Professional skills: 6 to focus on in 2020

Professional skills: 6 to focus on in 2020

Nigel Wright’s annual UK and European salary surveys reveal that, during the last five years, the requirement for professional knowledge has declined in value as a prerequisite for a successful career. Instead, professional skills such as resilience, communication, flexibility, adaptability and self-sufficiency are more prominently featured.

As such, we decided to investigate professional skills trends to discover what’s in demand by employers in 2020.


Professional skills are important

Professional skills can’t be taught. Sometimes they’re intuitive, but most often they’re refined through experience. Regardless of your profession, however, developing professional skills is an essential part of your working life, right up until retirement. Often referred to as intangible or ‘soft’ skills, they can add significant value to your employer, as well as your personal brand.

However, with combinations of professional skills being a qualification for most jobs, they’re often not included in job descriptions. Therefore, its important to monitor professional skills trends and see which areas you need to brush up on, to bolster your career trajectory.

Luckily, there’s plenty of resources available which reveal what the most in-demand professional skills are, and provide examples of how to hone these skills, by adopting certain behaviours. 


The trends and where to look

LinkedIn is, of course, an excellent resource for networking and career development. The site also has a recruitment portal, where companies post thousands of jobs every day, outlining desired skills and capabilities across every conceivable discipline. Its latest ‘Top Skills’ list collates this data and highlights those skills most in demand for 2020. Very much like our own research, it’s professional skills that feature highly. Creativity, Persuasion, Collaboration, Adaptability and Time Management are the five core professional skills job seekers are advised to master during the next 12 months.

In its 2018 ‘The Future of Jobs Report,’ The World Economic Forum (WEF) also recently outlined ten professional skills that it says will be prerequisite to succeed in many professions by 2020. Creativity is featured again, alongside Critical thinking, People management, Coordinating with others, Emotional intelligence, Judgement and decision making, Service orientation, Negotiation and Cognitive flexibility. 

In both reports, the ‘growing prominence’ of professional skills is a result of improvements in AI and robotics, making some traditional functions obsolete. The argument is that by enhancing your competency in these distinctly ‘human’ attributes, you will remain attractive to employers. Though, while the WEF urges you to make ‘2020 your human year,’ LinkedIn’s advice is more pragmatic, suggesting strengthening professional skills is always an astute career move, as ‘they never go out of style. 

Taking the findings of these two reports, as well as our own research and that of comparable and complementary traits, we have created a definitive list of six desirable professional skills. Below, we review each one and discuss associated qualities which can further strengthen your ability to excel in these areas.



Creativity is the skill to master, but what does it mean? The WEF posits four types of work integral to any profession: Creative, Skilled, Rote, Robotic. They argue that ‘creative work’ is the most valuable of the four. Any professional, it states, can offer ‘creative’ solutions that can give employers the edge in a competitive market, regardless of the specifics of their job.

How then, do you become creative? Well, generating ideas is one obvious way. Often people write down any idea that comes into their head or set themselves targets to conceive a certain number of ideas each day or week. Some commentators denounce organisations that don’t encourage idea generation as part of their regular activities. And it’s true that organisations of the future need ‘ideas’ people to navigate the changing and increasingly competitive landscape.

Innovation is a way to achieve winning outcomes from idea generation. This requires taking a set of ideas and formulating an original concept or solution. It can take practice and a process of trial and error to become truly original or innovative, but, again, refining this skill will make you a critical asset to any company.  

Analytical thinking is also a more specialised skill linked to the creative mindset. While anyone one can make suggestions and improvements ‘off the top of their head,’ analytical thinking requires a period of study first – researching and analysing information and using your findings to address work-related issues and problems.

Furthermore, creative people are usually those that show initiative, by demonstrating a willingness to take on responsibilities and challenges.


‘But aren’t certain types of people better suited to leadership roles?’ you may ask. Well, according to our research, anyone seeking to improve their arsenal of professional skills would do well to develop some leadership traits.

When investigating professional skills trends, the concept of strong leadership is now much broader than ‘people management' or ‘running a team.’ Yes, some studies argue that these things are still important. A temperament for conflict resolution, motivating, mentoring, coaching, improving processes or taking ownership of delivering team outcomes, is critical for any business – and in demand. However, there are other behaviours you can master which demonstrate ‘leadership’ regardless of your position or responsibilities within an organisation.

Neither LinkedIn nor the WEF list ‘Leadership’ in their professional skills reports. However, WEF does include People Management on its list, and also highlights Negotiation, Judgement, Decision Making, and Social Influence as being integral to future employability. LinkedIn too includes Persuasion and Collaboration in its ‘Top Skills’ list. Alongside Negotiation, Judgement, Decision Making and Social Influence, if improved upon, these professional skills will contribute to a rounded leadership profile.

