Organizational pundits often talk about the difference between “hard” and “soft” skills. The idea is this: hard skills, or technical skills, are the competencies that companies pay for. If you are hired as an engineer you had better demonstrate expertise in computing, data analysis and modeling, and systems design. Hard, or technical skills, are directly relevant, must have, easily measurable, certifiable through degrees or certificates of qualification, and differentiated depending on the field and specialty.
Soft skills, or behavioral skills, are different. Professionally managed organizations generally expect all employees and freelancers to have basic interpersonal competencies and performance disciplines that turn expertise into actual impact. Soft skills like teamwork are behaviorally, not credential based and may be difficult to measure objectively and quantitatively although most of us “know it when we see it.”
While technical skills are essential in delivering a strong work performance, they are not sufficient without the behavioral skills that convert competence into effective working relationships. In a Wall Street Journal survey of executives, more than 90% reported soft skills as important as technical skills.
This distinction is particularly important for freelancers. In a recent interview, Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel told me that only a fraction of the millions of freelancers on their platform regularly win assignments. Those who are consistently successful, he said, are people who know how to present themselves, think like entrepreneurs, keep their skills up to date, and build effective reputations and relationships.
In short: freelancers win work based on their hard skills, but keep or lose work based on their soft skills.
A recent study by Linkedin described the most important skills for 2019 and focused on five soft skills. It’s an interesting summary. But, while I appreciate the importance of the skills they mentioned, there is a larger context for these skills when it comes to freelancers. What I’ve offered is a perspective on how their data, and my data, integrate:
- From Time Management to Portfolio Management. The first of Linkedin’s five key skills for 2019 is time management, or the process of planning and managing organizing your time based on clear priorities. Good management of your time enables you to work smarter, not harder. But, freelancers have an additional challenge. Effective freelancers manage a portfolio of clients and assignments, and need to make choices not only about how and when to complete the work, but also what work and clients to take on from a more strategic perspective. Investopia describes portfolio management as “the art and science of making decisions about investment mix and policy, matching investments to objectives … and balancing risk against performance. Portfolio management is all about determining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats … in the attempt to maximize return at a given appetite for risk.” While the Investopia reflects investment choices, there is no more important investment than the choice of where and with whom a freelancer spends his or her time. For example, what amount of your time will be spent serving clients, and what is the maximum amount of time you will devote to any one client? How will you invest in building your brand, cultivating new client relationships, and expanding your skills?
- From Adaptability to Continuous Improvement; Future Skill Development. Adaptability is the second key skill mentioned by Linkedin, and might be defined as the ability to adjust to new conditions. As organizational needs and priorities change, flexibility and openness to change are important qualities. But the deeper requirement of adaptability for freelancers goes beyond flexibility; successful freelancers anticipate change requirements and identify and build the skills needed to deliver excellent performance today and tomorrow. As Upwork found in its study Freelancing in America, strong freelancers invest in skill-proofing their practice. As I wrote in my forbes.com blog (“Freelance Revolution”), a study by Adecco and BCG found that freelancers recognized the need to be more prepared for evolving technical skill requirements, and were more inclined to take the actions needed to skill-proof their careers than full-time employees.
- From Collaboration to Networking and Relationship Management. The third key “soft” skill identified by Linkedin was collaboration, the ability to work cooperatively and effectively with others to complete a task or achieve a goal. Collaboration is one of the most frequently identified competencies expected of organization members, but effective freelancers have an additional burden; their success depends on “360 degree” networking and relationship management. This means building and maintaining effective relationships with the freelance client managers who hire them (or have done so in past), client colleagues with whom they work now or with whom they’ve worked in past, other freelance colleagues who, as part of their support network, help and collaborate with them in staying up to date and keeping professionally sharp, and the staff of online marketplaces on whom they depend for freelance opportunity and support. Capable freelancers need to view these relationship categories as a portfolio of critical relationships, and to invest wisely in these collaborations, for example, scheduling time to stay in touch with all categories of collaborators.
- From Persuasion to Project Execution Discipline. The fourth key skill Linkedin mentioned was persuasion, the ability to convince individuals to undertake a course of action. The cornerstone factor in persuasion is trust which is, in turn, a function of how well and consistently an individual sets and meets performance expectations. For successful freelancers, this is the result of strong project execution disciplines. Dan Schwabel, a contributer to forbes.com describes four execution disciplines: (a) focus – clear identification of what matters most, (b) leverage – how to best utilize the time and resources available to you, (c) engagement – building relationships with co-workers that broadly invests ownership and commitment, and (d) accountability – taking responsibility and ownership for the result, and for effective measurement.
- From Creativity to Innovation. Finally, Linkedin identified creativity as the fifth important soft skill. Creativity has been defined as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations. But creativity is only part of the equation; it lacks conclusion and impact. A better statement of skill requirement for freelancers is innovation, the product, service, or process outcome of creativity. Successful freelancers combine creativity with rigorous analysis and problem solving to convert great ideas into practical, innovative, solutions.
- Rigorous Self-Assessment and Self-Insight. One critical behavioral competency was missing from Linkedin’s list, a skill that underpins each of the others: rigorous self-assessment and self-insight. Socrates put it most elegantly in his philosophy: “The unexamined life is not worth living … The nearest way to glory is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.” The foundation of self-insight is, of course, self-assessment, a discipline that for freelancers in particular (but not only) should be dual focused, both inside/out (“Am I doing what I find value and satisfaction in doing?”) and outside/in(“What do others see as my strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and priorities for self-improvement?”). Successful freelancers regularly undertake a thoughtful review of their performance and prospects as would any entrepreneur / business owner, and set targets for change, assistance and improvement. There are many different methods but most reference some version of the S.W.O.T. analysis, a well-known approach to identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. However you go about it, effective self-assessment always involves the advice and perspective of others in whom you trust, as well as your own perspective on what’s going well and what needs to be done differently.