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Top 3 Evergreen Soft Skills for Product Management Success Today

You've become a Product Manager because you have a high-demand skill that you sell to your clients.  They need your expertise and you need their business.  But as most high-demand freelancers have learned, it's not what you do, but how you do it. Here are the top soft skills that Freelancers need to master today.

What are Soft Skills Anyway?

Soft skills are applicable to all Product Manager types alike.  These are the things that are not attributable to any particular knowledge-specific required task.  Your "hard" skills are those that require you to know Swift or project management techniques.  Soft skills are really anything that's left over that you have that's part of what you're using to get the job done.

Google search by keyword: "soft skills"

Google has a soft skills as:

"personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people."

I have to say, I really love Google's definition.  The key things about soft skills is the ability to be:

  • effective
  • work harmoniously with other people

As you could imagine, these are very very important to acquiring clients, winning clients over for projects, managing client expectations, maintaining client delight and future projects to come.

There are a great number of soft skills out there, but as a freelancer, what are the crucial soft skills needed to succeed?


1. Mediation

Mediation or conflict resolution skills are absolutely critical in being able to work with anyone really.  As much as we like to think that everything is hunky-dory all the time and that we work with amazing, responsible and easy-going people, we are bound to bump into someone that rubs us the wrong way or vice versa.

Typical situations that you Freelancers come into conflict:

  1. Budget
  2. Schedule / Time-constraints
  3. Quality of work
  4. Managing scope creep
  5. Managing sub-contractors

These are just to name a few.   How many "conflicts" to deal with in a day or any given project?

There are no easy ways to build soft skills.  Unlike hard knowledge where taking class and tests can ensure a working-level competency for that skill, soft skills are things you learn over time.  There are less real ways out there that actually teaches you this skill.

So, what you'll have to do is to put it in practice today and practice it daily.  Luckily, you're freelancing work and meetings you have give you the best opportunity to learn and grow.


Mediation: Starting With A Perception Shift

The first mindset shift to have about conflict is that it is a healthy part of any relationship be it personal or business.  We are all individuals and along the way we are going to have disagreements with free-thinking opinions.  Also, on any given project there are always the three horseman of constraints: schedule, budget and quality.  In tough situations, all would suffer and in the best of teams, there are tradeoffs due to limited resources.

It's healthy and inevitable that conflict arise in a freelance project.  Take it in stride and know that working through it is part of being an consultant.


Mediation: Look Within

In this white paper, another way to approach mediated outcomes is to first look within yourself.  The reason for conflict is having differences in the same moment with someone, but it's so important to understand yourself to know what it is exactly about your opinion, values, motivations that differ from others.

So look within first and ask yourself 'Why'?  Why do you have these opinions or values?

The 'why' helps you do two most important things.  You can first see if it's even valid in the first place.  If it's and you're just arguing your point without the meaning then that's an easy win and you can just drop it.  Secondly, if you know what it is and you have a better grasp of the details, you can communicate it that much better to the team, to your clients.  That stands a higher chance of having empathy for what you feel from the other party.


Mediation in Action: Staying Balanced

Perhaps it's not coincidence that mediation is just a few letters removed from the word meditation.  Maybe they come from a similar group of root words, but I find it interesting that both involve very similar processes in order to carry out.

Like meditation, staying balanced by being both alert to internal and external forces.  You're being in the moment with your feelings, while being cognizant of the situation around you.

The key rules on how to manage conflict is better used when talking about what NOT to do.  This technique is called 'inverting' and is used by some of the most famous and wise business people.

  1. Feeling stressed out
  2. Anticipating lose-lose situations
  3. Saying hurtful comments
  4. Avoiding the conflict altogether

To be good at conflict resolution and be a great mediator, imagine you're a dog (bear with me for one moment).  A dog that's well-trained is calm while sitting at alert.  He's not barking or avoiding you or avoiding eye contact.  He's well socialized and for anyone that has had a dog before knows this is the sign of a well-socialized dog.

I thought this was a good image to imprint on you -- that conflict resolution is about being calm and not reacting ato the situation but instead gives the opportunity for you to "sniff" out the situation for a resolution and a path forward.

Last thing to remember is that no one wins every argument -- for that you'll have to be on a desert island without any humans or animals to content with.


2. (Self-)Motivation

Motivation is something internal that comes from our source inside.  Sometimes external motivation works too, but it has less clout and needs more repetition.

Motivation is really the source of our 'why'.  Why do we do what we do -- what meaning does it provide us?  If we're able to answer that, this soft skill's benefits will come through on any job, any project you work on a freelancer.

It's important to STAY self-motivated.  I think we all understand the concept of motivation, but it's a much harder and abstract concept to BE motivated.  As a Freelancer, we have additional issues with sustaining the state of motivation because we have a lot riding on our shoulders and the buck stops with us.

The responsibilities that comes with being responsible for the entire project can be overwhelming and we need to be motivated in order to push through tough/complex projects AND to be able to get new contracts going forward.


Motivation: Finding the Why

Whether you're an employee, solopreneur, freelancer, consultant or entrepreneur, the fundamental core of motivation springs from understanding the answers to the questions 'Why'.

