Students often ask about the skills most critical for success. While there are certainly unique factors for specific jobs and companies, I hear very consistent themes from employers on this topic. The following five skills are critical for success in today’s job market.
- Ability to Communicate – To succeed in most jobs the employee must be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing. You can be very smart, you can have great ideas but if you can’t communicate, you risk being passed over for the next exciting project. Professional, business communication skills are still the expectation. Employers expect employees to write a clear, concise email or executive summary. Grammar, punctuation and spelling do matter. Increasingly employers are seeking candidates who can analyze large amounts of data and then share a concise, actionable summary with senior management.
- Work Effectively on a Team – The ability to effectively work as part of a team is critical to success in most organizations. That means sometimes being a leader, sometimes being a good follower, monitoring the progress, meeting deadlines and working with other across the organization to achieve a common goal. Employers want employees who can effectively work as part of a team, not as a lone contributor.
- Ability and Willingness to Learn – The world is changing, business is changing and the pace of change continues to accelerate. To succeed in most organizations you need to have a passion for learning and the ability to continue to grow and stretch your skills to adapt to the changing needs of the organization. Little demand for dinosaurs these days. Demonstrate your curiosity by learning more about the organization and how your work impacts other groups.
- Ability to Influence, Persuade and Negotiate – There are few jobs you can do in a vacuum. In most roles you need other people to do things so you can do your job. There are steps in the process before your area of responsibility and often steps after you do your part. Usually you do not have authority over those people. You need to have the skill to develop mutually beneficial relationships in the organization so you can influence and persuade people to do what you need them to do in turn ensuring you are delivering what they need. You need to be able to negotiate win-win solutions to serve the best interests of the company and the individuals involved. There is no room for the “blame game.”
- Ability to Analyze the Data – With increased computer skills, many employees can build spreadsheets and manipulate the data in various ways. What elevates an employee above the crowd is the ability to analyze the data. Don’t just total the columns, calculate an average and sort the data. What story does the data tell? What questions does it raise? Are there different ways to interpret the data? Instead of handing your boss a spreadsheet, give them a business summary and highlight the key areas for attention. Suggest possible next steps. Using the data to manage business decisions is a critical differentiator. These days there are times when there is too much data and knowing what is important and relevant data is a key skill. Employers have described what they are looking for as candidates who can go from “mining to meaning” and who are “analysts not reporters.”
These skills alone may not put you on a direct track to the corner office but, employees with these skills will definitely be more successful in their careers.
To succeed in your current job and to prepare yourself for future opportunities, it is critical to make networking and learning part of your normal routine. This will keep you relevant in your current position as you prepare for future opportunities. With a little practice and discipline, it is entirely possible. Don’t get so busy doing your job that you forget to invest in yourself and your future.
Even while you are successfully employed, networking it critical to your professional development and learning. Maintain the network you have and continue to build your professional network. Successful networking does not require large blocks of time, a few strategic minutes here and there makes a difference.
- Network within the company – learn what other departments do and how that influences your work, learn what skills enable people to advance in their careers, be interested and interesting, meet someone for coffee or schedule a lunch. Set goals to keep yourself focused on networking
- Leverage Linked In – keep your profile up to date, seek recommendations, post updates, review your skills list, use Linked In to find former managers to stay in touch for future references, find former colleagues and reconnect, identify alumni connections in key companies of interest, keep expanding your network
- Networking beyond your current employer – participate in relevant professional association meetings and conferences, learn best practices from others, build your network in companies of interest, identify people you can learn from
- Mentor – identify a professional mentor, gain insight from someone who will tell you the truth and help you learn and grow in your career. Consider mentoring someone junior in your field.
- Give Back – host informational interviews with people more junior in their careers who wish to learn from your experience, you may learn something too while you are helping them
- Set goals and hold yourself accountable so networking doesn’t fall to the bottom of your growing to do list
You need to be continuously learning to grow professionally. Be creative in identifying different ways to accomplish that.
