7 Competencies for Employability Success

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience

Professor Carol Dweck, American psychologist, Stanford University


Icon of a magnifying glass with an arrow intersecting it Learning Objectives

On completion of this chapter you should be able to:

  • Understand what soft skills are and why they are important.
  • Develop your understanding of some key competencies.
  • Practice the development skills listed under each competency.



Policymakers all agree, the future lies in lifelong learning. Yet, the challenge is how to make this a reality and ensure that institutions, resources, motivation and time are available to enable people to acquire the right skills at the right time. Lifelong learning and skills development tops the priority lists of all labour market policymakers around the world. They are extensively addressed in most recent international initiatives, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Jobs Strategy and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Future of Work Declaration. Increased focus is placed on the combination of working and learning, especially for young workers entering the labour market for the first time. Another key element is to better identify the types of skills that people should anticipate learning. Policy initiatives are focusing on better connecting business to educators, promoting the development of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills, and enhancing ‘soft skills’ which encompass human interaction capabilities and the ability to learn. This chapter is about these soft or transferable skills.


Soft Skills

Soft skills is a contested term, with other terms including traits, behavioural competencies, interpersonal skills or qualities, non-technical or non-domain skills, and personal characteristics or attributes (Al Asefer and Zainal Abidin, 2021). In this chapter, I will use both soft skills and competencies to refer to the same thing – the skills that are behavioural and non-technical or discipline specific. Soft skills such as empathy, curiosity, self-control, influencing, self-confidence, communication, etc. are critical in all aspects of life, including employment, and employers are now seeking graduates who have both academic qualifications and high levels of behavioural competencies (Succi and Canovi, 2020). Al Asefer and Zainal Abidin (2021) in their review of employer perspectives on graduates’ skills noted that universities must help develop these skills during a student’s program of study.


Clapperboard type icon with a forward facing arrow Watch our industry expert, Sean Tierney, talk about the importance of soft skills.


Universities prioritise discipline specific knowledge, and of course, historically, this has been why students have studied at university going back to the founding of the first true university in Bologna in 1088. For centuries universities were more of an association or a guild for learning the professions, such as law and theology. As universities developed, discipline specific research and study was the norm, integrating sciences and arts for comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge. Since the massification of higher education in the 1980s, graduate employability has come to the fore and now universities are teaching soft skills implicitly and explicitly in their curriculum. However, soft skills are often overlooked in this model, and are notoriously hard to teach due to the need for an individual’s deep introspection and continuous practice to develop these skills over time.


Competencies for Success

As part of my research, I have developed a ‘Competencies for Employability Success Framework’ (Fig. 7.1). This framework is based on a variety of sources including the scholarly literature, the World Economic Forum’s Future Jobs Report, and feedback from Flinders University’s industry partners. These competencies are not the tasks associated with particular jobs, they identify behaviours, that is how an individual does the job. The competencies are common across all roles, though some will be more important in some jobs than others. This competency framework has been designed to help individuals develop their soft skills for employability success across the life course.


Competencies for Employability Success Framework

Figure 7.1 ‘Competencies for Employability Success Framework’ © Michelle Gander, 2023. CC BY-NC 4.0


This framework provides a guide to the most valued behaviours but has not defined the level of these behaviours due to the diverse nature of employment. The most important aspect of this framework is that it gives individuals an ability to take control of their own development. Once an individual has reflected on their current expertise in each competency, individuals can then put in place activities to enhance areas that require development.


The framework will help individuals to:


  • Self-assess against each competency through a reflective approach (as discussed in Chapter 3).
  • Seek structured feedback from others on each of the competencies.
  • Create a development plan for action (as discussed n Chapter 6).
  • Identify and develop weaker behaviours to improve performance.
  • Identify ways to build upon and maximise existing strengths.


This next section will unpack some of the competencies that you currently may not be as aware of: a growth mindset, creativity and ideation, flexibility and agility, resilience and self-presentation.