Why are you doing what you're doing?  Why did you chose to be a Freelancer?  Why did you chose to do this project?

Answering these questions helps you find out that external motivations like money are transitory.  Money comes and goes, but these soft skills are evergreen.  You can use them in your business or in life.

The 'why' questions help propel you think deeper about what you're driven by and why it makes you happy.  Sometimes the best answers from this exercise allows you answer the questions of why certain work or circumstances why it does NOT make you happy.

But as a Freelancer, you've probably answered some of the questions before you became one, but it's important to revisit from time to time to make sure you're on the right track.  It'll be good to jot these down in your notebook to refer back to from time to time.

Motivation is two-halves of a coin: positive attitude + initiative.


Motivation Part 1: Positive Attitude

Positive attitude for a freelancer can manifest best in the following ways: loving the work you do, knowing the value you can create for your clients, known the value your clients are creating for theirs.

Part of sustaining a positive attitude is through affirmations and self-awareness.  One of the best books on this is by Dr. Normal Vincent Peale who sold 5 million copies on The Power of Positive Thinking.

This subject matter can be a little cheesy, but think of these are just reminders.  Remind yourself yourself what you're good at, what you have and continue to grateful.  Adopting a sense of gratitude daily is another way to instill the discipline of positive attitude into your work and life.


Motivation B-Side: Taking Initiative

Let's use the principle of inversion to help us define what taking initiative means.  This is what NOT taking initiative looks like:

  • procrastinating
  • avoidance
  • sloth

It's a downward-spiral.  Not taking initiative really means that you letting things fester and is a not directly a cause of your issues as a freelancer.  Not taking initiative is really a symptom of a lack of motivation.

Why are you delaying and postponing the work?  Why are you avoiding it?  Why are you rather watching tv?

These come from a deeper reason and in order to attain self-motivation, it really requires an investigation of why you want to do something.  Sometimes you'll find the the pull of doing other activities is much higher than doing work.  In that case the work you do is going to suffer and perhaps a deeper question needs to be asked: 'why aren't you doing some other thing that pulls you more?'

A careful examine of this will help you determine what you want to do and why.  So ask yourself why and why not.  Simple as that.


3. Adaptability

Lastly -- adaptability. It seems rather obvious that one needs to be adaptable, but like most wise advice, it's often hidden in plain sight.  Adaptability is a soft skill that helps all the other soft skills by enhancing the ability to do the other tasks even more effectively.

In a face-paced world we live in, we are often working with more than just our core skills.  We, as Freelancers and Consultants, work on such diverse projects that we need to think on our feet.  But as freelancers, we also are far more likely to be a 1-person show than other other type of work and we have to be able to leave our comfort-zone in order to do the necessary work to have a fully functioning freelancing business.

It's also the soft skill that allows you to learn hard skills too which makes it the single most important skill of them all.


Adaptation: Adopting a Growth Mindset

We previously wrote about the one mindset for Freelancers that's important -- the growth-oriented mindset.  It was based on Stanford research on success and achievement.  In short, the growth mindset is one that is adopted to thinking that you can stretch, learn and adapt through growing your skills.  Your mindset is always as a student, a learner and one where you believe YOU can learn anything.

The limitations that you associate yourself with be it good traits or bad ones holds you back from being motivated to be adaptable.  The truth is that everyone can learn anything and hold that belief is the single most important lesson for being adaptable.


Survival of the Fittest - What Charles Darwin Observed

When I think about adaption, the word that conjures up for me is Charles Darwin.  Setting aside the theory of evolution, Mr. Darwin made an observation in animal ecosystems that I think is relevant to business and the soft skill of adaptation -- he said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Being able to roll with the punches, so to speak, is the freelancer that will continue to get work.  As a consultant, your primary job is to stretch yourself in new ways.  You would never be the expert of everything that you do, but if be confident in your ability to learn -- that's the attitude that will be the "strongest".


Adaptability: What's the Opposite of Fragile?

One of my favorite authors is Nassim Nicholas Taleb and is probably most famous for his Black Swan book.  A more recent book of his talks more in depth about systems that are able to respond to change by being stronger from challenges.  He approached this concept by asking the question, what is the opposite of fragile?

His conclusion was that there was no appropriate english terms that perfectly conveyed the concept of something that could not only be resilient in the face of mounting odds, but that would actually grow from it and become even stronger.  He the wrote a book about it.

His larger point in Antifragile, is really a way to think about how to build a system around adaptation.  The system to do that may be having multiple sources of income as a freelancer, so that a hit to one contract will not affect your livelihood too much.  In his examples of how to be antifragile, he points to the way nature has created systems to ensure responses to change have been accounted for.

One example he gives of how nature is antifragile is a having redundancies.  In the case of a tree which requires sunlight as sustenance, the tree has multiple branches so that losing on branch would not cause a fatal blow to the tree.  Similarly, our bodies have redundancies and how we have two kidneys.

So being adaptable requires good planning; where you anticipate the inevitability of change and build in a system to to prepare for it.