10 Ways to Get Your Job Skills in Shape

Learn the steps you should take today if you want to be competitive tomorrow

by Kate Ashford
tires and shoe in sand image
Photograph: Geof Kern

“In 10 years, productive project managers will be in high demand, especially if they can work across industries, cultures and languages,” says workplace consultant Steve Langerud. “Ask yourself, Where have I been a project manager, and how can I do more of that?” Your expertise at guiding a team could translate to a similar role in another field. Another skill to work on: leadership. “At a certain point there’s an assumption of talent, but not necessarily an assumption of leadership,” says Amy Dorn Kopelan, president of Bedlam Productions. Volunteer for opportunities within your company and for community efforts that fit your interests; you’ll gain experience, broaden your network and sharpen transferable skills.

Q: I’ve been hearing about “T-shaped skills.” Can you explain?
Paul Saffo, technology forecaster and consulting professor at Stanford University: This is an idea you will hear often at Stanford. T-shaped people have one area of deep expertise and broad skills on top of that.

Q: Ok… So how do I get T-shaped?
PS: My advice is, seek “adjacent expertise.” In other words, figure out what things will help you do your job better and will also be a lily pad to hop to if your current job evaporates.

Q: Do you mean become a generalist?
PS: No. Everybody loves hanging around with generalists, but nobody really wants to pay them. That said, general skills are absolutely essential, because in any current job, everybody is going to multifunction. You need to be able to work outside your formal area of expertise.

Q: What kinds of extra skills do I need?
PS: Don’t confuse T-shaped with acquiring a bunch of vertical skills. We’re not talking about English majors who become software engineers. That’s trading one insecure career for another. The skills have to be more closely related, or complementary, and have to offer a higher level of abstraction. For instance, if you have an engineering degree, get a management degree in addition—that could end up serving you well.

Q: How do I figure out what those “complementary” skills might be?
PS: In the short term, look at the skills that are taken for granted in college freshmen. The kids now coming in all know HTML. It’s like typing used to be for people in their fifties. I teach in an engineering school, and the students all ask if they can do a Web page instead of a paper.

Q: Now I’m scared.
PS: Nobody’s job is safe. Everybody is going to have a succession of professions, and the jobs today will go away. The pure specialist will end up going the way of the buggy-whip maker.

In 2011, Harvard Business School gave its entering MBA students $3,000 each in seed money to start a company. It’s not a bad idea to try the same thing yourself. That’s because the decisions you have to make to open a business are the same no matter how big that business is—and starting one on a  small scale is a great way to practice before your livelihood depends on it.

If you’ve never considered entrepreneurship, you may still find that it has a place in your career, especially in your later years, when getting hired is more difficult. “Not everybody is cut out for this,” says Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president of the Apollo Research Institute. “But because of the Internet, it’s easier now to be an entrepreneur than it was in the past.” In fact, women are starting about 550 businesses a day, according to the most recent State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. “In your forties or fifties, it used to be that you were planning retirement,” Wilen-Daugenti says. “Today you need to plan your encore career. Entrepreneurship is just another option.”

Q: You say women need sponsors?
Christine Silva, senior director of research at Catalyst: Yes. A sponsor is someone in your organization who is senior enough to advocate on your behalf, who sits at the table of decision makers and can speak up for you when it comes to promotions or chances at high-visibility development opportunities.

Q: Isn’t that what a mentor does?
CS: Mentors provide career advice and guidance. They may act as role models. But they aren’t necessarily senior enough to be a sponsor, and they may not be able to advocate for you.

Q: How did you arrive at this distinction between mentors and sponsors?
CS: We have been following the careers of MBA graduates from business schools around the world, and we have found that women lag behind men with respect to level and pay from their first job. But we have also found that women have more mentors than men do. It turns out it isn’t having a mentor that predicts advancement and compensation growth; it’s how senior that mentor is. When someone will put her reputation on the line and say, “I know she’s ready for the next step”—that seems to be the game changer.

Q: How do I get a sponsor?
CS: By networking with influential people in your company and making sure they know what you’ve accomplished and what your aspirations are. They have to know what you’d like them to sponsor you for.

Q: What mistakes do women make?
CS: They think that if they put their heads down and work hard, they’ll be noticed and get ahead. But you must also self-promote. Doing a good job doesn’t seem to be enough if people don’t know about it.

Increasingly, companies are looking for people who have worked abroad or managed an international team. The reason: Companies are doing more work overseas today than they were five years ago. “Even companies headquartered here have offshored some piece of their business,” says Elene Cafasso, president of Enerpace Inc., an executive coaching company. However, you may be able to stay put as long as you’re comfortable working virtually with team members in other time zones or are willing to travel frequently.

It’s not enough to have heard the name of new digital tools; you must try them. “If they’re talking about it in the mainstream media, you should know about it,” says Sabina Ptacin, cofounder of ’Preneur, a community and resource for small-business owners and entrepreneurs. “If you’re sitting in a meeting or an interview and someone mentions a new digital tool, you don’t want to present a blank face.”

