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.
Employers clearly want candidates with the appropriate technical skills to do the job but what differentiates a great candidate from a pool of good candidates is typically the soft skills. What soft skills are critical for success?
Communication is critical to success is almost all jobs these days. The ability to communicate effectively via email has become a key component of success in business. Can you present your ideas succinctly and clearly? Can you prepare a PowerPoint to present the problem and your recommended solutions? Can you present to a team or managers or executives and clearly and succinctly present your case? Are you able to effectively listen and capture the key points? Success on the job is often highly dependent on the employee’s communications skills.
Most jobs don’t exist in a vacuum. In order to get your job done you have to work with other people. Can you effectively lead a team? Can you be a valuable team member? Can you motivate others to provide the input you require to do your job even when you have no authority over them? To be successful on the job, you need to work well with your peers, your managers, and everyone you come in contact with at the workplace. You don’t have to be best friends but you need to build mutually effective relationships across the organization to be successful. You need to build your reputation as someone they want to work with because you get things done, bring good ideas to the table and respect your colleagues.
It is critical that you build the necessary skills to meet or beat your deadlines with quality work. You want to establish a reputation as someone who does what they say they will do. When possible you want to strive to exceed expectations – do more than the minimum, anticipate the follow-up questions and next steps. Demonstrating a strong work ethic is critical to success.
Conflicting priorities often arise. The day isn’t always long enough to get everything done. Can you effectively keep your projects on track, keep your manager informed and ensure that you are meeting the high priority deadlines? Time management skills are critical to building your professional reputation.
You want to earn the trust of your manager and colleagues. Be someone who does what they say they will do. Be willing to learn. Be confident without being cocky.
Ability to Take Feedback and Act Upon It
In order to learn and grow professionally, you must be able to take feedback and act upon it. Seek out feedback if it is not readily given. Don’t wait for the annual review process, seek feedback regularly to ensure that you are constantly improving. Seek opportunities for professional development or new projects.
Attention to Detail
Accuracy matters. Being quick accomplishes nothing if your work can’t be trusted. Always double check your work. Step back and think about whether the data really makes sense and anticipate the questions other would ask so you are prepared in advance to address them. To become a trusted resource in the workplace you must build a reputation for doing quality work. And if you do make a mistake, own it! Admit the mistake and build a process to ensure you never make that mistake again. We are all human and make errors but you differentiate yourself when you own it and take action.
Paying attention to the soft skills will make you more successful in your current job and makes you more marketable for whatever opportunities lie ahead.
During the process of interviewing for a new job, it is critical that you ask questions during the process to demonstrate your interest and engagement. However, there are certain questions that should NOT be asked in an interview.
- What is the salary? It is critical that you sell the hiring manager and team on the value you bring to the position. Asking about salary early in the process can negatively impact your advancement in the process. Focus on earning their interest first. They will bring up salary at an appropriate time during the process.
- What are the benefits? For the same reasons as with the salary question, don’t get ahead of yourself. You need to sell yourself for the position before you worry about benefits.
- When will I be promoted? Once you have successfully sold the value you could bring to the position you may want to ask what the manager would consider success in that role after the first year. You may ask about possible career progression. Do not specifically ask about being promoted. It comes across as arrogant to assume that you will be promoted. Promotions are based on merit but may also be dependent on business needs and budgets.
- Can I work from home? Can I work flexible hours? Unless the job states that it is a virtual position or flexible hours, assume that it is in the office during regular business hours. In many companies you have to prove yourself before you can be considered for working from home or with flexible hours. Get the job first and show them what you can do.
- What does your Company do? This question or any other question that could be answered by a five minute review of their website clearly demonstrates that you were not interested enough to do even a basic amount of preparation. If you are not taking the opportunity seriously, why should they seriously consider you? Any question that shows you didn’t prepare or that you weren’t listening is not going to land you the job.
Use the interview to demonstrate your transferable skills, the value you bring to the position and your passion for the opportunity. Sell yourself first before you worry about salary, benefits and flexibility. This will help you increase your success on interviews.