Strategic Skills

Growth mindset

How do you achieve more in life? In study? In work? Professor Carol Dweck’s research showed that individuals who believe they can develop their talents, tend to achieve more than those who feel that their abilities are innate and fixed (Dweck, 2006). She coined the term ‘growth mindset’ and established a new field in organisational psychology. However, the scholarly research on the concept of growth mindset is more nuanced with some studies showing that a growth mindset is a positive predictor of academic success (Limeri et al., 2020) and that short growth mindset interventions can improve student performance (Yeager et al., 2019), whilst other research has shown that there is no correlation between growth mindset and academic achievement (Li and Bates, 2019).


However, those individuals with a growth mindset seem to see opportunities rather than obstacles, challenges to be overcome instead of unbreakable barriers. The quote at the start of this chapter points to research that says that everyone can change and grow through life, although of course not everyone can be good at everything. The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. An individual with a fixed mindset believes that people inherit qualities such as intelligence, talents and personal characteristics and that they are stable over the life course.


Growth mindset has been described in greater detail by Knell and O’Mara (2017, p. 10):


Your mindset is the characteristic way you face challenges and adversity: as opportunities to learn and grow, even from failure (a ‘growth’ or ‘incremental’ mindset), or by retreating to safety, and being wary of failure (a ‘fixed’ mindset). Mindsets manifest themselves in how you talk to yourself (‘I can’t do that, because …’ or ‘I’d like to try that, because …’), and in your behaviour (going forward to the challenge, with a determination to learn, or avoiding the challenge because of fears about the stigma of failure).


The impact of a growth versus fixed mindset can be seen from the following examples in Table 7.1.


Situation Fixed mindset Growth mindset
You receive a lower mark on an assignment than you were expecting


Gutted, I am so terrible at this subject, I may as well not try any harder as I’ll never improve


Bummer. What do I need to do to improve for the next assignment? I need to find out where I went wrong and what I can do differently


You get an unexpectedly high mark on an assignment


Yay! I am so clever


Yay! I worked really hard on this one, I’m glad it paid off


You start a new project or task


I hope this is going to be easy


Ooh, I hope this is interesting and I learn some new stuff


Table 7.1. Example growth versus fixed mindset situational responses


Interestingly, this fixed and growth mindset concept has been applied to organisations as well as to individuals. Some organisations believe that talent is innate which leads to a ‘culture of genius’ in which talent is worshipped and employees either have it or don’t. The consequences of that approach is that there is an emphasis on promoting individuals who are naturally gifted, leading to a competitive culture, selfish behavours, reluctance to share knowledge and information, an emphasis on personal achievement compared with collective growth. Organisations that foster a growth mindset or a ‘culture of development’ perform better than those with a fixed-mindset culture; they are better able to cope with challenges, change and adversity (Dweck et al., 2014).


How to hack your mindset

As highlighted in the Introductory section, there are activities that you can undertake to improve your mindset. It should be noted that people aren’t wholly one or the other, there is a continuum between fixed and growth mindsets.


Reflect on your own mindset. Consider how you currently approach challenges; use Table 7.1 as a prompt.


Review others’ successes. Who do you look up to? How did they achieve their success?


Seek feedback. As we’ve discussed in other chapters, it is always good to get feedback from others, as self-reflection is very difficult, and it helps you test your own inferences.


Learn something new. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.


Set goals. Showing self-efficacy, including goal setting has been shown to be a good determinant of success.


Creativity and Ideation

Innovation is a process with several steps: empathising, defining, ideating, developing, and testing. Ideation is a creative process that generates and develops something new and valuable, in business terms often a new or improved product or service. Ideation provides direction for innovation, as in a competitive marketplace the ability to innovate has immense value as it enables companies to differentiate their products and services. Creativity is a skill-based activity that can be learnt over time and uses both technical and soft skills.


You will already be familiar with some ideation processes, even though you may not know this is what you are doing! For example, do you brainstorm or map ideas for your assignments? If so, you are undertaking an ideation process. Creative ideation refers to the process of generating new and original ideas in response to often undefined problems – how can we differentiate our service from our competitors, or how can we take this product, change it, and gain more market share. In 1962 Newell et al. (Minai et al., 2021) proposed a set of unified criteria for an idea to be considered creative:


  • It must be both novel and useful.
  • It should require rejection of previously accepted ideas.
  • It should be the product of intense motivation and persistence.
  • It should emerge through clarifying a problem that was previously vague.


To understand what innovation looks like in practice, we now look at two case studies.


