To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan: you want (you, your child or your protégé?) to be the “very model of a modern Major-General”. That song, no kidding, outlines some of the knowledge and skills it takes to thrive in our modern world. Listen to the song sometime; it holds up quite well.
I will never be able to write a song about it, but I do have an idea of what skills it takes to be successful in business. I have a list that has ten entries. And while my prose will never be as pithy as Gilbert and Sullivan’s, it is most definitely worth reading.
I would note that initially I tried to put these items in priority order. I wasted some time on that effort and gave up. That said, I believe that the first two are the most important, after that it depends on circumstances and personal preference.
- Ethics—business decisions are guided by moral imperatives. Doing the right thing is not always easy and the path and even agreement about what constitutes an ethical outcome is not always clear. What is clear is that time spent understanding ethics in the context of your business is time well spent.
During one’s career, people inevitably encounter situations that, without forethought, are high probability wrecks. What does that mean? It means that if an individual has not spent some time thinking about what they would do when a situation presents itself, the odds that they will do the right thing are way lower than we all probably would like them to be. Many of these situations are not single forks in the road. They are mistakes that happen in small, nearly imperceptible steps. And, if one is not prepared and paying attention, they can easily find themselves on the wrong side of a line they wish they had never crossed.
Further, as one’s career progresses and the scope of a person’s responsibly increases, the impact of decisions also grows in scope. There are many egregious examples (Kenneth Lay- Enron, Bernard Ebbers- WorldCom, Dennis Kozlowski- Tyco, Conrad Black- Hollinger, etc.) and many less quantifiable, but no less offensive. Other types of ethical breaches include lying, conflicts of interest, discrimination, harassment and some can be subtle (or easily hidden) while others can be overt.
- Emotional Intelligence—this refers to a person’s ability to manage their emotions—and the emotions of others. This is vitally important because participating in a business enterprise requires interaction (negotiations), both with fellow employees, suppliers and customers. And success at carrying out these interactions, especially the difficult ones, is key to favorable results.
Being able to understand what is motivating your actions and the actions of those you are doing business with helps achieve outcomes where all parties in the relationship feel that they have won. For more on successful negotiation, I suggest Getting to Yes.
Emotional intelligence implies the ability to empathize, to be able to listen and to speak and know when not to speak. People with high a high EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) do a good job of prioritizing, are focused and are good at getting to closure, i.e. get things done and generally without drama. As long as people are involved, EQ is key to success.
- Collaboration— I have written several posts about teamwork which I find is essential to success in any endeavor that requires the efforts of more than one person. Teamwork is enabled by successful collaboration between team members. And effective collaboration is much more than working together.
Successful collaboration is characterized by the ability of the team members to improve each other’s performance and the outcomes through effective and timely communication that both improves the mechanics of doing the work (helps to move things forward) and provides useful feedback that enhances team member performance and the outcomes of the work effort.
In its best form collaboration happens when the interaction is fluid and frictionless, i.e. energy is not wasted and feelings are not hurt.
- Executive Function/Project Management—Understanding how to get things done requires an ability to understand the outcomes you desire, the tasks that are required to get the outcomes, the resources that are necessary to do the tasks and manage (track and facilitate) the tasks and resources in the most efficient way possible. When there is a single person involved this is often call “executive function”, when there is a team, it is “project management”.
- Process Thinking—While there are exceptions to the need for this skill, it is essential for managing activities that involve large numbers of people and activities that have many steps which tend to be repetitive in nature. Process thinking results in repeatable, measurable managed processes and helps to ensure high quality outcomes. As long as the scale of operations is small, process thinking is not necessary (maybe even overkill), but as operations grow, process thinking is essential to good outcomes.
- Problem Solving—Being able to successfully solve problems is essential to innovation and innovation is what helps businesses continue to be relevant and grow. The most successful businesses were designed to solve hard problems and businesses that can solve hard problems have a competitive advantage, because replicating what they do is, by definition, difficult. And businesses do not solve hard problems without people who are good problem solvers. Which implies good problem solvers are key to innovation and business success.
- Quantitative Thinking—Really difficult problems, like the ones referenced in the previous bullet, do not get solved without understanding the problem. Quantitative analytics require both the technology skills needed to collect, manage and analyze large amount of data, but also the math/AI skills to successfully suss out the patterns that tell the stories that are hidden in the data. And, as we all know problems can not be solved until we properly understand what they are.
- Written and Verbal Communication—Throughout my career, it became more and more apparent to me how important the ability to communicate really is and how my skills (or sometimes lack thereof) helped/hurt my ability to succeed in business. Written and verbal communication is an essential component to success in almost every one of the other skills listed here. It is a precondition to collaboration (scaling things up) and getting things done. If you cannot communicate well enough to get people to enthusiastically work together to achieve a goal really great things simply do not happen.
- Continuous Learning—The world changes. You are likely to be active in your career for at least 40 years. The world will change a lot in that time. Unless you change it will leave you behind. And, you must have current (throughout your career) skills to continue to be able to contribute. But, it is more than just staying current. Each of us has shortcomings that “need fixing”. For instance, I have never been a good listener. I took the same course at least 5 times and learned something new during each iteration. And, I am now just a bad listener, not a truly awful one.
So, getting into the habit and allocating the time to learning is essential. Continuous learning requires time and effort. Whether your preference is to take classes, read or join professional organizations, you cannot be successful unless your skills stay current.
- Empathy—I must have been in my early-forties before I understood how important listening is. And it took me 10 years to be able to claim the meagerest of skill as a listener. It is truly difficult to interact with people and understand their issues/problem/pain if you do not listen to them. And, if you are in the business of solving problems, it is nearly impossible to solve them if you cannot appreciate the difficulty the person/group you are trying to help is experiencing.
Some of these skills are gained through experience, some through book learning and some a bit of each. Whatever the mechanism for gaining these skills, acquiring and honing them requires quite a bit of effort; otherwise everyone would have them. Don’t underestimate the planning and investment it takes to build these skills or you will not.
So, that is the list. I could write a book on this topic. Given the space I allow for my blog posts, I left out examples and stories to support these assertions. I know that, and maybe someday, in the context of a book rather than a blog, I will do the list justice.
Finally, some of you have probably noticed that I did not include skills like accounting or computer science or medicine. While they are important, they focus on delivering particular services in a professional domain. The skills I outlined are general and are necessary whether one is an accountant, a coder or a doctor. So, unless your profession requires no interaction with other people, this article was written with you in mind.
— you can find this (days earlier) and other posts at www.niden.com.
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