I love the term “soft skills”. It sounds so warm and comfortable. But it’s a daft name for a skill set that is actually quite hard to get right and also super imperative if you want to do anything with your life that doesn’t involve the message “insufficient funds”.

One of my colleagues recently paid me the highest compliment: she said I am “the queen of soft skills.” I like these props even more than praise for my writing or teaching ability. They are the skills I value the highest and have worked most earnestly to develop over my career, often by getting things gravely wrong.

I was quite surprised at how unusual soft skills teaching is amongst academic institutions. Soft skills – the basic ability to work in a team, communicate with other humans, take responsibility, solve problems and foster a healthy work ethic – are indispensable to thrive and succeed, not to mention that most employers value soft skills above technical ability.

You can teach them. You can develop them. Let’s break it down using light examples to illuminate the heavy path.

Be careful of your face

I once sat in front of a tough and taciturn creative director with my twentieth concept scamp of the day. I was young. I was tired. I was over the whole campaign. My face told that exact story. He stopped looking at my ideas and asked me: “Why are you looking at me like I’m a (very bad word)?” All my young life I had this face problem. Not because I don’t have a nice face, but because my attitude was redolent with entitlement, ingratitude and doing the bare minimum. That was the day it started to change.

You can’t develop amazing interpersonal skills overnight. It’s a process. It starts inside your head. Adjust the gears on your attitude.

Spend a few minutes assessing your level of corporate resentment. How many times a day do you moan, or gossip or throw up your hands in dramatic dismay? Stop it. Fix your outsides by looking in.

Real leaders lead from the back

My father, Ian Shepherd, was a giant in the SA advertising industry. For various complicated reasons, one of which was a civil war, he somehow started his career at MD and continued to lead agencies for over 40 years. One day when I was a teenager, he won the industry’s most prestigious advertising executive award. He didn’t tell anybody. We found out the next day from the Business Day, and later we located the award itself plopped unceremoniously on top of the piano. When he passed away in 2016, there were over 300 people at his funeral, most of those were people he had led over the years. What made him that kind of leader was his humility, incredible listening ability and his genuine delight in letting other people shine.

You don’t have to be in charge to be a leader. Leadership and management are not the same thing.

Taking ownership of your mistakes, being able to say “I messed up” and doing it differently the next time, is one of the more obvious signs of a leader. Letting other people speak while you listen attentively, not in any rush to hear your own voice is another. True leadership is quiet and seeks neither glory nor affirmation.

Timelords don’t fall on their swords

You know what’s nice about martyrs? Nothing. Certainly in the workplace. Most of us have encountered the complainy-pants colleague who tells you exactly how they are in all the boring, visceral detail you never asked for. Slightly less conspicuous than that are the Office Martyrs – people who are constantly put-upon to do their incredibly difficult and huge job, yet can’t seem to fit it into a workday. An account manager I worked with in Joburg would leave his suit jacket on the chair overnight and spend his time visiting other people’s desks to tell them how busy he was and how much overtime he was working. Yet he was always late, constantly frazzled and widely perceived as unreliable. Fostering a healthy relationship with time starts with actually doing it, not saying you’re doing it. Begin with those old chestnuts, punctuality and planning. Your schedule is your friend. Spend time setting it up. Make sure it’s firm but flexible, and stick to it.

Practice saying “no” when you have to so you can say “yes” when you need to.

Leaning into the struggle improves your balance

Emotional resilience, or stress fitness, is built over time. You can always spot a stress fit colleague. They have the same tight deadlines, the same enormous workload, and the same amount of time in which to accomplish miracles as everybody else, but they are not a hot mess hunched over their laptops next to the Gaviscon. These people are swans. Gliding effortlessly on the surface, paddling like hell underneath. It’s bothering them the same as its bothering you, they’re just more resilient. The stress will never go away, but you can learn to deal with it better. Lean in. The marathon gets easier if you train every day.

Soft skills definitely belong on your CV. Not just because they are important indicators of your potential value as an employee, but because they are uniquely human skills we all need to fine tune in ourselves in order to rub along in a tough, competitive and ever-changing business world. Sometimes they are the big difference between a sideways move and an upward one. Always they are the small difference that distinguishes you as the colleague most likely to have happy days at work.

The number one reason to develop soft skills is job satisfaction. The harder you work on them, the luckier you feel.


Wendy Shepherd,
Lecturer – Copywriting/Digital Content
and affectionately known as the ‘Admiral’


PS. We’ve just launched a People Management online short course. It starts this week and will show you the value of these humans skills. Read more.