Icon with a magnifying glass over the words case study Case Study #1 Innovation at NZHIA

Hemp is one of the fastest growing plants and has been used for its fibre for 50,000 years. Historically is has been used for paper, rope, textiles, clothing, food, insulation, and animal feed (and other consumable products as well!)

In 2021, the New Zealand Hemp Industries Association (NZHIA), a non-profit organisation that supports the growth and development of all aspects of New Zealand’s hemp industry, partnered with Webtools Agritech, a leading provider of agriculture consulting services.

Together, they set out to discover new uses for hemp, develop new hemp products, and identify innovative ways to produce, process, and manufacture hemp. They did this through launching a nationwide challenge that brought together researchers, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and other parties to contribute and collaborate on ideas. The challenge received 391 submissions, and from those 391, 31 were turned into transformational innovations, ranging from nappies to high-end dog treats, to eco-friendly homes.

Icon with a magnifying glass over the words case study Case Study #2 – Innovation at Lululemon and Strava

Lululemon is a yoga-inspired, technical athletic apparel company. Strava is a digital platform that records all types of exercise/activity and provides a community of like-minded individuals. In 2019, Lululemon sought to create a digital transformational experience that benefited people’s physical and mental wellbeing, so they partnered with Strava to inspire a global community as well as reach new customers. They built a Lululemon community on the platform, inspiring hundreds of thousands of athletes through global challenges. Lululemon reported a 10-fold return on investment and 220,000 participants in the first year.


How to hack your creativity

Increase your good mood. Creativity seems to be high when a particular region in your brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), is switched on. What switches on the ACC? A good mood. However, the opposite is also true, if you’re in a bad mood our brain returns to a logical, tried and tested option. So, to increase your creativity try regular exercise, a good night’s sleep and mindfulness practice.


Allow time for slow-time. With the constant ability to distract our brains, what we really need to enhance creativity is to allow our mind to wander in what I like to term slow-time. Deadlines can be stressors, and people can be stressors; to hack our creativity we need to build time into our day that allows for solitude and daydreaming.


Set limits. Studies have shown that some limitations can enhance creativity – sometimes a blank page is too much so having a framework to work within can help creative thinking.


Operating skills

Flexibility and agility

As the workplace continues to evolve, organisations have come to realise that agility and flexibility are the keys to their future success. Workforce agility is a business strategy prioritising employees’ flexibility, responsiveness, and adaptability. These two terms are often used interchangeably, so what do we mean by them? Let’s use the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary definitions:


  • Flexible: capable of bending or being bent; easily changed; willing to change or to try different things.
  • Agile: able to move quickly and easily; quick, smart, and clever.


So, when an organisation’s workforce is flexible in the business environment, it is considered agile. The need to be adaptive has many drivers, such as from changes in the market, technological advancements, or unexpected events (the pandemic being a good example). Being agile has many advantages such as:


  • Increased flexibility to better cope with business conditions and market demands.
  • Responsiveness to unexpected events.
  • Boosting of innovation and creativity (there it is again, creativity and innovation).
  • Improvements in collaboration and teamwork.
  • Increased employee satisfaction.
  • Improvements to the company’s ability to meet diverse customer needs and markets.


We’ve discussed the benefits of agility for organisations, how about for individuals in the workplace? Individuals can benefit from adopting an agile mindset by thinking about the following items.


Your Reaction. None of us work in isolation, and our workplaces are complex and constantly changing. How you react to these external inputs will affect how you respond; this is an especially important issue when things go wrong. We can react emotionally, in fact we can’t help it, but we can respond more logically.


Your Response. A flexible individual knows when it is time to let go of the past and make changes. As the author Stephen King said ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’. In the workplace this means you don’t hold on to your old ideas, plans, or strategies if feedback is that they are now not appropriate in the changed environment.


Your Strategy. The above takes a lot of hard work and adjustment, which is why individuals who are flexible and agile are so valuable to their organisations. It is a constant back-and-forth between your current ways of working and responding to the external environment cues to develop new strategies and new ideas.


