“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.