Browse the technology news and figure out which tools are popping up over and over (no need to chase every technological flash in the pan; that’s just exhausting). Some good sources: Mashable.com, TechCrunch.com, the daily newsletter at Netted.net and the New York Times technology section. For tech and social media scoops, you should consider following the Twitter feeds from those sites, as well as @lifehacker, @tedrubin and @preneuring.

If you’re uncomfortable downloading tools on your own, take advantage of tutorials at your company when they’re available. If you have access to an Apple or Microsoft store,  sit in on workshops. (Find Apple classes at apple.com/retail/learn; locate Microsoft in-store tutorials at content.microsoftstore.com and online classes at microsoft.com/learning.)

To learn how to do something specific, consult Google; a YouTube video tutorial with lots of viewer hits is probably a good place to start. If you need to get up to speed on a few things fairly quickly, consider registering with Lynda.com, a library of online software-training videos; monthly memberships begin at $25. “Too many women, especially those over 45, think that if they know how to use PowerPoint or Excel, they’re OK,” says human resources director Pam Jackson. “No! You need to be able to harness technology to work for you.”

Today that means being comfortable with Dropbox, Google Docs, Google Analytics, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest, at the least. Be sure to update your software annually and keep an eye on your applications. “If people can’t open your files, you may be behind,” says Wilen-Daugenti. 

1. Think about what job you’ll want in 10 years.

2. Check job boards for those positions. What are the requirements? Do you meet them?

3. Get together with people who have the title you’d like. Ask them, “What skills do I need in order to become you?”

4. Note whether there is a set of skills or a degree that you don’t have. If there is, you may want to enroll in school.

5. Figure out if you can return to school part time while working.

6. Consider an online degree. But choose your school carefully. Employers are more likely to respect a degree from a school that also has a brick-and-mortar presence or one from a hybrid program in which you attend the occasional in-person class.

“When my executives find themselves in career transition, the number-one regret is always, ‘Why didn’t I stay in touch with more people?’” says Cafasso. “We all need to think of our LinkedIn connections and professional network as possible customers, referral sources and valuable assets.” Facebook, she says, is also a venue for networking, but not necessarily the most effective one. Here’s how to stay in touch with your professional contacts:

Divide your LinkedIn connections into three groups, perhaps A, B and C.

Then decide on a level of correspondence for each. For instance, maybe the A’s get a quarterly e-mail with a note, link or article. The C’s may receive only a holiday greeting. “Staying in touch doesn’t have to be involved or complicated,” Cafasso says. “Even if you called one person per week, you’d have a fresher connection should you need it.”

Here’s who should be in each group:

A’s: People who are influential in your industry or in a field that interests you. There will also be former colleagues who’ve moved to other companies or whom you left behind when you moved. If you got a pink slip tomorrow, could you see yourself dropping them an e-mail? If so, they belong on this list.

B’s: Coworkers you see regularly and not-so-close friends with whom you stay in touch.

C’s: “People you meet and they want to link to you, and you don’t want to be rude, so you say yes, but you wouldn’t lose sleep if you never saw them again,” Cafasso says. Keep in mind: You don’t have to develop lifelong friendships. Research has shown that weak ties can be richer sources of job help than close friends.

“When we went through the recession, female leaders retained their jobs when their male counterparts didn’t. We wanted to know why,” says Sharon Hulce, president and CEO of the Employment Resource Group in Appleton, Wisconsin. “It was often because the women were amazing mentors. They were looked at as that person who could give phenomenal advice.” Mentoring pays off. Not everyone comes to the role naturally, but there will always be opportunities to help people with their problems. And those relationships can influence your own marketability. “Someone will either get promoted or be pulled to a new organization,” Hulce says. “The relationships you have will play a critical role in your success throughout your career.” Plus, in 10 years, people who are young now will be hiring managers. “Leadership teams are skewing younger,” says Ptacin. “The senior person in your division may be 28.” Get comfortable working with and for young people now.

People used to resist moving sideways within an organization because they wanted the seniority that came with staying put. But seniority no longer guarantees that you won’t be laid off. In some cases, it may be better to forfeit your tenure and make a lateral move that gives you experience in new areas. “By changing jobs, you’ll expand your knowledge, close skill gaps, widen your network and gain experience in high-demand areas,” Wilen-Daugenti says. “That could lead to future job opportunities inside and outside your organization.”

There are a number of ways to make a lateral move. It may mean leaving your company. It may also mean volunteering for an opportunity within your firm to move to another division for a few years. You may be able to set it up as a department loan, in which you work for another group for six months to develop skills and experience, or even a person-to-person exchange, in which two employees exchange positions.

Next: Ready or Not, Your Job Is Changing

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First Published Tue, 2013-01-29 18:02

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