Real world skills for a successful career

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A solid body of research has looked at the real world skills – practical skills that are rarely taught at schools, colleges and universities – that help people to succeed. For example, consider a study conducted by Scott Seibert and Maria Kraimer at Cleveland State University along with Robert Liden from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The research team gathered a considerable amount of survey information from 448 employees in various occupations within different organisations who were on average 35.6 years old and had been working for 13 years since their graduation from university. The researchers asked these participants to complete a number of questionnaires. They also gathered data on the participants’ career success - for example, asking them about the salaries they earned, the number of promotions they had received and how satisfied they were with their careers.

The study illuminates some of the key skills that will help you to do well in your career. Let us look at each in turn.

Understand the strategy of your organisation

The participants answered three survey questions about their access to information on their organisations. They rated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements:

  • I understand the strategies and goals of the organisation
  • I understand top management’s vision of the organisation
  • I have access to the strategic information I need to do my job well.

Unsurprisingly, participants in the study who agreed more strongly with these statements reported not only feeling more satisfied with their careers but also earning more money than other participants.

In terms of your career, do not expect that you will be handed access to the strategic information that you need. Likewise, do not merely complain if managers above you in the hierarchy do not explain the strategies, goals or vision of the organisation well enough. Take action. Make it your responsibility to seek out that information.

Volunteer to attend meetings to hear more about the plans of your organisation. Arrange both informal conversations and formal discussions with senior people so that you can ask them to explain the organisation’s direction and needs. Make it a goal of yours to do so and you will provide yourself with more context to perform well in your job; this, in turn, may not only boost your career satisfaction but also allow you to earn more too.

Gather the resources that you need

Participants in the study also rated the extent of their agreement with three statements to do with access to resources:

  • I can obtain the resources necessary to support new ideas
  • When I need additional resources to do my job, I can usually get them
  • I have access to the resources I need to do my job well.

Participants who indicated stronger agreement with these statements reported higher levels of career satisfaction. In addition, they tended to earn higher salaries.

So if you want both career satisfaction and higher earnings, think about your access to resources. Note that the first two statements are not in the passive tense. The first does not say, 'I am given the resources necessary to support new ideas'. Instead, the statement is about actively acquiring or even fighting for the right resources to support ideas.

Similarly, the second statement does not say, 'when I need additional resources to do my job, I am usually handed them'. This statement involves taking the initiative to pursue the right resources rather than hoping for them to come your way.

In terms of your own career, what are the right resources for you and your specific role? Think not only about tangible resources such as funding, access to the right technology, materials and personnel. Consider also less tangible resources such as the support of influential colleagues and decision makers.

When you have identified the resources that you need, think carefully about how you will secure them. Think about the leaders and budget holders that you may need to persuade. What will you need to do or say to win them over to your point of view? In some cases, you may need to write a business case with supporting facts and figures. In other instances, you may need to build more of a rapport or you may need to offer trade favours.

The point is that you should not expect the right resources to be delivered effortlessly to you. It is your responsibility to get what you need.

Seek out mentors

Some participants also reported having secured more mentoring than others. Participants who reported having secured more challenging assignments and protection by mentors tended to do better in their careers: they reported higher levels of career satisfaction, earned more money and obtained more promotions.

So be sure to seek out mentors. Identify senior figures within your organisation who might be willing to guide you. Do some research on them - at least seek other colleagues’ opinions about them - so that you can explain why you genuinely admire them. Deferentially ask them if they would agree to advise you occasionally.

If you can persuade such individuals to mentor you, be certain to demonstrate that you will not waste their time. Don’t simply expect them to teach you what you need to know. You must decide on the questions to ask and issues to discuss.

Prepare diligently beforehand and set an agenda for each meeting. Afterwards, be grateful and thank them for their time. Do all of this and your mentors will almost certainly help you to leap up the career ladder.

Dr Rob Yeung, organisational psychologist, Talentspace

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