Right?
Surprisingly, no. Let me show you why.
My mother used to work in a big company with a sales team. And there was one guy in particular on this sales team, let’s call him Leonard.
Leonard was a very energetic and incredibly competent salesperson, who was very good at persuading. He did the mechanics of sales exceptionally well. He wasn’t brilliantly charismatic, but he was really, really good at the simple mechanics of selling. Prospecting, understanding politics within the prospect’s environment, getting in front of the right people at the right time… he was brutally competent.
The problem was, he knew it. To prospects, Leonard was charming. To people above him in the hierarchy, he was at least civil. But to everyone at his level or below him, he treated them like deficient peons. It was obvious he thought that he was so much better than them. He treated the back office and support staff as if they were his personal servants. Nobody inside the company liked him, but they had to be nice to him because he just Kept. Landing. Contracts. Over. And. Over.
The only reason nobody fired him was because he was literally twice as good as every other salesperson, combined. But if he ever slipped up, stopped being so gobstoppingly brilliant, or if the company ever found someone as good, he would absolutely be drop-kicked out the door in an instant.
Why is that? After all, isn’t your competency at the job description supposed to be the most important thing?
We all know instinctively what Leonard did wrong. He was a jackass. And if you’re a jackass, there is very little you can do to redeem yourself except be leaps and bounds better than literally everyone else, because that way the company can’t afford to get rid of you. We all also know instinctively, therefore, that your competency at the job description isn’t the single most important thing.
Still, we probably still think it’s one of the most important. Surely you’d choose someone who can do the job well over someone who can’t, even if the someone who can’t is cheerful, reliable, and hardworking, right?
No, not really. Here’s an example from my own experience in sales.
I’ve written before about my sales job, and the fact that I applied for it, got it, and had it for months despite being severely under-qualified in every notable area. Circa the time that I started the interview process, if you’d asked me what a sales funnel was, I wouldn’t have known. Not only that, I was super socially awkward.
Here’s why none of that mattered, why they hired me anyway, and why they proceeded to not fire me.
During every interview (there were three), I showed up ten minutes before I was supposed to be there. I was cheerful and enthusiastic. I wore my utter lack of sales knowledge on my sleeve, accompanied by a “but I’d love to learn!” and a big grin. As I moved through the interview process, I listened to sales podcasts when I drove. When I had down time, I read sales manuals like You Can’t Teach A Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar. I was determined to learn as much as I could before I even got the job. In my third interview, I asked the hiring manager for her suggestions for sales books. She suggested some. I read them.
After I got the job, whenever they taught me something, I would spend all my available down time practicing it. Listening to podcasts on drives turned into reciting my sales pitch. I continued to read sales manuals, now in the context of what I’d learned. And when I was working—aka, when I was walking around knocking on doors; this was a door-to-door kind of a sales job—I asked questions, I watched and learned from the better salespeople I shadowed, and I tried as hard as I could to make working with me easy. Essentially, I made up for my complete lack of charisma with a great attitude. In an environment like sales, where we had on-the-job training, that was the most important thing.
Both of my examples have been about sales so far, and while this has been a coincidence, it does mean that I need to explicitly note something here. While half of the important background for sales (namely, the understanding of how sales itself works) is commonly taught on the job, that’s not the case for a lot of other jobs. So, it’s important to note that unless you meet the bare-minimum prerequisites for the job in question, no amount of attitude will get you the job. Even the most cheerful prospective neurosurgeon won’t get the job unless they’ve got a medical degree.
Still, once you’ve reached that minimum level of competency, soft skills like punctuality, reliability, cheerfulness, willingness to learn, etc. become much more important. Companies frequently hire people (like me) who are objectively worse at the actual job, but who are more pleasant to work with.
All of that said, here are some of the top soft skills which are more important than your competency at the actual job.
- Enthusiasm. Companies like nothing more than seeing that someone wants to work for them.
- Willingness to learn. Especially if you’re under-qualified, but honestly in any circumstance, this one is important. This one is extra important if you’re planning on going into tech, just because of how fast the field moves: even if you knew everything there was to know yesterday, something might get invented today that’ll make that old knowledge useless.
- Ability to take criticism and improve. This one goes hand in hand with the previous one, and is just as crucial.
- Humility/kindness/otherwise being a nice human being. This one is a bit less important, because sweet people still get fired if they won’t learn and improve (since they’re a drain on the company), but if you’re already pretty good about learning, you’ll want to make sure people like you, too.
- Working hard. Basically, make the absolute most of your time at the office, and feel free to take the job home, too. There are tons of people who refuse to take their work home (something about “work life balance”, which seems to mean “I’d rather watch TV than achieve my goals”), so you can get ahead of them by doing simple, easy stuff like listening to a podcast on your drive home instead of the radio.
- Be willing to do the grunt work. Somebody has got to fetch the coffee, make the copies, move the furniture, order more sharpies, and organize the company lunch. If that person is you, then you have made yourself invaluable. If you think you should be “above” that kind of work, and so that person isn’t you, then it’s probably going to end up being the CEO, or the VP of something or another. Nobody is “above” grunt work. Forward Tilt actually has a great episode about this.
Everyone knows that all other things being equal, soft skills are important. If you’re just as competent as the next guy but you’re more fun to work with, you’ll probably get the job. But what most people don’t know is that all other things don’t even have to be equal. Companies hire people all the time who aren’t as competent, but are easier to work with. Obviously competence matters, but once you’re over the minimum competence level, soft skills matter more. Being more competent doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to get a job if you don’t have the soft skills.