Master some new skills while taking care of business.
Choosing your next job opportunity is tricky. Chances are, the job descriptions you encounter are a mix of skills you can confidently demonstrate and skills you have yet to master. That is particularly true of those first professional jobs after graduation, but in my experience, the dynamic is the same for more experienced professionals as well. Otherwise, a new position would offer no room for growth–and where’s the fun in that?
Job requirements as listed in the description of the position are a mixed bag. Certain skills are true prerequisites–if your job requires a proficiency in Excel or Word, you can hardly show up on your first day and not be able to open a basic file. However, other skills can be learned on the job. In fact, most hiring managers aren’t looking for someone who is “100% baked” in terms of professional development. They understand that your ability to master a skill comes with exposure, time, and feedback–so they look for basic proficiency and potential, not perfection.
Here are some things that you can expect to learn on the job to build your skillset.
#1: Industry knowledge.
If you are choosing a job position in the area of your advanced degree (such as biology, chemistry, or accounting), chances are that you have the prerequisite technical qualifications to get you in the door. However, most hiring managers don’t have illusions in regards to your practical experience in their industry. They understand that industry knowledge will come with time. The same holds true if you are changing industries mid-career.
What can you do to speed up the process? Focus on your transferable skills. You can position yourself for a shorter learning curve by forming a network of trusted professionals and mentors that you can approach for career advice and guidance. Reading industry publications can get you up to speed on terminology and hot button issues. Attending workshops and conferences can be another great way to expand your knowledge and your network.
#2: Client services.
You may find yourself in a direct client-facing or client-serving role, or your “client” may be your boss or a counterpart in another department. Regardless of the specifics, learning client service skills is a part of any professional assignment.
You can get better at client services through every interaction, professional and personal. The best thing you can do is observe, practice and build your personal collection of approaches and techniques that work well for you.
#3: Project management.
Everyone has a certain level of experience managing assignments and projects with multiple moving parts. From group projects in college to coordinating rent payment with roommates, chances are you have had to consider deadlines, communicate expectations and establish accountability. So, the basic building blocks of the skill are there, you may just need to develop and maximize them.
Every company’s workflow is different. In order to speed up your learning and add value quickly, ask for an overview of the project, its various components and contributors across the departments. The better you understand those reporting relationships and interdependencies, the more effective you will be at identifying bottlenecks, facilitating progress and communicating changes.
There are many tools for staying organized. Some people find that a whiteboard works well, others like online virtual collaboration tools like Teamwork and Asana. As you learn to balance your work responsibilities, ask your co-workers and managers for tips and ideas.
#4: Strategic thinking.
You may be naturally wired to be a big-picture kind of a person, one who easily sees consequences and interdependent reactions in every situation. Or you may find yourself more suited for smaller steps and details and have difficulty grasping the entirety of the project. In either case, we can all get better at strategic thinking.
If you struggle with the strategic view, be patient with yourself–a lot of your frustration is probably a result of not having enough practical experience. As you observe things going well (and not), you will have the benefit of seeing connections and consequences in real life and learn from them.
Mentoring can also go a long way towards helping you understand far-reaching implications of decisions, deadlines, and interactions in the workplace. If you can find a good teacher or mentor who will spend a few minutes with you de-briefing a client meeting or analyzing the consequences of a missed deadline, your learning will be boosted.
#5: Public speaking.
Public speaking is the number-one fear for most American adults. It is no wonder that few of us get to the workplace with any degree of confidence in that department, despite all those public speaking classes in college. Dry mouth, mental confusion, and shaky hands–if this is you before you have to address a group, you are not alone.
The good news is that anyone can get better. You can take the simple route of using small opportunities to practice, try your best, and learn from the experience. You can consider signing up for Toastmasters, a program that offers a structured approach to overcoming the discomfort of public speaking. Watch other professionals, think about what makes their delivery and approach effective, and ask for coaching and feedback. Books like Chris Anderson’s “TED Talks” are good resources, as well.
As you can see, it is okay to not have a complete set of job skills as you accept a new position – your openness to learning will go a long way towards getting you up to speed. That being said, there are three important components to on-the-job learning that haven’t been addressed.
Good employee training programs.
If you know you have a knowledge gap, it is a good idea to ask questions about the training programs that will be available to help you maximize your effectiveness at work. Some companies do their training in-house while others are open to sending you to external seminars. It is okay to not know everything, but you must have an employer-supported way of filling in the blanks.
Mentoring and coaching.
Having the support of an experienced professional who has your best interests at heart can work wonders for your learning curve. As you interview, be on the lookout for the opportunities to connect with the people who can help you avoid obvious rookie mistakes, guide you through a difficult decision, or help you think about a problem in the workplace.
You cannot get better if you don’t know what you need to work on! I know that “performance review” is a dirty word in many workplaces, and that some managers treat it as a check-the-box annual exercise. If you care about your professional development, ask for timely feedback. Listen deeply, even if the feedback is delivered in a style or format that you do not like.
So, as you review job postings and consider your interviews, separate the qualifications into the “must have” and “okay to learn on the job” categories. Don’t let your perceived lack of expertise prevent you from reaching for an opportunity that can help you grow. We all learn on the job. What is most important is your ability to demonstrate the willingness to learn.
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