'Soft' Skills Make Grads Tough Contenders

by Robin Koval, Linda Kaplan Thaler & Wednesday, July 18, 2007

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Graduation time is here, and across the nation’s college campuses, proud young people in caps and gowns are sitting on pretty green lawns, listening to their elders dispense advice. Business tycoons, senators, Nobel Laureates and TV anchor people will gaze out over the sea of mortarboards and urge their audiences to “aim high” and “follow their bliss.” We hope these captains of industry and government offer one more key piece of wisdom: Be nice.

It’s probably no surprise that here at The Kaplan Thaler Group niceness is essential to a young employee’s career success. Not every employer values this quality as much as we do, but we are heartened to see that an increasing number are putting stock in the emotional intelligence of their recruits.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal says that today’s employers are interested in a lot more than your GPA. They also care about so-called “soft skills” — such as the ability to work on a team, and to get along in a diverse environment. Living in residence halls, connecting with others through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and working on group projects are among the experiences that today’s grads are trumpeting on their resumes — and employers are paying attention. "I'd have to put the ability to work in a team environment toward the very top of what we look for," says John Campagnino, global head of recruiting for Accenture Ltd., a global management-consulting firm, told the Journal.

They may be called “soft skills” but there is nothing wishy-washy about them. In an academic environment, many students succeed by isolating themselves—finding a quiet corner of the library and hitting the books, burning the midnight oil in the computer lab. The ability to focus like this is also important in the real world, of course, but what is equally—and in some cases, more—important is the ability to work with others. In business, work is rarely isolated. You woo clients, negotiate with adversaries, work in teams with colleagues. It’s like writing your senior thesis with two-hundred other people. So your collaboration and conflict-resolution skills are as essential to your success as your knowledge of Shakespearian sonnets and advanced calculus—maybe more. And your comfort level with people from a wide variety of backgrounds will impress your employer just as much as that summa cum laude.

So hats off to all the bright, hard-working young people getting their degrees. The knowledge you gained in your Organic Chemistry and European History classes will no doubt serve you well as you move through your life. Just don’t forget the lessons your mom taught you on the playground. Play fair. Be nice.