Crucial soft skills they don’t teach you in school

No matter what your major—and even if you’ve been working for a while—here are the basics everyone needs for success.

Crucial soft skills they don’t teach you in school

Dean Karrel, author of Mastering the Basics

Over and over again, in his 40-year career as a sales manager and then senior executive in book publishing, Dean Karrel, author of Mastering the Basics: Simple Lessons for Achieving Success in Business, noticed something surprising. The people who consistently hit the ball out of the park didn’t necessarily have the most impressive degrees or credentials, or the fanciest titles. Instead, the ones who stood out, and went furthest, were those with the best people skills.  

Call it emotional intelligence (EQ) or soft skills, a knack for connecting with other people is crucial, from finding your first full-time job until the day you retire.

“I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates over the years, both new grads and seasoned veterans,” says Karrel. “I always hired someone—or didn’t—based on the ‘little’ stuff, like showing up on time, smiling, making eye contact, a positive attitude. These are the things no one ever teaches you in school, yet they make an enormous difference.

“Of course, the basics come naturally to some people,” he adds. “But others have never learned them.”  To take just one example, Karrel says that, in his current role as a LinkedIn instructor and career coach, “I’ve had people tell me they never even thought of sending a post-interview thank-you note, briefly recapping the conversation. Yet getting into the habit of doing that can be essential to landing the job you want.”

Wondering if you’ve overlooked a few basics? No worries. Karrel’s book is a detailed, down-to-earth guide to over 200 of them, organized alphabetically in bite-sized one-or-two-page chapters, from A (“Admit when you’re wrong and apologize”) to Y (“You’ve started a new job—Day One”).

Monster asked Karrel five questions about the soft skills everyone needs now.

Monster: You write that it’s important to be yourself and not try to come across, in an interview or at work, as someone you’re not. Why?

Karrel:  It’s natural to be impressed or intimidated by others’ qualifications, whether they have an MBA that you lack or just more experience or what-have-you. We’ve all been through it, at one time or another. But be honest and straightforward anyway, simply because people can always see through baloney. Besides, trying to be someone you’re not is exhausting. It’s hard enough just being you.

Monster: That takes a lot of self-confidence, doesn’t it? If someone doesn’t have that confidence, how can they develop it?

Karrel:  I was a B student in college, not a star. So I built up my confidence, starting out, by focusing on what I liked and was good at. Each of us has our own strengths. For me, it was that I was outgoing, and interested in people, and I enjoyed talking. The next step is, find a line of work where your strengths are real advantages. Then narrow your search to those jobs where you’re most likely to shine. That builds confidence.

Something else that really helps is to be persistent. Not every job interview is going to go well. That’s okay — just keep going. That adds to your confidence, too.   

Monster: What other soft skills are most helpful in a job search?

Karrel:  Whether job hunting or in business generally, I think it’s planning and preparation. Learn all you can about the company where you’re applying, and especially about the person interviewing you. This used to be difficult, but the Internet has made it so easy. Go in with a lot of information in mind. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve interviewed who mispronounced the company name or clearly knew nothing about the industry it was in. These are really hard mistakes to recover from, and there’s no reason to make them.

Resilience matters, too. Jobhunting can be such an emotional roller coaster—you’re way up one day and way down the next. The danger is, you can get depressed and come across in interviews as tired and negative. As I tell my coaching clients, when you start to feel burned out, take a day off. Go to a park or a movie or a museum and get refreshed and recharged.

Monster: What if, as often happens, you think the interview went great — but you don't hear back?

Karrel:  At the end of every interview, don’t forget to ask about next steps. The best way to frame it is, you want to follow the employer’s usual method of keeping in touch with candidates. So ask something like, “What’s the process here at XYZ Co. for following up? I want to make sure I do it correctly.” That, of course, includes how soon they will contact you, and by what means—by phone or email—they prefer to be contacted.

Of course, you still may hear nothing, but you’ve made it clear that you’re interested in the job and you’re eager to move on to the next phase. That counts!

Monster: You’ve just been hired. What’s the most important soft skill to bring to your new job?

Karrel:  That’s a tough choice—you’ll need them all!  But probably Number One is patience. It takes about six months to really settle in and feel comfortable in a new job. After all, you’re learning new processes, meeting new people, and getting used to a new boss, who no doubt has different idiosyncrasies than your old one.

If you start to regret changing jobs or worry that you’ll never figure it all out, my advice is: Relax. I can assure you that everyone who ever started a new job has had those feelings. If anyone says otherwise, I’m guessing they may just be too stubborn or insecure to admit it.

It's never too late to learn new skills

Our recent State of the Candidate Survey revealed that 42% of respondents are hoping to learn new skills at work this year. Yet, the pace of changes at work today can be frantic, leaving little time to stay up to date on the latest technology or skills. One way to stay ahead of the curve, whether you're hoping for a promotion or looking for a new job, is to become a Monster member today. As a member, you'll get weekly emails with career advice and job alerts, keeping you current on the in-demand skills and jobs. You can also upload up to five versions of your resume, so recruiters can match your skillset to openings as soon as they get posted. 

Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1994. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and the author of If My Career’s On the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?