I’ve come to realize that growing certain skills are more important than functional skills. Functional skills are great, don’t get me wrong. If you want to grow in a more senior leadership role, there are specific evergreen skills that need to be developed.
After university, I luckily stumbled into digital marketing. It was the early days of the web. I was half decent at SEM and SEO (also, excel!). If you liked it, it was easy to progress quickly. The industry was so fertile and in high demand. Being good at this functional skill helped me a lot early in my career. I’m out of that world now and can’t claim any competence anymore even though I still find it interesting.
As I moved along in different roles, having a specific set of functional skills has become less important. Focusing on skills that are transferable across roles and time is key to growth.
The first one is communication. Being able to express your thoughts in a concise and clear manner. Speaking in front of a group of people with confidence is not easy. I used to be extremely shy and introverted. While working at different agencies, I was thrust in front of customers and eventually had to pitch. This was a forcing function to learn to speak and eventually present in larger groups of people.
Writing is another skill that is often overlooked. It’s growing in importance as more communication moves to chat or email form. Part of the reason for this blog is to force me to improve my writing and thinking.
Listening and asking questions go hand in hand. This requires being totally present in a conversation and being genuinely interested. We have pretty high bullshit detectors so if you sense someone being too transactional, it does not go unnoticed.
One way for me to learn is to find what the person across from me is interested in and to be genuinely curious.
A key trait for a leader to get people aligned in the same direction. A top down diktat can work sometimes but is usually fraught with danger. The best leader’s I’ve learned from engage in healthy debate. This means getting people around the table (or zoom) to express their viewpoints. Then, it’s the job of the decision maker to explain the rationale behind the chosen direction in front of the group. People can still disagree but at least they’ve been heard. Debating back and forth openly and honestly usually leads to people rowing in the same direction.
Another important evergreen skill is looking at the big picture. It means developing t-shaped skills. Understanding strategy, finance, corporate development, product and more generally incentives. “Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome”. This quote by Charlie Munger brilliantly illustrates how human behavior is driven by incentives. We’re all living our own single player video game and are driven to optimize for our best individual outcome. Understanding incentives at each part of the business stack unlocks knowledge of the big picture.
The final one is honing your mental game, how you think impacts how you act and lead. For me that has meant being an optimistic externally and a pessimist internally. It’s a delicate balancing act that can lead to a lot of negative thinking. I still have a lot of work left to do in this area!
Functional and soft skills are not incongruent with each other. People can enjoy mastery over a particular subject and also possess great leadership skills. I’ve always enjoyed bouncing around areas and projects that are interesting to me at the time. This had led me to want to experiment and try different things without claiming to be a master in one particular domain. Ultimately, it’s about always continuing to learn which is the ultimate evergreen skill.