Universally useful skills that you should develop

“Knowing what you know now about the skills required to do your job, what would you advise students to learn while they are still in school?”

I was at an alumni-student networking event geared toward humanities and science majors who were interested in careers in the public service sector.  Most of the other people in the room had studied things like psychology, history, biology, and literature.  I felt a little out of place, as the lone engineering alum in the room, but I had come as a representative from industries that do hire humanities majors.

I’m used to answering this question for students interested in pursuing a career in the fields in which I have experience, consulting, marketing, general management, and non-profit.  However, there were students at my table who were interested in paths I had no experience in, like healthcare and research.  I quickly tried to think of an answer that would be relevant to this particular audience.  The next alum to speak, agreed wholeheartedly that the skills I mentioned were extremely useful in her daily work.  This surprised me, as her work as a mental health counselor is very different from what I do on a daily basis as an operations manager.  Maybe I really had hit on some universally useful skills.  Here is what I had told the audience.

There are a handful of skills that have served me well throughout the different jobs I’ve held in the past 10 years:

Listen to what people need.  Dig for the issues that really matter.  Know how to break big things into smaller manageable pieces.  Be able to communicate with people outside of your peer group.

 

These are some of the basic blocks of problem solving.  No matter where you go, nor matter what you do, you will encounter problems.  And at some point in time, someone will look to you to solve them.  Regardless of what type of problem it is, taking the time to hone these skills will help you in your career.

Listen to what people need.  Most of the time, you will need perspectives other than your own to comprehensively evaluate a situation.  Talk to others to view the problem from multiple different angles.  What are the pain points they face?  Solutions are of no use if the don’t address actual needs felt by the people involved.

Dig for the issues that really matter.  My college advisor once told me, “What people say they want and what they actually need are not necessarily the same thing.”  Often it’s because it’s impossible to give everyone what they want.  But it’s much more feasible to get most people what they need.  Zoom in on what’s really important.

Know how to break big things into smaller manageable pieces.  If the problem feels overwhelmingly large, it’s difficult to move forward.  Divide it into chunks.  The pieces will be easier to tackle, because you can either take them on one at a time by yourself or delegate them out to others.

Be able to communicate with people outside of your peer group.  More specifically, learn to communicate with the folks two levels above you.  There will be times when you will seek their input, approval, and/or recognition, and you will need to present your case clearly and concisely.

How to impress your boss

Shortly after I started working, someone gave me one of the most useful pieces of advice I received early on in my career:

If you really want to please your boss, make their job easier.

Being recognized as a good employee takes more than just working hard and doing what you’re asked.  This became especially clear to me when I became and manager and had different kinds of people reporting to me.  As your manager, my job is to provide you with the guidance and resources you need to produce quality work, which I am ultimately responsible for.  Sure, you could be a hard worker. 

But if I have to expend a lot of time, effort, and extra thought to get you to do the job I need you to do, you can be a pain to manage.

So, how do you become the worker that is pleasant to manage?  There are a few things you can do.

Save them time.   Do you have regular check-in meetings?  Come with an agenda.  Have a lot of questions?  Consolidate them into a list and get them answered all at once instead of peppering your boss with questions throughout the day.  If you’re accompanying them to a meeting, offer to take notes.  Record major points made, key questions raised, and next steps, then send them your notes.  Your boss is a busy person, and they will appreciate your organization and efficiency.

Tell them what you need.  Your boss is ultimately responsible for the quality and completeness of your work.  If you aren’t making adequate progress, identify what’s holding you up.  You could need more clarification, guidance, training, input, feedback, or a decision?  It’s better to proactively ask for what you need than to leave them wondering why you haven’t gotten the job done.

Come with an answer.  Where possible,offer a hypothesis and ask whether they agree instead of asking open-ended questions.  For example, “I think I should do x,y,z.  Do you agree?” is a lot easier to answer than “What should I do?”  By coming with a point of view, you relieve them from the burden of having to fully think through something from scratch.

Keep them in the loop.  If something has gone wrong, or if you think you won’t hit a deadline, raise the issue sooner rather than later.  Your boss will be a lot more forgiving when they have enough time to react to problems rather than when it’s too late to do anything.

Speaking from a manager’s point of view, if you are the employee who makes your boss’ job easy, you become the person they enjoy working with.  You are the one they always want on their team.  You are invaluable.  There’s a high likelihood that they will do what they can to keep you happy, so that they can keep you.  And that’s a good place to be.