Are your soft skills holding you back from a promotion?

By Colby Jones on March 10, 2018

I have lost count of how many times I’ve had the ‘why am I not being promoted’ conversation with people that I’ve managed and mentored. It’s an uncomfortable discussion but an important one.

And, it always seems to happen at the same time at an agency: when someone is a seasoned senior account executive (SAE) and striving to become an account manager (AM). The reason this conversation increases tenfold at this time is because all of a sudden, performance indicators become a lot more about how well the person handles situations, interacts with clients, directs junior staff, etc. and a lot less about how well they can write a case study or the results secured for a client’s latest announcement.

Entering the first layer of management requires focus on soft skill development. Soft skills are inherently harder to learn because they fall outside of the hard, job specific skills that have been learned over time. Soft skills are also dependent on a number of factors, all of which are rooted in emotion and the reactions of others.

For example, to develop the perfect media list, pitch or website, you need to acquire a set of skills in order to perform the task (understand the media, know what makes a good story or understand the development lifecycle, etc). You are taught these skills from the moment you are hired for an entry level communications job and refine and grow these skills over time.

But, to deliver bad news to a client or manage their expectations when things go sideways, you need to acquire a toolkit of skills based on a variety of different factors (past experience, advice from senior leaders, context of the problem, etc.) on top of managing emotions — yours and the clients.

Because there’s no one-size-fits all, right answer to soft skills, you need find a way to develop these skills that feels authentic to who you are. Your approach is ultimately based on a combination of your personality, maturity, experience and the way you process information.

That’s why you’ve been frustrated by someone telling you that you’re doing great but you just need more time in the role. What they mean is that you need more exposure to different situations and the maturity to handle what comes your way and anticipate the outcome. You are not being told this to keep you down but rather ease the transition to manager.

But does that mean you’re stuck doing the same thing until someone feels that you’re ready? No! There is plenty you can do to grow your soft skills and prove to your line manager and seniors that you’re ready for the next level.

Lean in to opportunities given to you

You need to be upfront with your manager about your growth and wanting to take on more responsibility. Remember how frustrating it is when your client assumes you’re a mind reader? The same applies to your line manager.

Typically, once your managers know that you are looking at the next level, opportunities will open up for you to be able to hone your soft skills. But, these opportunities may be subtle. It could be an extra pause before they jump in on a client question, or asking you to reply to an email that they typically would have. All too often, these opportunities go to waste due because the person doesn’t recognize that it’s an opportunity. It’s often perceived as more work on top of an already heavy workload.

Lean into these opportunities. Growth happens when we’re challenged and it’s going to be easy to go back to what you’re comfortable with as you take on new responsibilities. The output of your current workload has to get done, but it’s not what’s going to get you to the next level. Managing that workload on top of your new responsibilities is an opportunity. It allows you to properly delegate that work across the team to free you up to take on more manager-level activities.

In addition to taking advantage of what’s come to you, raise your hand to own new business pitches, client projects or company initiatives. This will show your team that you’re willing to help out and grow your skillset. But, be strategic about what you take on. Are you taking on tactical work? Or are you pushing yourself to focus on soft skills you still need to develop?

Be mindful of how you’re perceived

The AM role is one of the hardest roles at an agency for a number of reasons. What adds to its many challenges is reconciling that you now play a larger part in your agency. Once you become a manager, you are now a representative of the agency in a position of power. This means that what you say, even in passing, carries more weight.

If you’ve ‘grown up’ at your agency, you likely have close friends that will report to you or that you gossip with and talk to about work. You’ll need to navigate these friendships in light of your new role and it’s important to understand how you’re perceived by colleagues. Do they look up to you? Trust you? Do they think you are a gossiper? Is it obvious when you dislike someone?

Your reputation and how your colleagues perceive you are critical at this stage and become increasingly so as you move up the ranks. Use this time to work on how others perceive you and recognize where your behavior needs to change.

Lastly, get out of your own way

You’ve mastered the SAE role, you’ve worked up the courage to talk to your manager about a promotion, you’re taking on new responsibilities. Don’t be your own worst enemy by being impatient. Have regular check-ins with your manager to better understand the timeline of your promotion. This will help you get a better idea of what you still needs to work on and help manage your expectations.