- Internal Training – identify relevant internal training sessions, build your technical skills, managerial skills, learn something new, work with your manager to identify relevant training and make it a priority
- Professional Organizations – identify at least one relevant professional organization, attend meetings, meet other members, volunteer to work on a committee, get involved, your learn something from those you work with in these groups
- Professional Conferences – if budget allows, take advantage of these opportunities, learn from the sessions but also from other attendees, if budget doesn’t allow, review the presentations online after the conference, follow up with relevant presenters
- Take on New Projects – volunteer to work on a project or with a team that forces you outside your comfort zone, force yourself to learn something new, let your manager know the type of skills you seek to hone and look to identify a project assignment which is relevant, consider a cross functional project to expose you to other parts of the organization
- Read – stay current on relevant industry and business periodicals, read while waiting for meetings or while commuting if you take public transportation, always have something relevant to read in case you have unexpected down time, make it a habit to review the key publications on a regular basis, be well-informed
Investing a few minutes each week in your own networking and development will increase your satisfaction with your current position and will keep you relevant and growing for future opportunities.
Starting a new job is the perfect time to make a good impression. You want the employer to be confident that they made the right decision in hiring you for the position. The first hundred days in a new job can be one of the most critical times of your career. Here are some recommendations based on feedback from our employers.
- Be Punctual – This is a way to show you are serious about the job. You can worry about flexibility later after you have proven yourself. Always arrive a few minutes before starting time so you are ready and eager to begin your day. Managers notice when employees are not punctual. If something comes up and you need to ask for some time off, give as much advance notice as possible. Try to minimize the negative impact on your work deadlines and offer to make up the time if appropriate. Always be mindful of critical work deadlines.
- Show Respect – Honor the culture of the organization you have joined and respect those in authority as well as your peers. Put your cell phone on vibrate and avoid taking personal calls except in an emergency. Do not use company property for personal reasons – this includes the internet. Follow the company’s dress code. Take the lead from your manager. Don’t gossip or participate in the office rumor mill. Also show respect of their current processes and procedures. Don’t start out telling them their systems are antiquated and their processes don’t make sense. Learn the systems and processes first. Listen to why they do things the way they do. There may well be significant opportunities for improvement but you need to invest the time in understanding the status quo and earn some credibility before you start proposing changes.
- Open Communications – Identify your supervisor’s communications style and preferences and work to accommodate that style. Also identify the style and preferences for your colleagues. Discuss any concerns you have with your manager. Provide your supervisor with progress reports. Avoid surprises – such as a project not completed on deadline. Let them know in advance if there are issues. Keep your manager advised of any concerns that could impact results and deadlines. Set the pattern for open, frequent communications early. Ask for feedback regularly so you can fine tune your performance to ensure you are meeting or exceeding expectations.
- Ask Questions – Do not make assumptions. You are learning the company and the role. Ask questions to be sure you understand. Clarify requests to be sure you understand what you are being asked to do. Inquire how your work supports the department’s goals and the company’s objectives. It is not a sign of weakness to ask questions. Don’t waste time and energy doing the wrong things because you didn’t ask.
- Take Notes – Take notes so you don’t ask the same question again. Review your notes and apply what you have learned when faced with similar tasks or issues. Keep a record of your accomplishments – details of projects competed and impact on the organization, skills you developed or enhanced, knowledge you gained. They know you are new and you will need to ask questions as part of the learning process but they will quickly grow frustrated if you keep asking the same questions.
- Be Fully Engaged – If possible ask what you can do prior to your start date to learn more about the company, the team and the position. Do your homework researching the company, competitors, industry etc. Demonstrate your energy and enthusiasm. Remain positive. Show you are hungry for a challenge. Pay attention to both quality and timeliness of your work. Look for ways to exceed expectations.
- Identify Solutions not Problems – When you encounter problems, try to find possible solutions. Identify unmet business needs and ways you can help meet them. When identifying a problem, always offer at least one reasonable solution.
- Listen – Learn as much as you can by listening to others as they talk about the industry, the company and the department. Listen carefully to instructions for assignments and clarify as needed. Pay attention to deadlines, guidelines, and procedures. Always ask for feedback and think about how you can apply what you learned going forward. Seek continuous improvement.
- Earn the Challenging Assignments – Employers don’t give the most challenging project to the rookie in most cases. Demonstrate with your early assignments that they can count on you to deliver high quality and timely work and you will begin to earn more challenging assignments.
- Show initiative – Look for ways to exceed expectations. Identify unmet business needs and determine ways you can help. Offer to assist a busy colleague with a big project. Volunteer for a project that needs a home.
