Building Career-Agnostic Skills
I pulled down this mug the other day and gave it a good look for the first time in years. It’s a souvenir from my first undergraduate internship, which was with the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. At the time, I was a Political Science and Economics major focusing on econometrics. I thought policy analysis was going to be my future, maybe hand in hand with a PhD in Economics.
That’s not quite how things have turned out, and I’m thankful for that. I learned more about myself and my career interests during the next several years after that internship, through graduating, landing my first real job in D.C., and doing lots of thinking. I realized I wanted other topics and functions out of my work, most of which I’ve been fortunate enough to find since.
Econometrics, to foreign policy think tank studies, to marketing analysis, to sales operations, to pricing strategy. It’s not the straightest line one can draw. However, there are certain skills common to all of these pursuits that I’m very glad to have started building from the beginning.
Here are three skills that have been critical in all of my roles and that are requisite for nearly any business executive.
The ability to communicate your ideas, goals, and priorities is essential in and out of the workplace. Communication, even of the mundane type, is about getting other people to see the world from your perspective and building a common vision to enact change. In that sense, all communication is persuasion.
Communication, of course, is a two-way street. The ability to listen to others is just as important, if not more so, than adding your own voice to the mix. When a person realizes that you are actively listening to them rather than passively absorbing the sounds coming out of their mouth, you can see the change in their eyes.
And different forms of communication require their own practice. I’m glad that I had exposure to public speaking from debate in high school, where I had to defend a point of view, think on my feet in front of strangers, and quickly determine how best to win them to my side. In college, long papers were the norm, which require their own organization and cadence. Lots of time spent writing (and listening) built the foundation for publishing my own book on digital disruption and business strategy.
Consulting engagements are, in some ways, a mixture of all of these. I need to bring a room of people together and, over the course of an engagement, enable them to effect change.
Whether working with large datasets or large groups of people, it’s critical to be able to communicate what you see and distill the takeaways for other stakeholders. Knowing how to present an argument or a finding is critical to others accepting and acting upon it. Take the time to design your visuals for maximum impact.
One type of experience that forces you to improve your communication is working cross-functionally or in different functions directly.
Thanks to my undergraduate studies, I can talk statistics. I enjoy working with people of various nationalities and private, non-profit, and military backgrounds, thanks to my foreign policy days. I understand the pressures that sales teams face thanks to being responsible for helping one such team perform. I am comfortable with complex enterprise technology systems thanks to being a liaison between IT and the rest of the organization.
Pricing is a very cross-functional area, due both to the broad set of inputs required and the wide-ranging effects of its outputs, and the skills required for pricing are a mixture of quantitative, qualitative, and emotional competences.
A straighter career path wouldn’t have equipped me in the same way for the role I have now. I’d have fewer tools to utilize in my toolbox. In that sense (even if, at times, I felt adrift without a singular functional focus), I was building an effective set of competencies, and an effective path is more important than an efficient one.
At the end of the day, we’re all expected to be effective at what we do. Results, not intentions, matter. No matter what your career background is, if you want to succeed over the long term, you must be known as someone who is effective.
Effectiveness, like clear communication, travels well. Many of the building blocks of effectiveness, such as time management, task prioritization, discipline, curiosity, and follow through, are the same regardless of function and industry.
Only once you know what you should be doing, and can do it well, should you focus on efficiency. Effectiveness must always come first.
To Be Continued
None of this is to say that I’m done. On the contrary, from the middling vantage point I have, I can see how much farther I have to go in improving these and other skillsets.
We’re all a work in progress. Just make sure you’re working on what matters.