Culture can help people develop leadership skills. Within organisations that practice ‘open leadership,’ for example, decision making is democratised and pushed down to the lowest levels. At Accolade Wines, for instance, things move at pace when employees take ownership of decision making, without fear of repercussions.

Some even argue that all professional skills are in fact leadership skills, and to label them otherwise confuses our ‘perception and understanding’ of what leadership means.  

Emotional Intelligence

While not included in Linkedin’s top professional skills report, our research has flagged emotional intelligence and its associated attributes as being important for today’s job seekers.

Emotional intelligence is included in WEF’s research as a key ‘human’ skill which will only grow in prominence during the next few years. The report states that emotional intelligence means showing sensitivity to others' needs and feelings. A helpful, pleasant, cooperative and good-natured demeanour at work is also encouraged. While some may think these are personality-dependent qualities, the WEF states everyone can emphasise innate human characterises like these in the workplace.

Often referred to as Interpersonal Skills, work environments which encourage these traits, benefit from high engagement, interaction and a sense of shared responsibility, as employees unite to achieve common goals. Cultural awareness plays a key part here too. Diversity and inclusion remain priorities for HR departments, and as organisations become more diverse and inclusive, the greater role cultural awareness will play in ensuring organisational effectiveness.

Research also points towards the importance of being perceptive to others’ emotions and needs. People who demonstrate a high degree of perceptiveness will relate well to others, understand why they behave in certain ways, and respond accordingly. Making connections is important for your growth. And anyone – regardless of whether they’re an introvert or extrovert – can connect with people in a meaningful way.

Another component of Emotional Intelligence is self-awareness. Those who lack self-awareness often end up in careers they hate. Self-awareness can also diminish over time, as people lose sight of their strengths and preferences. A good way to improve self-awareness is to proactively seek and act upon feedback and let it influence your personal development.


Being an ‘Excellent communicator’ has remained one of the top three professional skills to have for the last five years, according to respondents to our annual salary survey. Any company in any profession benefits from employing strong communicators. Whether they’re experts in written, verbal, or nonverbal communication, the impact across sales, marketing or operations disciplines is always clear.

However, expertise in these areas isn’t necessary to contribute from a communications perspective. The WEF, for example, discuss the importance of ‘Service Orientation’ as a desirable professional skill in today’s business world. Those who actively seek ways to help people, it says, are always effective communicators who speak up during meetings and share information with colleagues.

Specialised elements of communication, though, are valuable. Whether that’s giving presentations, writing reports, tenders, copy or speeches; or briefing suppliers, clients and other teams – these are all professional skills you can invest in and improve over time.


LinkedIn describes adaptability as an ‘essential tool’ in today’s ever-changing world. In many ways, this professional skill is similar to emotional intelligence, as it requires you to understand different perspectives and adjust your activities and actions accordingly.

Certainly, according to respondents to Nigel Wright’s annual salary survey, Adaptability and Flexibility are the two main professional skills they associate with a successful career.

Likewise, the WEF refers to Cognitive Flexibility, Resilience and Stress Tolerance in its ‘The Future of Jobs’ report and suggests various behaviours worth adopting at work. They include maintaining composure, keeping your emotions in check and controlling anger.

With regards to Stress Tolerance, it advises employees to learn to accept criticism and practice dealing calmly with difficult situations. ‘Coping well under pressure’ is something respondents to Nigel Wright’s annual salary survey say is a critical ‘soft skill’ to develop over time.

Cognitive Flexibility also means tailoring your communication style. Whether that’s when addressing customers, your team or people at different levels in an organisation, demonstrating a degree of customization in your approach is valued by today’s employers.


Time management

Time Management is perhaps a surprising inclusion in Linkedin’s Top Professional Skills list. Surely, there are more important skills, you may ask? Well, according to LinkedIn, once mastered, this will actually accelerate your development in other areas.

The driver behind rising demand for time conscious employees is the many distractions that now exist in modern workplaces. Open plan offices, emails, phones, social media, etc. – a combination of these factors, evidence suggests, prevents ‘meaningful work’ and productive meetings from taking place, which can impact the bottom line.

The WEF, too, highlight the importance of ‘Focus’ in the panorama of future skills. With roles becoming more multifaceted, completing a variety of tasks and attending several meetings per day is the norm, and requires exceptional organisational skills and time management to avoid delays. It suggests practicing note taking, speed reading and reading intelligently, to improve your focus.

Collaboration is a good business practice, but within these challenging parameters, cultivating a degree of self-sufficiency and independence can help you navigate your working life. Self-sufficiency and independence are in fact the professional skills that have experienced the largest increases in popularity in our annual salary surveys, during the last five years.   

By becoming more focused and a master of your time, your future employability will improve. According to the WEF, it will show you as reliable, responsible, and dependable, and associate you with professional values like integrity and honesty.

Final thoughts

Integrating all or some of these professional skills on CVs, cover letters and online profiles, is highly recommended. Try to find examples of how you have demonstrated these skills in your personal and professional life.

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