- Be Flexible and Adaptable – Accept all assignments cheerfully and give every assignment your best effort. Be open minded about new ideas, new procedures and different work. Anticipate change and embrace it.
- Curiosity – Ask open ended questions to demonstrate your interest. Offer ideas and suggestions for possible improvements. Seek opportunities to learn more about the company and the industry.
The manager hired you instead of all the other candidates because he/she believed you could make a difference on their team. Show them from day one that they made the right decision.
How you leave a job makes a lasting impression with those you worked for and with at the company. Since you will likely need a reference from that job at some point in the future, you want to leave on as positive a note as possible. It is also an amazingly small world these days and you could easily cross paths with those former colleagues in the future. Best policy is to NEVER burn any bridges.
How do you tell your manager and colleagues you are leaving?
- Be sure to tell your manager before telling anyone else. Give your manager the courtesy of letting him/her know first.
- Be honest without being overly negative or critical. Tell them a bit about the exciting new opportunity and what you will be doing. Give them highlights of what caused you to consider other alternatives.
- Once you have notified your manager, submit an official resignation letter for HR. State that you are leaving and share the date, not the reasons.
- If required, schedule a formal exit interview with HR.
- Thank you manager for the opportunity you have had there and what you have learned. Ask if he/she would be a reference in the future.
- Ask how you can best spend your last two weeks – suggest documenting processes and procedures, documenting outstanding projects, training others on the team.
- Always give at least two weeks notice. If you are higher in the organization and have been there many years, you should give a one month notice.
- Ask your manager if it is ok to tell your colleagues.
- When telling your colleagues, stay as positive as possible. There is little be gained by bashing the manager or the company and it could seriously hurt you in the future.
How should you spend your last weeks on the job?
- If your current responsibilities are not already well documented, prepare as much documentation as possible.
- Compile a list of any outstanding projects or issues.
- Provide a list of where to find critical files on the computer.
- Organize and label for your files so others can find what they need easily.
- Work with your manager to identify any training you need to do with colleagues to provide coverage.
- Coordinate with your manager how you should notify customers or vendors you work with to ensure that they know who to contact once you leave.
- Don’t leave any personal items in your desk or your office. Leave your work space clean and well organized.
- Participate in an HR exit interview if requested.
- Clarify how you want to be contacted if there are questions once you leave – home email? Phone?
What do you do your last day?
- Ensure that everything above has been completed.
- Turn in any keys, ID tags, passwords, etc.
- Update your voicemail and email with appropriate contact information for whoever will be covering.
- Address any outstanding questions with your manager and colleagues.
- Graciously say goodbye and thank you for the experience.
Unprofessional exits are remembered long after the person leaves the company. It is a small world, and you will likely need references someday. Resist the urge to let them know what you really think and exit in a professional manner. You will be glad you did down the road.
Employees are often so focused on how to advance within their organization that they fail to realize they are doing things daily that undermine their chances of success. Honestly consider which of these things may be getting in the way of your success and implement a plan to eliminate them from your routine.
Tardiness is Noticed – You should always strive to be timely whether it is for a face-to-face meeting or a conference call. For meetings outside the office, always allow time for traffic and parking. Plan to arrive ten minutes early. Don’t build a reputation for always being the last to arrive for meetings or the last to join a conference call. People do notice tardiness particularly when it becomes a trend. Get control of your time and ensure that you arrive on time and also well-prepared.
Meeting Preparation Matters – Prior to the meeting do your homework. Research the people you will be meeting with and their company for external meetings. For internal meetings, review your notes from the last meeting. If you were assigned any to-do’s at the last meeting, come prepared with updates on your progress. Meetings are more productive when people come prepared.
Email Etiquette – You are often judged by your email behavior. Do you respond in a timely manner? Do you reply all inappropriately? Do you abuse the cc feature? Do you send emails with spelling and grammatical errors? Do you forget to include the attachment? Your email communications reflect your personal brand and communication style. Review your emails carefully before you hit send.
Manage Expectations – How you manage and meet expectations builds or destroys your professional reputation. Once people realize that you overpromise and underdeliver, they no longer send opportunities your way. Be realistic in what you commit to and ensure that you meet or beat deadlines with quality work. Build a reputation as someone who gets things done and does them well.
