What are soft skills?
Soft skills are all the rage when it comes employability. Simply put, the finance industry wants more than the top brain boxes out there. In order to be successful, you’re able to do more than just get top marks in exams. If you want to work in this sector, you’re going to have to learn a lot more than commercial awareness and how to manoeuvre the financial markets.
So it first of all begs the question…
What are soft skills?
"Soft skills" refer to your own personal qualities in the work place: interpersonal skills, communication skills, how you handle your workload… essentially, everything that makes you a cracking person to work with and get your job done effectively.
Generally we’re talking about these kinds of things:
- The way in which you manage your time.
- Your self-confidence and how you use it in a job.
- Your ability to negotiate, diffuse tensions and solve problems.
- How you handle stress at work.
- The way in which you lead a team (if necessary) and support colleagues in your team.
- Your adaptability and flexibility when things happen that aren’t expected.
- Your overall attitude in the workplace and the effect it has on yourself and others.
Now, one does not simply learn soft skills. It takes time, self-reflection and, more often than not, making plenty of mistakes before you can get your soft skills right. They’re something that you will work on and develop throughout your career. So no big deal that they’re not all perfect right now! And to be frank, nobody’s ever going to be completely perfect anyway…
Initially, you can get started in developing your soft skills by taking part in extra-curricular activities at school, from sports and drama, to Young Enterprise activities and Duke of Edinburgh awards, to help you establish some skills outside of your academic studies. Part-time jobs will be really good for this too; every awkward customer you deal with in a retail job or all of those times spent taking instructions from the grumpy head chef in a weekend waiting gig will go towards your soft skills stripes.
You’ll be able to branch out even further when you’re at university with all of the societies and part-time work opportunities on offer. Every time you’re working in a team, organising an event or supporting someone through volunteering, you’re adding another string to your bow—or giving one a tweak!
Soft skills in finance jobs
But before you apply for your first role in finance, you’re going to have to do that little bit more. If you want to be successful in your applications, you have to demonstrate that you have been working on some of these soft skills in the finance, banking or business environment too.
How to do that? Well, it’s all about getting that crucial work experience again, isn’t it? Spring weeks and summer internships will show that you’ve spent time managing a workload that resembles that of a graduate role, you’ve begun to interact with the types of people who work in the sector and, more importantly, the types of clients they provide services for.
Going out of your way to help someone to get something done, completing a task to help your manager, not being afraid to take up some extra responsibility or having a go at something that’s out of your comfort zone—each little thing you do when you’re in the environment will speak loudly to an interviewee.
Soft skills in action in the world of finance
Never underestimate the power and prominence of soft skills in a finance role. There are soft skills flying about all over the place in so many different roles in the finance industry. Here’s a snippet of a few scenarios in which soft skills come to the fore:
- Negotiation with a client and other parties on an M&A deal in investment banking.
- Handling a customer complaint, face-to-face or on the phone, as a high street bank branch manager, cashier or customer services adviser.
- A portfolio manager’s bold (yet considered!) decision making in asset selection and portfolio diversification.
- Managing a heavy end-of-year workload of audits and tax returns as an accountant.
- Pitching a private equity investment opportunity to a big client as a private equity analyst.
- Informing portfolio managers of the possible risk levels involved with certain asset classes as a risk manager.
- A talent manager interviewing candidates for a professional services firm’s graduate positions.
- Keeping cool and calm under pressure when you’re on the edge of making, or losing, a heck of a load of money as a trader.
- A relationship manager calling a high net worth individual client to update on bespoke investment opportunities.
- A HR executive in a financial firm mediating discussions between an employee and their manager on a disciplinary issue.
- A technology expert in an investment bank liaising with banking professionals to explain how to use complex new software or hardware, or to gather specifications from them in order to design suitable new applications to suit their needs.
Just think about the soft skills in action in each situation. Without the ability to work effectively in a team, communicate well, and adapt quickly and effectively under different circumstances, these guys really wouldn’t get very far!
So start to have a little think about the soft skills you’ve developed so far, and where you could improve. This is all part of the personal brand too—the professional persona that every successful business person uses to define themselves and stand out from the crowd. The sooner you can identify where you could improve, the sooner you can get the right experience together to get your soft skills in the bag.