You’ve found the perfect job posted and are excited to apply. As you reread the job description, you realize that you exceed the qualifications posted for the position. Instead of immediately admitting defeat, take a more proactive approach.
The Job Description is a wish list. Employers provide a detailed listing of what they are seeking in the “ideal” candidate. Why wouldn’t an employer want someone with ever more skills and experience than they need? Often they worry that the employee will be bored, will expect much higher compensation or is using the job as a placeholder until something better comes along. Hiring and training a new employee is an expensive endeavor so they want to be as successful as possible in identifying the best candidate while minimizing their risk.
This is not the time to just submit your resume online. If all they are looking at is your resume, you may well not make it to the pile they will invite for interviews. Increase your likelihood of success in two ways. Submit a well-written customized cover letter that focuses on your transferable skills and your strong interest in the opportunity. If there is a specific reason you are interested in this opportunity even though you would be considered overqualified, address that in your letter. Show them that you have a genuine interest in this opportunity as a logical next step in your career. Be careful not to sound cocky by assuming you are overqualified. Present it as the possibility that some may perceive your experience as being overqualified but address those concerns proactively.
Also, network within the company to learn more and to identify an internal supporter who can pass your resume to the hiring manager with a recommendation. If you find the right contact you can be candid about your concerns about the perception of being overqualified and can share your motivation for seeking this position. They can become a strong internal advocate for you. Use very opportunity to stand out from the crowd of candidates. Do not mention skills you are lacking, focus on the positives you bring to the job.
If this truly is the “perfect job for you,” go for it but be sure to put your best foot forward to increase your likelihood of success.
A cover letter serves as your introduction to the company as well as a sample of your writing skills. The cover letter gives you the opportunity to clearly state your skills and experience that apply directly to the position they posted. Rather than hoping they can connect the dots between their needs and your experience, the cover letter enables you to do that.
“So, my skills and experience are what they are so there is no need to customize a letter.” I often hear that lament from students but they are clearly missing the point. The cover letter is your opportunity to focus on the relevant skills and experience for the specific position to which you are applying. You have best chance of success with this position if you are able to tie your skills and experience to the specific needs of the position.
Generic cover letters will never yield the same results. Most hiring managers can easily spot a generic cover letter. Even when students try to cut and paste the company name and the specific position into a generic cover letter, it is usually obvious that it is still a generic letter. This also opens the opportunity to miss a cut and paste with the result being a letter with the wrong company name or position title. That careless error most likely results in a trip to the “no pile.”
Demonstrate your strong interest in the position and the company as well as your professionalism by crafting a customized cover letter for each position. If the job is worth applying to, it is worth taking the time to customize the cover letter.
What is a successful professional to do if they are very good at their current job but aspire to climb the ladder and to take on new challenges?
Honest Assessment of Skills and Gaps – Before any next step in your career, it is critical to do a very honest assessment of your skill set and your gaps. What are the critical skills for success in the position you aspire to? Which of those skills are particular strengths? Which areas require more work? Are there major gaps where you might need additional training and/or experience? Look at performance reviews, ask trusted colleagues for feedback, ask your mentor and your friends for input. Gather comprehensive data on your strengths and areas for develop. Define a specific plan on how you will address the gaps in the year ahead. When opportunity knocks you want to be sure you are ready.
Have a Mentor – Everyone needs a mentor or a personal board of directors to help them navigate their career. This should be someone more senior than you are in position and often age as well. Learn from their experience and perspective. Ask them for honest and actionable feedback. Use them as a sounding board as you build you skills assessment and as you navigate the journey to your next career move.
