Figuring out the opportunities to grow yourself and your career is tough. With all the information out there on the value of various skills, it’s easy to end up with a development plan that’s too long, inaccurate, or soon to be obsolete.
In this post, we try to cut through this information overload by sharing a few thoughts on the ‘skills behind the skills’ – the underlying talents that won’t go out of fashion any time soon. Part one of a three part series, over the coming weeks we will explore some of the deep rooted skills which help to separate people from their equally intelligent and committed competition.
Why skills behind the skills?
Before we start, a brief note on the definition of skills, a word unique in its ability to mean so many things to different people. At Tomorrow’s Work, we define skills to encompass terms that others might identify as abilities, competencies, qualities, and so on, and group them all under the heading of skills, or the “human capital requirements to succeed at work”.
It’s possible to view skills occurring in multiple layers. The top layer is the most obvious, and they are the skills we see regularly. Public speaking, design, or networking for example. These have their foundation in a group of skills in an intermediate layer, which are less obvious, but still observable. This middle layer is critical to our ability to perform at a high level. Integrity, intelligence and confidence are good examples of the middle group. But the bottom layer of skills is harder to discern. These skills sit behind and enable success in the middle layer of skills, in turn providing support for the most visible talents.
The reason we focus on these underlying skills is that they don’t rely on natural talents, but rest on developed capacities which everyone can improve with applied effort. So if you’re looking for some items around which to build you development plan, and you think you could improve on any of these, then add them to your development plan, and get working on them!
For our series, we divide these ‘skills behind the skills’ into three separate categories, beginning with Managing Yourself. The skills for managing yourself – doing the tasks expected of you while growing your abilities – range widely across social, emotional, intellectual, and inter-personal spheres. But we can boil the really critical ones down to three neat categories:
- Planning – Know what you need to do, and by when you need to do it
- Reflecting – Review your progress regularly and honestly
- Persisting – Focus without distraction on difficult matters
Know what you need to do, and by when you need to do it
Have you ever worked with someone who always seems to be on top of everything? They know when deadlines are coming up, and they make everyone look bad by meeting them every time? What sets these people apart is often our first ‘skill behind the skill’ – planning. Anyone who has drafted a gant chart or a timeline knows that good planning isn’t rocket science. But great planning comes from a deeper set of skills, pulling together intellectual rigor and self-discipline.
Most critical is a deep understanding of the tasks that are required to complete a given objective, and how long each task will take, both for yourself, and up and down stream of you.
Say you have a presentation to write, which will go in front of your boss’s boss. You need to understand the time it will take you to research, write, refine and distribute the first draft, but you also need to plan for the time your boss will take to review it, the number of changes she or he will come back with, and the time you will have left to make the edits required.
In larger projects, particularly those driven by your more abstract goals like getting a promotion, the ability to understand ‘dependencies’, i.e. tasks that require completion of other tasks prior, is essential to completing objectives on time and at the right quality.
Planning isn’t hard then, but it requires blending rigor, discipline, and foresight, which you can all develop with enough work and focus.
Regularly and honestly review your progress
In general project management, the status meeting is designed to ensure others are on track. We need to apply a similar approach to our personal work. In order to execute on schedule and meet personal deadlines, top performers will often check progress regularly against a high level list of goals or a timeline, including both personal and professional goals, set out in a planning stage.
Judging where you find yourself ahead of plan, where you are behind, and where you are spending your time, will create a natural list of priorities, which you’ll often know instinctively how to tackle. Much better than the sense of rising panic we sometimes feel when we think about our to do list for the day.
But reflecting is about more than following up work done in a planning stage. It’s also about reviewing your strengths and weaknesses, assessing your interests and passions, and checking your personal progress towards the things you really want. Ultimately, it’s a habit that anyone can get into, for the benefit of themselves and those that they work, live and play with.
Focus without distraction on difficult matters
The idea that something which isn’t difficult isn’t worth doing, sits squarely at the heart of the final underlying skill – persisting.
Easy things rarely improve us as people or make us more effective. When we interview for our next job, we talk about the challenges we faced, not the things we breezed through without thinking twice. And when we look back on our achievements, we rarely notice anything that didn’t require us to struggle. The first skill of persisting then, is to identify things that are difficult but worthwhile, and to focus on these.
Just as important is our ability to overcome the brain’s stubbornness in engaging with difficult tasks. Difficult tasks require you to engage the slow moving, hard working, part of the brain required for complex computations and problem solving. If you’re anything like me, your brain is good at figuring out which tasks it can do easily, and which it can’t. This encourages us to do more easy tasks (e.g. updating social media) and fewer hard ones (e.g. writing the blog), through an emotion felt as motivation.
Being able to overcome a lack of motivation towards difficult tasks is an essential component of persevering and managing yourself. One great tip is to give yourself five minutes of doing a difficult task on your list, even if you really don’t want to. After a few minutes, your brain will start to engage with the task, finding the interesting aspects, and the problems to solve, and before you know it, you will have spent a few hours of high quality work, all from the initial five minute investment of time.
Only you can start advancing and measuring progress towards these skills. They won’t show up in a psychometric testing, since they’re too difficult to assess reliably. And you will rarely see them in professional development or education frameworks.
But, with investment and application, you will quickly see improvement in these and other talents which depend on them.