Individual Skills


Resilience, what is it and can we improve it? Resilience is the ability to adapt to difficult situations and individual resilience combines our psychological traits, external factors, and our learned behaviour (Pemberton, 2015). Our ability to bounce back from life’s obstacles is, without a doubt, an essential aspect of resilience. For example, when some form of trauma strikes, we all respond in normal ways such as being upset, or angry, or in pain, etc. but resilience allows us to keep functioning. Resilience is not about putting up with something or figuring it out on your own; in fact, asking for support is part of being resilient (Neenan, 2018).


Resilience has been shown to be a learned trait. Findings from Robertson et al. (2015), indicated that resilience training can improve personal resilience and is a useful means of developing good mental health and subjective wellbeing in employees; resilience training had several wider benefits including enhanced psychosocial functioning and improved work performance.


Icon with a magnifying glass over the words case study Case Study #3 Resilience

A manager working in a high pressure environment had to deal with over 200 emails a day and wanted to learn ‘greater email efficiency’ in order to reduce the times she felt anxious and overwhelmed by this onslaught (‘It’s doing my head in’, i.e. perceived loss of control). When she thought like this, she avoided her emails which then added to the backlog.

This person showed resilience by reaching out to a coach and asking for help. Help, for example,  through devising an email classification system and brief criteria for choosing each category, as well as increasing the time spent on her emails by taking it from other areas.

These measures restored her self-confidence, her anxiety and avoidance dropped sharply: ‘I’m controlling the flow of emails now rather than me believing they’re driving me round the bend!’ Additionally, future resilience is built in as resilience is a learned behaviour (Adapted from Neenan, 2018).


The benefit of having resilience is that when some setback or challenge occurs – and it will – you have the psychological tools to cope and bounce back. Dependent on the severity of the challenge, you might not bounce back unchanged, but bounce back you will. However, if you lack resilience, and you don’t have coping mechanisms you can call on, you become overwhelmed by your emotions. There’s one or two things we can guarantee in life and suffering a few horrible events is inevitable, such as the serious illness or death of a loved one. I’ve led a pretty regular life and I’ve had several impactful events – the death of my father when I was 15, being made redundant at 28, and losing my mother to dementia, but life, as they, goes on.


How to improve your resilience

Resilience then is the ability to adapt to difficult situations and protect yourself from serious mental health conditions. If you’d like to become more resilient, consider the following tips.


Take care of yourself. Research has shown that people who take care of their physical wellbeing through healthy eating, exercise, good sleep and some form of meditation for example, show positive mental health outcomes (Wickham et al., 2020). It has also been shown that a small network of good social connections and strong relationships is also vital for good mental health (Umberson and Karas, 2010).


Be proactive. Don’t put your head in the sand and ignore your problems. Figure out what needs to be done, make a plan, and take action; reach out to your family and friends.


Learn from experience. Think of how you’ve coped with hardships in the past. Consider the skills and strategies that helped you through difficult times.


Journal. Writing about past experiences helps you identify positive and negative behavioural patterns and guides your future behaviours, it has been shown to be one way to manage good mental health (Sohal et al., 2022).


Organisational Skills


Self-presentation in this context, means aspects of your personal brand, which we discussed in Chapter 4, but also other aspects of confidence. For example, are you confident in your interactions with strangers in your current professional situation? Are you confident in introducing yourself? Of presenting formally? Of taking a phone call at work?


Clapperboard type icon with a forward facing arrow Watch our industry expert, Sean Tierney, discuss the need for self-confidence.


Self-presentation is any behaviour or action made with the intention to influence how other people see you and/or your organisation. We generally want to present ourselves as favourably as possible so that the other person has a good perception of us or the organisation we’re representing.


In order to achieve this, it often requires that we behave a certain way and match our behaviour to the circumstances which can help us connect to others, develop a sense of belonging, and attune to the needs and feelings of others.


Icon with a magnifying glass over the words case study Case Study #4 Self-presentation

Michael is a new manager. At his first team meeting, someone makes a joke that he doesn’t quite get. When everyone else laughs, he smiles, even though he’s not sure why.

By laughing along with the joke, Michael is trying to fit in and appear ‘in the know.’ Perhaps more importantly, he avoids feeling (or at least appearing) left out, humourless, or revealing that he didn’t get it, which may hurt his confidence and how he interacts with the group in the future.


You will find yourself in many situations where you have to introduce yourself, so knowing what to say and confidently is important. Maybe it’s at a job interview, for a presentation, or meeting someone at a networking event. You often have to introduce yourself by email to people you don’t know, and the suggestions below apply to this written form as well.