Train and Develop Your Replacement – The organization currently values your contributions in your current job very highly. That’s great, but you don’t want that to stand in your way of future advancement. Often people get so focused on how to get experience and visibility to lead to that next job that they forget to worry about who will do their current job. Identify a rising star on your team and start training them on how to be successful in what you are currently doing. Provide projects which offer learning experience as well as visibility. Nurture this person along and make sure your boss knows you are working to train this person to someday do your job. Some people worry this will show the boss they are not needed but in fact it can be a shrewd move. Many managers are hesitant to take you out of a job you are doing well for fear of what will fall apart. Help them start looking for your next opportunity because you have your current responsibilities covered.
Open and Honest Conversations – Have open and honest conversations with your manager about your longer term goals. Ask for input on what you need to develop to be qualified for the next step. Ask for special projects or assignments that would add experience and increase your visibility as someone who can do more than the current job. You have to be patient and respectful. This isn’t about demanding anything it is asking for help throughout the journey. Sometimes it is a position you aspire to that your manager might have never considered but after talking about it they keep visualizing the possibility. Engage them in helping you advance your career.
Define and Implement a Plan – Define and document a specific plan of how you plan to achieve this goal. Having a goal is not enough. If you don’t know where you are going, you’re going to have a tough time getting there. Identify target companies and/or target positions. Commit to networking activity levels. Define specific activities and timeframes and hold yourself accountable. A great goal that sits on the shelf has little possibility of success. Define you plan and execute it well, keeping track of your accomplishments and milestones. Whether your next step is in your current organization or in a new company, you have to develop and implement a plan to increase the likelihood that you will achieve it.
Network, network, network While networking is critical to an external job search it is also critical for your advancement internally. It really is all about who you know and who they know. It is the single most important and effective step you can take in your career development. The majority of jobs are filled through networking in this economy. Talk to people you know. Even when you are seeking a more challenging role in your current company, talk to people in the new area, talk to people who interact with that group. Learn as much as you can about what is required for success in that role. Understand how that role interacts with the rest of the organization. The more you know, the more effective you can be in the process. Also the more people who know you are interested, the more likely you are to be considered for an appropriate opportunity.
Be Realistic – You may have a dream job in mind but realistically assess whether that is a possible next step from your current position. Often there is a step or two between your current role and your ultimate desired position. Learn enough about your dream job to identify critical next steps as part of your preparation. Do they value someone who has worked in more than one division or functional area? Is a foreign assignment critical to reaching executive levels? Understanding what they will be looking for in the senior position can help you be more strategic in determining your next step or two. Keep the end goal in mind, gather intelligence from your network and effectively execute your plan. This significantly increases your likelihood of success.
Does your resume position you for success? This is the time of year we review many resumes with new students joining us on campus. One trend I have observed is the tendency to leave off the summary to make room for more job-related bullets. This could have serious consequences.
Most hiring managers or HR professionals make a decision on your resume within the first 30 – 60 seconds. If you do not capture their attention in those initial seconds, you will lose the opportunity to be considered for that position. Starting with the bullets of your current job is not a recipe for success particularly if you are hoping to change industries or fields.
Capture their attention immediately with a strong summary at the top of your resume. This will entice them to take the time to read the rest of your resume and you have provided a lens through which they review the remainder of your resume. Use your summary to define your personal brand and to highlight you key transferrable skills.
“Experienced finance professional with a successful track record of timely and accurate monthly, quarterly and year-end closings. Leverages knowledge of the business and natural curiosity to identify, explore and resolve variances from plan. Attention to detail supports comprehensive account reconciliations, process improvements and in-depth analysis.”
“Supply chain professional with experience in procurement, logistics and operations. Implemented new software solution on scheduled and within budget. Process improvements identified and executed to save money and to improve supplier relationships. Successfully implemented and monitored supplier scorecard.”
“Innovative marketing professional with experience in new product launch, marketing communications, definition and implementation of digital marketing strategy, and product life-style strategy. Creative problem solver with track record of successful product introductions to meet customer needs.”
Tell the reader who you and what skills you bring to the table as you explore opportunities with their company. Capture their attention with your summary to encourage them to read your resume for more details. To be successful in a competitive job market, you need to capture their attention quickly to stand out from the crowd.