Lack of softer skills can block your career ambitions

He is bright, hard-working and knowledgeable in his field. But he can’t seem to build the trust and rapport he needs to sell the financial services he represents. Potential clients are wary… Is he too slick? Too stiff? They like his information but just can’t warm up to him enough to buy from him. He wants to move up but those above him are becoming frustrated by his lack of results. 

She is a great leader who creates loyal, hard-working teams, but when she is presenting her team’s results upward, at formal meetings and events, she just doesn’t seem dynamic or passionate about her topic. Senior management wonders if she has a sense of urgency and enough ‘fire in the belly.’ She says she wants to move up, but others aren’t visualizing her there.
What’s wrong here? Both of these people seem capable of moving up. They know the technical job inside and out. But those above them have doubts because they seem to lack a subtle ‘something.’ Unfortunately, talented and ambitious employees can become stymied and frustrated because they think they have followed the rules and checked all the boxes that qualify them for moving up, only to get passed over.
The competition gets tougher as jobs become fewer at the top of an organization. It requires not only the right experience, but a host of subjective qualities. These often subtle, unspoken qualifications are noticed only if they are missing. “He’s not aggressive enough,” “She’s too soft spoken,” “He isn’t a good public speaker.”
Most of the characteristics I’m talking about fall into the emotional intelligence category. For example, relating to people, building trust, communications skills, and influencing skills are some of the categories that loom large if they are missing. Technical skills are easier to get—a rotation, a stretch project, a global assignment—are all ways to fill knowledge and experience gaps.
So what can you do if you suspect you are bumping into one of these “softer” career blockers? First, I can tell you what not to do—don’t complain loudly about unfair corporate politics, or gender discrimination, or any other finger-pointing you might be tempted to do . Instead, find a way to get unvarnished feedback. Until you have eliminated your own shortcomings as the cause, don’t blame others.
Once you know what needs to change, you have some decisions to make. Do you want to work on the areas that aren’t your natural strengths? For instance, if moving up requires speaking to large groups of people and you despise that, is it worth it? If you do want to work on your weaker areas, do you think you can improve enough? For instance if you are an introvert, can you really be happy in a job that requires you to be more of an extrovert? Could you take a different career path that suits your strengths and doesn’t require adding skill sets you will struggle to attain?
To help you make these decisions, first find out what you need to change. Ask your manager for examples. Tune in to what people may have been trying to tell you for years. For instance, if your performance reviews have always been good, you may have dismissed the section called, “Development Plans” at the end of most performance reviews. Your manager(s) may have been telling you to work on your communication skills for years, for example. But because you have so many other wonderful skills, it didn’t seem that important. But now that you are trying to move up the ranks, those gaps will take on bigger proportions.
Find a mentor or coach. Spouses don’t count (although he or she may have been trying to give you the same feedback you’re hearing from your boss!) The ideal coach is someone who works inside the organization, can be trusted and has some savvy in the area you need work on. Sometimes a peer fills the bill, or a friend in another department, or an employee who has left the organization. If your manager is a good coach and sees your potential, take full advantage of it.
Although a person outside the organization won’t have experienced the corporate culture first hand, he or she could still be a good choice, especially if the person has the skills and insights you don’t have. The added bonus of using an outsider is they aren’t politically connected to the organization and you don’t have to worry about confidentiality. The key here is to ask someone who has proven success in the areas you need, whether it is a colleague or a professional coach.
No matter who you choose, the person has to be honest and straightforward. In short, he or she has to like you enough to be brutally frank. But feedback isn’t enough without some how-to’s. If the person can give you practical tips you can apply, it can make your career.
But the reality is, some things about yourself you can’t or won’t change. It’s who you are. You may be able to improve your influencing skills by, say 10 percent, but in the end it may not be enough. Rather than seeing that as a failure to achieve your goals, regard it as a reality that nudges you in a slightly different direction. Like a bumper car at the fair, instead of spinning your wheels, realize it’s a signal to make a turn.
We take a comprehensive approach to executive coaching. We create a customized plan for each executive, based on the needs of the executive and his/her organization. Call for more information about our executive coaching process at (800) 348-1944.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
About Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd & Associates provide
FREE subscription to receive Joan's article by email

Email Joan to submit your question for consideration for publication, request permission to reprint an article for distribution, or for information about carrying Joan Lloyd's weekly column in your publication, or on your Internet or Intranet site. Visit to search an archive of more than 1700 of Joan's articles.
© Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc.