It is easy to find articles listing the most important skills or characteristics employers are looking for in new employees.
Internet searches can easily yield hundreds of such articles and I’ve ready many of them. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that these lists often overlap heavily. So why bother reading this article? That is, beyond the fact that you are already five sentences in to this one (don’t worry, I’ve counted for you), why should you continue? I offer two promises.
First, I promise to narrow these lists down to the five most common, most frequently discussed skills. Second, I promise to dig deep into the critical details of each of these skills – what employers really mean – that are easy to miss, and misunderstand, if you just read the lists. So, let’s get to it.
Critical thinking / Problem Solving
Every list mentions the need for critical thinking and problem-solving ability. But what does this really mean? Everyone thinks they are good critical thinkers and problem solvers. Broadly, employers are looking for people who can solve problems independently without the need for supervisor input. Even deeper though, it means having the right approach to problem solving.
There are a variety of problem-solving process models, so you don’t need to ascribe to any particular model, but you need to have a problem-solving process. At a minimum this should involve: defining and understanding the problem, identifying information that is relevant for solving the problem, discarding information that is irrelevant or a distraction from solving the problem, developing an action plan to solve the problem, implementing an action plan, and evaluating the results.
But even before launching into a problem-solving process, employers are looking for employees who can critically evaluate which problems are most important to solve. A common occurrence in any business is prioritization. Objectives often go far beyond what can be completed given available resources.
In such cases, it is important make decisions about priority. Which objective is most important for the whole business? Which objective can be completed most quickly? Which objective is a pre-requisite for completing future objectives? Which objective can offer the most efficient return on investment?
There is rarely a direct and obvious answer to these questions, and employers want employees who can combine logic and analysis of available data/knowledge to come to reasonable decisions in a timely manner. Working exceptionally hard on the wrong problem is a recipe for being branded as tactical, lacking strategic perspective, and missing out on promotion.
Virtually every list mentions communication, and again everyone thinks of themselves as a good communicator. So, what is it that employers really mean by communication skills? The reality is that in today’s hiring environment one of the first things an employer evaluates is technical qualifications. Does this person have the technical and/or physical qualifications to do the job? Further, consider professional careers like accountant, software developer, architect, and doctor.
First-time employees in these careers have spent much of their lives learning those technical capabilities in an environment surrounded by other technical experts. By comparison, they have spent little time communicating that technical knowledge to people who don’t have that knowledge. And that is what employers really mean by communication skills. Can you explain technical information to a person who does not have the same technical background, but is otherwise smart, in a way that they can understand?
While this might sound simple, it most definitely is not. Some people hear communication and they think that simply means more information, or to err on the side of over-communicating. But over-communicating can be just as problematic.
Analyses suggest that 50-70% of email text is never read. The simple explanation is that people don’t have enough time to read lengthy emails. In the world of virtual meetings, droning deep into the details can cause people to lose attention or miss what is most important.
When it comes to communication, there is a critical balance between clarity and conciseness. The most effective employees communicate in a clear and concise manner that is easily understood by non-experts.
Teamwork / Collaboration
Another of the most frequent skills showing up lists of most important skills is teamwork and collaboration. But this isn’t really something new. Almost every major accomplishment in human history was achieved through group effort.
The construction of the Great Wall of China and landing humans on the moon come to mind as prominent examples. But even inventions such as the steam engine, an invention to which most people readily attach to James Watt, were developed from hundreds of prior versions and incremental improvements made by others. But what do modern businesses mean when they talk about the importance of teamwork and collaboration?
Most modern businesses are divided up into smaller business units with each unit specializing or having expertise in a certain area. For example, a modern freight company might be divided up into sales, operations, human resources, accounting, customer service, etc.
Even further, operations will include different groups of people such as drivers, dispatchers, dock workers, and terminal managers. Successful delivery of freight requires teamwork that bridges across areas of expertise.
That is, while the salespeople must work with other salespeople, their most important collaborations are with people working in operations who are responsible for meeting the client’s specific delivery needs. Failure to collaborate in so-called “cross-functional” teams is a surefire route to a poor customer experience and failure.
