At work we all need a special trait or talent that sets us apart from our colleagues and makes our bosses notice us. It could be the ability to strike up a conversation with just about anyone, the ability to sell just about anything, or just be great at learning anything new. If you think you don’t have any one specific skill and don’t really know which one you should cultivate, read to see which skills get full marks from experts.
The art of networking
Shaily Gupta, group head, human resources at financial services group Edelweiss, Mumbai, says her advice to campus hires in the company is to focus on connecting with people, through simple, but powerful gestures like “offering services” and “lending help”. She believes this helps create an ecosystem of well-wishers, enhances their circle of influence, and holds them in good stead as they move ahead in their career. In a Harvard Business Review article, How Bell Labs Creates Star Performers, authors Robert Kelley and Janet Caplan have identified nine work-related strategies that differentiate a star from the average performer. The top strategy identified by them is networking.
Gupta prefers to use the phrase “making friends” to “networking”, because networking is often perceived as a process of making connections with the intent of getting something. However, Bob Burg and John Mann, authors of Go-Givers Sell More, have articulated the basis of networking as “Shifting your focus from getting to giving...living with generosity creates a swelling tide that raises all ships. Not just yours; not just the other person’s, everyone’s”. Therefore, think about ways you can add value and contribute to the success of another, as this can fetch you immense goodwill which could pay you rich dividends at some point.
In human relations, spending doesn’t deplete, it multiplies. Mumbai-based Raj Bowen, managing director, PDI Ninth House, a Korn/Ferry International company that offers talent management and leadership solutions, agrees and attributes the ability to get along and work well with people as one of the top skills that has helped him in his career. He recollects a personal experience where he was successful in continuing a cordial relationship with a colleague even after having performed the unsavoury task of terminating his service for non-performance.
Who are the people you need on your network? According to Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, you need to cultivate three networks—an operational network comprising people who will support you in producing your day-to-day deliverables; a strategic network which will help you identify opportunities and threats that you need to be prepared for; and a developmental network that will point you to opportunities like new assignments, projects and experiences which will help you to learn and develop.
The art of making conversation
Face-to-face communication has taken a back seat as we run the marathon for meeting deadlines, producing results and achieving the bottom line. It stands further sidelined as virtual teams become the order of the day. The busy executive, juggling a packed schedule, has little time for small talk. He may even consider it trivial, inconsequential and unimportant, little realizing that small talks can lead to bigger talks. It is a stepping stone for building relationships. A number of studies have identified the art of making conversation as one of the core skills for success. Susan Roane, author of the best-seller What Do I Say Next?—Talking Your Way to Business and Social Success, had asked more than a 100 successful people during the course of her research, as to which skill they would most attribute their success to. The universal answer she got was—the ability to converse. Thomas W. Harrell, professor emeritus of applied psychology at Stanford University, spent a lot of time tracking MBAs who had graduated between 1961 and 1965. He found little correlation between grades and success. Instead, the primary differentiator he discovered between the very successful, and those who were less successful, was their ability to communicate. This is also corroborated by the results of the Job Outlook 2012 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a US-based organization that connects campus placement cells with staffing professionals the world over, which identified the ability to verbally communicate with people inside and outside the organization as the top skill sought by prospective employers.
The art of facilitation
Facilitation, which is more of an art than science, entails a leadership role that helps a group in navigating through a discussion to achieve its stated goal or agenda. Yogi Sriram, senior vice-president (corporate-human resources), Larsen & Toubro, Mumbai, believes that the ability to facilitate a discussion in group situations like meetings, training sessions, conferences, or even in one-on-one conversations, is a crucial skill for success. The facilitator leads the group towards an outcome that it stands committed to and takes responsibility for. This involves the ability to trigger thought and draw ideas and opinions, through active listening, astute questioning, and the ability to cut out the chaff and summarize the discussion at logical junctures.
The art of learning
In today’s environment marked by rapid change, knowledge and expertise are prone to becoming obsolete at the blink of an eye. It is imperative, therefore, according to Sriram, to inculcate the ability and attitude to learn every moment, in order to remain relevant and move ahead.
Sriram draws upon Columbia University professor Donald Super’s Life Career rainbow, a framework that outlines career development in terms of life stages and life roles, when he says that learning transcends age, but the motivation to learn undergoes a change as we move through the different stages of life. Very often we learn because of peer pressure and just enough for performing the task at hand. However, when this pressure is eliminated and learning becomes totally voluntary, one experiences what psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “Flow” is the mental state when a person is completely absorbed in what he does or learns, deriving an element of immense pleasure in the process.
The leaders set the tone for a learning organization by nurturing a culture that promotes learning that runs far beyond the annual training calendar. A learning organization is characterized by an environment where people feel comfortable expressing views, even those that diverge from the mainstream; and they are encouraged to take calculated risks, explore unchartered territories, deploy novel ways of doing things, and learn from their mistakes. It is marked by an openness to and appreciation of different ideas and perspectives.
The art of resilience
Legend has it that Thomas Edison, in his bid to produce a commercially viable light bulb, had to create 10,000 prototypes before getting it right. Michael Bloomberg found Bloomberg, the iconic financial data and media company, after he was laid off from Salomon Brothers, the Wall Street investment bank. A rising soccer star who had just been signed by Real Madrid as goalkeeper, Julio Iglesias’ dreams of a soccer career came crashing down after he was involved in a serious car accident. He rose from the ashes, however, to become the best-selling Latin music artist in history. What is the common thread running through these stories? Resilience. Bowen believes that the ability to combat setbacks, catapult adversity into opportunity, bounce back from a derailing experience, and then adapt and continue running the race, is among the most important skills for survival in the current turbulent environment. Contrary to the yesteryears, when people enjoyed the luxury of cruising along a predictable and stable life marked by incremental growth, today life offers a roller-coaster ride characterized by quick peaks, and quicker valleys. Hellen Keller’s famous quote strikes a chord in such a scenario: “When one door closes, another opens. But we often look so regretfully upon the closed door that we don’t see the one that has opened for us”.
Charu Sabnavis is the director of Delta Learning, a human resources consulting and training company.