David Wray

CareerCommunicationLeadershipOpportunitiesPerformance ManagementSkills

Skills That Make-or-Break Careers

Credit: Terry LaBan

Skill gaps, what are they?

Every job embeds specific skills or attributes necessary to perform the role at the standard required for the employer. Similarly, we each believe we possess certain skills. Some of which we use in the job and others elsewhere in our lives. A skill gap is nothing more than a difference between what the job needs and what we actually have (as assessed by the employer). Herein lies the tricky part…how does one close a skill gap that we do not yet recognize or acknowledge?

Great question, it comes down to the unknown unknowns, or as some refer to it as “you don’t know what you don’t know”. 

There are several ways to identify these unknowns, but two approaches are particularly common:

  1. Someone close to you (and whom you trust) tells you what they observe – and let’s assume, for the purpose of this BLOG, that they do so because they care about your success.
  2. You recognize yourself that you don’t know something you need to know, in other words, you see the gap from a first-hand experience.

Great, now you know you don’t know something…. but what can you do to proactively develop the necessary critical skills? 

Hard skills versus soft skills

I deliberately set the stage with a provocative “soft skill” reference in the title. It is mind-boggling that so many people refer to them as soft skills, they are not. They are much better described as people skills or human skills, and these skills can be the trickiest to develop (there is nothing easy or soft about them). The term hard skill is also better described as technical skill, often the easiest of the two skill types to obtain. 

Careers are made and broken because of people skills by a margin much wider than technical skills. What do I mean by that? In many professions technical skills are crucial, let’s be honest who wants a surgeon that doesn’t know their anatomy? But people skills are often the difference that makes a difference because who wants a technically skilled surgeon they don’t trust to operate on them?  Trust comes from people skills; it is something earned through our ability to connect with other people.

So how and where do we get these technical and people skills? 

Technical skills are typically taught in university, college, or high school. There is typically a traditional learning path from basic through advanced, examples might be Accounting or English literacy programs. These types of skills are effectively teachable things that are well defined and measurable (meaning we can measure proficiency through examinations).

People skills, on the other hand, are rarely defined courses in university, college, or high school curriculums. This skill type typically comes through employment. Examples might include effective communication, teamwork, listening, or motivating others. People skills are those that collectively make us better leaders. As you would expect, these skills are harder to measure, less tangible, and are generally only accessible once a person reaches a certain job level.

Top six people skills

Why is all of this important?

In a nutshell, technically talented people lose their jobs every day because of poor people skills. This naturally leads us to wonder: Which important people skills do you need to ensure your career not only survives but thrives?

  1. Communication (up, down, and sideways)
  2. Lateral thinking
  3. Listening, truly listening
  4. Radiate confidence
  5. Getting to the point
  6. Reading the room

We could easily add to this list. For instance, some might say “ability to influence” is an important skill, and I agree it is, but I would say that falls under communication. Communicate well and you will be able to influence, persuade, negotiate or manage difficult conversations – it all comes down to mastery and confidence in communication skills.

Developing people skills

The good news is that I’ve covered some of these topics in other blogs including Communication: Struggling for the Right WordsRapport with Strangers is as Easy as With FamilyEffective Listening, a Priceless Skill, or Mojo Your Self-Confidence so I won’t repeat them here. This week I will cover getting to the point and will cover the other topics in future blogs.

Leaders most commonly cite getting to the point as a dominant communication weakness, which Scott Mautz observes in “Make it Matter”. What does clear and concise actually mean? At its most basic, it means one party’s intended message is received and understood by the other party. 

Sounds easy enough, but why is it so tough in reality? We live in a fully connected, always-on-world where information overload and distractions are rampant – attention spans are shrinking! We have mere seconds to connect, getting to the point takes centre stage.

Five Steps for Getting to the Point Skills

  1. Pre-define your objective in the interaction, discussion, presentation: Plan out specifically what you want to convey and how you are going to say it (no thinking on the fly…that tactic often leads to rambling which loses your audience). 
  2. Consider your audience needs: Tailor your message to the recipient. This is about them understanding, not about us showing how clever we are. Ruthlessly cut anything that doesn’t fit the intended point and outcome. Be attentive and adapt your message to the audience’s mood in the room so they hear it. For instance, a large customer delivery issue is distracting many. Consider how the timing of your delivery headcount reduction proposal might land given their current frame of mind. 
  3. Structure your thoughts into blocks: Organizing the message into chunks that listeners can understand, and follow is key. If they cannot follow our logic or flow, distraction sets in, and minds will wander as the audience struggles to understand the direction and purpose. Listening effectiveness has disappeared.
  4. Tell stories to give context: Relatable storytelling is a great way to effectively convey messages. Good examples that personally connect create rapport quickly. This, in turn, helps us achieve our goal because the audience wants to listen to us. Many years ago, when I “educated” non-finance company leaders about important finance concepts, I used a provocative opening line. It was: “my job today is to help ensure you don’t accidentally trade your tailored suit for an orange jumpsuit”. For those of you unfamiliar with an orange jumpsuit, it is a reference to prisoner attire. That opening line caused laughter, but it also created a captive audience from the outset. 
  5. Connect the dots: Tie up the discussion by ensuring that you link the objectives to the content and then the outcome. Answer the “so what” and “so what is next” questions. 

Your turn

With a few simple, yet thoughtful, steps our people skills improve after we add the ability to be clear and concise into our personal toolbox.

Sign in to the Community Member Section or comment below to share your views, tips, and tricks on how you develop the critical career skills you need.

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