At the recent Devex Career Fair in Nairobi, several recruiters and human resource leaders stressed the importance of soft skills in succeeding as a global development professional. While there are many soft skills that can be useful -- and it often depends on the role -- here are five universal soft skills every global development professional should strive to have along with how to communicate them to a prospective employer.
Aid work is anything but predictable: a natural disaster strikes, a political conflict breaks out, a donor shifts its funding priorities. A development worker needs to be prepared to change focus quickly and effectively. The ability to roll with the punches and correct course to align with shifting needs on the ground is a valuable trait in development employees.
How to get this across to an employer: Give an example in your cover letter that not only shows your technical expertise or managerial prowess but also demonstrates how you were able to quickly respond to changing needs or priorities. Also, recruiters take cues throughout the interview process. So try to be flexible about when and how you interview. If you appear too rigid, it will serve as a red flag to prospective employers.
Being a valuable employee means knowing your value. Being aware of your strengths and weakness will help you prioritize when you take the lead and when you delegate or seek inputs from others. It will also help you grow in areas that need improvement and guide your career in a direction that will allow you to provide the most impact.
How to get this across to an employer: Start by applying to jobs for which you are truly qualified for and submitting applications that highlight why you would bring value to this specific role. When you are networking or interviewing, know what it is you want to do and what you bring to the table and be able to communicate this clearly. Nothing turns off an employer more than a candidate not knowing what they want to do or what they can offer an organization.
3. Cross-cultural understanding and communication
Many people include some form of this on their resume, as it seems like a given to working in an international career. But few people actually demonstrate how they have this skill. Working well with other cultures requires understanding and respecting their history, politics, religion and customs. It means adjusting your etiquette, meeting style and communication tactics and picking up on all of the nuances that can make working in one culture so vastly different from another. It also means having a healthy dose of humility.
How to get this across to an employer: The importance of understanding the culture in which you work is why employers often highly value previous experience in a speciic country or region. Beyond just stating experience working in the same country, describe how you adapted your style to the local norms and be specific about what this entailed. Perhaps you adopted a more formal tone in emails, learned to provide feedback privately or found out that to negotiate sometimes meant drawing a hard line and walking away. Don't just say you understand a culture, but describe how you adjusted your style to fit it.
4. Customer service
Technical expertise and advanced degrees are often important to a global development career, but many people overlook the practical and equally important skill of customer service. The customer can be your donor, internal colleagues and departments, governments or NGOs you work alongside or the communities you serve. Being service-oriented in your work can mean the difference in gaining additional funding from a donor, getting a government to cooperate with your initiative or actually serving the needs of a beneficiary. It can also gain the respect and trust of those you work alongside.
How to get this across to an employer: Many professionals leave off retail or service-oriented jobs from their resume. If you are a seasoned professional with experience in the development sector, that is probably the best approach. However, if you are starting out in a global development career, don't be so quick to dismiss this experience as irrelevant. Many recruiters I talk to say they value service experience as much -- and in some cases more -- than those coveted internships everyone is quick to fill their resume with. In either case, highlighting your service-oriented approach to development is never a bad strategy.
The reality is that aid workers are often sent to the field with small budgets, lofty deliverables and varying levels of support from their home office, donor or host country governments. Doing a lot with little -- be it money, guidance or support -- is a common challenge in international development work. Something as simple as a failing internet connection can interfere greatly with program goals if you aren't able to work around them.
How to get it across to an employer: One way to demonstrate your resourcefulness is to be well educated on the employer before you interview. Asking questions that could easily be answered by perusing their website is not a good tactic for demonstrating you are resourceful. Also, highlight accomplishments you made despite the odds. For example, talk about the training you successfully delivered in the midst of a power outage or how you opened up a field office in a conflict zone with minimal infrastructure.
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