Firstly, you should summarise your professional standing:


Hi, my name is Michelle, and I am an Associate Professor in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University.


Secondly, very briefly explain your experience, which is why you’re there:


I have over 20 years of experience researching organisational careers.


Thirdly, try and end by leading into the contest of the meeting:


If you have any questions about graduate employability, please do reach out and we can discuss this further.


The other’s perspective

As we noted when we were discussing personal brand, people will have sub-conscious expectations of you dependent on the situation. These expectations may be based on cultural, societal, professional, and organisational norms, such as that business people are expected to look smart. Again, as we noted previously, you can push back against these expectations, but a severe mismatch can lead to cognitive dissonance, where individuals come into contact with something – whether an idea, person, or belief – that causes them to question their own internal beliefs and values. In a work situation this may result in people, at best not listening, or at worst just leaving. To note, this is particularly important if you want to say something difficult or controversial.


How to improve your self-presentation skills

In most circumstances you’ll find yourselves in, this list of tips will allow for a confident and considered interaction:


  • Know your subject and audience.
  • Speak clearly and concisely.
  • Use open, friendly language.
  • Keep it engaging.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Be yourself.


In Summary

You might be more focused on developing your technical or discipline skills right now if you are currently a student, but I cannot emphasise enough how critical soft skills are in the workplace. Try and take as many opportunities as you can to develop some of the competencies that you feel are not your natural strengths; as I note above practice really does make perfect.


Icon showing bullet points with a key above it Key Takeaways

Type your key takeaways here.

  • Soft skills are as important as your technical/discipline skills.
  • Take time to reflect on the Competencies for Employability Success Framework.
  • Develop a plan to improve your weaknesses.
  • Soft skills can be improved through practice.



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  2. Li, Y. and Bates, T. C. (2019). You can’t change your basic ability, but you work at things, and that’s how we get hard things done: testing the role of growth mindset on response to setbacks, educational attainment, and cognitive ability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(9): 1640–1655. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000669.
  3. Limeri, L. B., Carter, N. T., Choe, J., Harper, H. G., Martin, H. R., Benton, A. and Dolan, E. L. (2020). Growing a growth mindset: characterizing how and why undergraduate students’ mindsets change. International Journal of STEM Ed, 7(35). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-020-00227-2.
  4. Knell, L. and O’Mara, S. (2017). Changing mindsets in organizations, one brain at a time. Developing Leaders, 26. https://developingleadersquarterly.com/dlq-issue-026.
  5. Dweck, C., Murphy, M. Chatman, J. and Kray, L. (2014). Why Fostering a Growth Mindset in Organizations Matters. Senn Delaney. file:///Users/gand0043/Downloads/new-study-findings-why-fostering-a-growth-mindset-in.pdf.
  6. Neenan, M. (2018). Resilience coaching. Coaching for Rational Living: Theory, Techniques and Applications, Springer.
  7. Minai A. A., Doboli, S., Iyer, L.R.  et al. (2021). Models of creativity and ideation: an overview. In: S. Doboli, J. B. Kenworthy, A. A. Minai, P. B. Paulus, (Eds.) Creativity and Innovation. Understanding Complex Systems. Springer, Cham (pp. 21 –45). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77198-0_2.
  8. Pemberton, C. (2015). Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches. McGraw-Hill Education.
  9. Robertson, I. T., Cooper, C. L., Sarkar, M. and Curran, T. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: a systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 88(3), pp.533–562.
  10. Sohal, M., Singh, P., Dhillon, B. S. and Gill, H. S. (2022). Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Family Medicine and Community Health, 10(1): e001154. https://doi.org/10.1136/fmch-2021-001154.
  11. Succi, C. and Canovi, M. (2020). Soft skills to enhance graduate employability: comparing students and employers’ perceptions. Studies in Higher Education, 45(9): 1834–1847.
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  13. Wickham, S. R., Amarasekara, N. A., Bartonicek, A. and Conner, T. S. (2020). The big three health behaviors and mental health and well-being among young adults: a cross-sectional investigation of sleep, exercise, and diet. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.579205.
  14. Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M. et al. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573: 364–369. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y.


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