Be In the Moment – People notice if you are daydreaming or doodling during a meeting. Pay attention to the conversation and take appropriate notes. Do not respond to emails or play on your phone when you are supposed to be engaged in a meeting. Show other participants respect by staying engaged in the conversation.
Repeated Errors – We are all human – we make mistakes. Managers expect that you will learn from your mistakes. Managers are frustrated when an employee continues to make the same mistake. This implies lack of attention to detail, lack of interest and certainly lack of effort. Take notes to ensure that you don’t repeat a mistake.
Sometimes, how you do your job is as important as what you do. Be sure you are putting your best foot forward to advance in your job. Eliminate bad habits to increase your likelihood of success.
Prior to your next performance review, do a self-assessment of your performance to ensure that you are not undermining your own performance. While you may think you are doing a great job, you may be doing little things that do not set well with your manager or your co-workers. Better to identify those issues yourself and address them prior to review time.
Lack of Punctuality
You may think it is only a few minutes here or there but your manager notices if you can’t get to work on time most days or if you are consistently late for meetings or calls. Everyone has an occasional commuting challenge but if you are habitually late it is noted by all around you. Being late gives the impression that you are not taking the work seriously. Are those few minutes worth the hit to your professional reputation? Strive to be a few minutes early in the year ahead.
If you book a meeting and then don’t show up, your professionalism is in question. After the first incident, there will likely be little tolerance for repeat offenses. It is insulting to not respect the time of others. Use your online calendar for all your appointments and check it regularly.
Failure to Ask Questions
Do not waste valuable time solving the wrong problem or doing the wrong work because you were afraid to ask a question. Be sure you completely understand what is being requested. If you don’t know how to do something ask. But, be sure to take notes so you don’t have to ask the same questions again. Asking questions is a good thing as long as you learn from each one.
We are all human and can make mistakes but if your work consistently contains careless errors your manager will have little trust in the work you do. Always double check your work before submitting it. Take notes when the project is given to you so you do not forget critical details. Pay attention to what is requested and submit timely and accurate work. Doing it quickly has little value if it is not correct.
Texting or Checking Email
While we all must text and check email during the work day, it is considered rude to do it when you are having a face-to-face meeting with someone. This behavior signals that you do not find the person valuable. Be very mindful of the messages your behavior sends to others, particularly your superiors.
Overpromising and Underdelivering
You do not earn points with your manager for promising something you are not able to deliver. Set realistic expectations and deliver results that are on time if not early and of course accurate. Be sure you fully understand what is being requested and what the deliverable needs to look like.
If you find yourself guilty of any of these offenses on a regular basis, make it a priority to address them prior to your performance review.
While one expects that all employees want to be successful in the jobs, with negative thinking, they often act as their own worst enemies and sabotage their own success. Some key thinking patterns that can derail a career include:
“It’s Not My Job” – Employees who stick to the limits of their job description often find themselves stuck in that job. Those who are willing and eager to take on an additional assignment, special project or help out a colleague who is in a bind are often rewarded for their efforts. Managers may be testing capabilities for a new role or assessing talent on the team. It is far better to be seen as the “go to” person when something needs to be done. Become the person they turn to when something really needs to be done well.
“Just let me do my job” – those who want to hide behind their computers and not interact with others also don’t typically advance. Share your ideas with others and learn from those around you. Sometimes the best ideas come from collaboration and working in teams is more critical than ever to employers. Be the person everyone wants to have on their team. Demonstrate the value you bring to a team. You spend every workday with the same people, try to enjoy their company and respect them as individuals.
“I don’t get paid to do that” – Often the reward for the performance comes after the fact. Invest the time and effort in learning something new or stepping outside your comfort zone. Often the reward (which could be a raise or even a promotion) comes after they have seen what you are capable of doing when given increased responsibility.
“I’ll never be good enough so why try?” – Careers don’t advance from entry level to corner office directly. Take incremental steps in your career. Always look for a new project, a training class or other learning opportunity so you continue to grow your skills and add value to the organization. Strive to become more valuable every year. Invest time and energy in your own career. Negative thinking will never lead to success.
Help yourself succeed by eliminating the negative self-talk. Seek the opportunities to differentiate yourself and succeed in your career.