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Soft Skills: Why They Can Mean Success in the Workplace

Etiquette expert Sara Jane Ho says people skills are more important than ever

by Sara Jane Ho

April 9, 2024

Sara Jane Ho / Illustration: Courtesy of Joel Kimmel

Your qualifications might get you an interview, but the great majority of career success comes from having well-developed social or “soft” skills. Also known as people skills or core skills, these are becoming ever more important in the era of remote and hybrid work. Communication, teamwork, openness to criticism, and time management are always in demand.

“Soft” Skills Help You Keep the Job Once You Get It

I know from tough experience how large a role soft skills play in our career success. When I first started working as an investment analyst on Wall Street, I had a degree in English literature and lacked the same financial background as my colleagues. My first performance review was less than stellar, and I had to raise my game. Instead of racing to leave after a long day at the office, I began staying past midnight to pore over finance textbooks. More importantly, however, I put my soft skills to work overtime. On an early restructuring deal, the lawyer was a woman in her early 40s. There were very few female role models on deal teams, and despite being 20 years her junior, I wasn’t shy about initiating conversation with her and asking her to explain legal terms. She became a kind of mentor and invited me to the coveted Women in Restructuring luncheons that no one at my level attended.

I also worked on forging strong bonds with clients. As the most junior member on a debt-restructuring deal team for a hotel casino, I joined in a lunch with a client in Kentucky. I was tempted (as a self-confessed carnivore) by the baby back ribs on the menu. After giving it some thought—we were in the South, and our client was a heavyset, jolly, middle-aged man wearing jeans—I decided that if there was ever an appropriate time to order baby back ribs in front of a client, it was now. I went for it, and of course dug in with my fingers. My former supervisor later wrote in a recommendation letter, “She ordered baby back ribs (a move I would generally say is fairly aggressive), but the client loved her for it. Despite male dominance in the hotel and hospitality industries, Sara was able to create meaningful and lasting relationships with clients.”

Pay attention to context, and you can make bold moves with confidence. As a result, something as seemingly insignificant as what dish you order in a restaurant can pay huge dividends. Obviously, I had to work on getting my hard skills up to speed, but many people don’t realize that the hard skills won’t work without the soft ones!

Feng Shui Tip: Now That You’ve Landed the Job

Finding your desk’s commanding kao shan position, at home or in the office, is vital to your career success. The ideal setup is that you should be able to see the door without being directly in line with it when sitting at your desk. This is the power position of any room, including meeting rooms. I also like to have a wall behind me, which is what we call a kao shan, meaning a “back support mountain.” The worst position is to sit facing the wall, unable to see the door, with your back exposed. This makes you vulnerable to office politics and backstabbing. Having your back to the door can also lead to a lack of control, support and creativity in your work. Directly facing a wall limits growth. When I visited the home of a makeover student, I was shocked at how poorly arranged her home office was. Her desk was against a wall under a staircase, and when she sat there, she had her back to the room (vulnerable) with the staircase right above her head (pressure). The desk, covered with clutter, was hardly a place to get her thoughts in order. No wonder she was anxious and had difficulty rebooting her career.

Sara Jane Ho is an etiquette expert and founder of China’s first etiquette school, Institute Sarita. She is the host of the Daytime Emmy-nominated Netflix series Mind Your Manners. This is an extract from her book, Mind Your Manners, available April 9.