Bigger picture, this means the ability to listen to people from other teams, to understand their concerns, to understand the environment in which they work, to understand their expectations, and to use that knowledge to make decisions that create both successful work outcomes and harmony among different business units.
Businesses with internal wars between departments will struggle to succeed, and those internal wars are often driven by individuals’ inability to collaborate and work as a team to achieve mutual success.
A fourth skill frequently mentioned in lists of most important skills young professionals need today is decision-making. It is worth pointing out that decision-making is related to some of the skills already mentioned.
People who think critically and understand the working environment of other teams will tend to make better decisions. And that is one part of what organizations mean by decision-making: making good decisions about how to proceed and what to do next.
However, what is often missed in discussions of decision-making is the reality that many decisions you will make will be wrong. In fact, the most important component of decision-making isn’t how many decisions you get right or wrong, but your willingness to review your decision-making process, to evaluate your own biases or judgment flaws, and to avoid making those in the future.
The psychologist, former poker professional, and current decision-making consultant Annie Duke talks about the biggest flaw in decision-making being our inability to separate results from process. That is, sometimes the decision-making process is completely flawed, but you get lucky, and it turns out to be a good decision after all. Other times, we have very rigorous and sound decision-making processes, but we get unlucky, resulting in a bad outcome.
The point is, anyone can get lucky or unlucky with a one-off decision here or there, but truly effective decision-makers learn from their past decisions, they evaluate their decision-making process, looking for flaws and gaps, and they avoid results-oriented thinking.
There are two key components to getting better at decision-making. The first is the willingness to make a decision. That is, some people are so afraid of making a bad decision, that they don’t make any decision at all. Unfortunately, the only way to get better at making decisions is to make some and to learn from the process.
That means you are sometimes going to be wrong. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience is the result of bad judgment. The second way to get better at making decisions is to have the humility to admit that you might be wrong.
Many individuals fall into the trap of never wanting to be wrong, so they create excuses and use post-hoc rationalizations to tell themselves their decision was right all along, they simply got unlucky. But this is a trap of self-preservation, of not wanting to harm one’s own self-esteem. But truly excellent decision makers can admit that they have been wrong before and work hard to understand why they were wrong to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.
A final skill nearly every young professional needs is leadership. But there are a lot of problems with just telling people they need to get better at leadership. First, most people have some idea of what leadership is, and mostly that comes from past experiences with bad leaders or from what they have seen in movies or television.
For example, some people have bad bosses who are over-bearing and micro-managing, and they decide to be the exact opposite. Unfortunately, this often leads to a leadership style characterized by a lack of accountability and staff who are frustrated with slackers.
A second problem with telling young people that they need to have leadership skills is that many people think this means being in charge of people, working your way up the corporate ladder to get into manager, director, and executive positions.
Unfortunately, a great deal of research examines leadership by studying only those at the top. But a better definition ties leadership to performance, and leadership is all about team performance. When companies talk about needing employees with leadership skills, they don’t mean the ability to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.
They want employees who can build and maintain high-performing teams. And building and maintaining high-performing teams requires the ability to persuade people to put aside their own personal (often selfish) goals for the greater good. It requires building strong relationships with individuals, understanding their goals, and creating an environment where their goals align with team goals.
It requires holding people accountable for performance without being cruel. It requires gaining trust through continuous integrity.
And this brings me to the third problem with telling people that they need to get better at leadership. Where would you learn these skills? While some universities might offer courses on leadership, it is not clear that people who take these courses are more effective at leading.
Perhaps the best tool available for becoming a more effective leaders is a 360-degree feedback assessment, where you are evaluated by your co-workers on a number of leadership-relevant behaviors. Such feedback can provide you with an accurate picture of your leadership strengths, but also areas that you need to continue to develop.
So that’s it. These are the five skills most companies are saying young professionals need to develop today. But I hope this article gives you a deeper understanding of what these skills really mean and what companies are really looking for in today’s employees.