The six key competencies for career success in the 21st Century – with an occupational health twist

One of the clearest pieces of advice for those heading into the world of work in the next few years or those already there and wondering why they are a bit stuck is provided by Dan Erwin, Performance Improvement Coach and regular blogger on his own site http://danerwin.typepad.com/ and for the Human Capital League  http://www.humancapitalleague.com/ .

Erwin has taken a long hard look at America’s corporate strategies and needs throughout the past 12 years and its business-related research.  He’s taken the views of top executives, consulting firms and entry-level employees, studied the best journals and books, engaged top consulting and business schools and found a phenomenal consensus on the required competencies for career success as the 21st Century truly gets into gear.  And you know what? It’s exactly the same in the UK and the world over.  Not only will these competencies be key for individuals and companies, a national workforce that embraces them will make nation success a lot more achievable as we try to move out of tough times. Here are those competencies rewritten for the UK.

1.    A technology background or some expertise in science, technology, engineering and maths.

If you want to follow an arts pathway in education or employment, great, but make sure you have a good understanding and some qualifications in science and technology subjects, either at A level or as a secondary course at University or further education.

The value of science and technology competencies is that they provide the primary means for innovation for both business as well as the nation. They are our ultimate competitive advantage in the global marketplace. In short, without a robust technologically educated workforce, we will become less competitive in the global economy. However, without the broadly educated liberal arts graduates, we lose much of the creativity and intuition crucial in the workplace where fuzzy issues and dense problems, clashes of ideas and deep-seated ambiguities are the status quo.

2.    Complex thinking and problem solving.

If your university is half decent, the subtext, often unstated, is that achieving your degree works on the basis of a specific set of cognitive models. Course leaders should force you to think big picture, look closely at data and analyze potential causes for whatever outcomes happen to be in the sphere of your specialism.  This should provide you with good analytical, tactical, cause-effect and strategic competencies. However, these are merely foundations. You’re going to have to constantly build upon thinking skills including the ability to evaluate evidence, to see patterns in recurring problems, to draw adequate inferences and conclusions, to think metacognitively and to use relevant vocabulary.

3.    Written and oral communication.

The demand for competent communicators in the 21st century profoundly outpaces that of the last century. It’s not merely the multi-lingual nature of a diverse global world or the emphasis upon service economies and face-to-face relations. At grass roots employment, it’s the need to communicate clearly in flattened hierarchies with individual responsibilities for every person. Thus, success now requires the ability to use communication to bridge gaps between interdependent groups, to build and use networking intelligence, manage relationships, and create a motivational environment that will inspire the cooperation and contribution of others.    

In this new economy, the majority of more experienced, older workers struggle to communicate effectively. But Generation Y seems to have special needs at this point. As a warning, Arthur Levine, former president of the Columbia Teacher’s College and now president of The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, puts it this way: This generation is not very good at face-to-face relationships. The image that comes to mind is two students, sitting in the room they share, angrily texting each other, but not talking. They all want to have intimate relationships, they want to get married and have kids, but that’s hard to do if you don’t know how to talk with another person.

4.    Adaptability, which includes the abilities to respond to and manage change, and know how to learn.

Few companies these days have a career ladder and few careers are linear. Instead, employees will need to adapt to a market which is a dynamic, evolving system in which the further you try to assess the future, the more difficult it is to predict the outcomes. At its heart, adaptability is about the skills of change. It implies the ability to get from where you are now to where you want to go – and along the way, deal competently with the occasional mess in between. It also implies focus, constant learning and political smarts.

Adaptability is built upon the recognition that our world never stays the same, that dynamic change, not stability and permanence, is the only constant. Adaptable people understand that experience and work are chaotic, fragmentary, deviate from cherished values and given to imponderable ambiguity.  We often have to behave in ways that we’ve barely glimpsed and seize on clues that are merely fragmentary. And here’s the occupational health twist.  So often have I seen employees cite stress, depression and disillusionment because the world of work they entered 10 – 20 years ago just isn’t there anymore – even if their job has a similar title to the one it did then.  They haven’t evolved or adapted and the world is leaving them behind in a pool of angst and poor performance.

5.    Creativity.

Most people tend to think of creativity as beautiful designs such as great art, architectural masterpieces or the Apple iPad. The fact of the matter is that though business always needs creative masterpieces, business needs far more creativity and innovation in mobilizing talent, allocating resources, developing processes and building strategies.

But the most important fact about creativity is that at its heart it is a highly collaborative enterprise, not the lone genius in his/her office, back bedroom or garden shed. The unifying idea about creativity, which debunks a mile-high stack of creativity myths, is that even seemingly solitary artistic pursuits involve improvisation, collaboration and communication. The surprising reminder for many is that nothing is perceived to be creative unless people can communicate that insight to others. One of the more fascinating insights Erwin gained from consulting at 3M, one of America’s greatest creative firms, is that a creative team often searches for others who can communicate the value of their creation. Otherwise, their work is dead in the water. Surprisingly, the keys to creativity are going to be collaboration and communication, making this competency available to anybody who’s willing. Once more: the eccentric, lone genius is the exception, not the rule.

6.    Entrepreneurialism

The first thing most think about this subject is of a business person who builds a business from scratch. That’s merely one very minor reflection of an entrepreneurial, adventuresome spirit. A more generic perspective of entrepreneurialism includes the ability to take initiative and risks in order to put new ideas into play. In short, it’s finding useful and/or profitable solutions to problems. Furthermore, in today’s world the entrepreneur regularly rebuilds his job and career in order to adapt to business needs or changes jobs.

Entrepreneurialism is tightly related to creativity, especially to its communication side. A study by Hargadon and Sutton showed that the entrepreneurial process was remarkably similar across all companies. It included the ability to capture good ideas, keep the ideas alive, imagine new uses for old ideas, and put promising concepts to the test. One of the fascinating things we know about entrepreneurs is that they are good “noticers.” The Wall Street Journal’s Shellenbarger, for example, writes that entrepreneurs notice “unmet needs and ways to fulfill them.”

What’s most obvious about this new competency set is that good A levels alone don’t get you very far, a first degree is merely foundational and that success in the new economy will require constant learning and growth. Initially, you might think the academic portion of these demands to be a bit much. Erwin’s experience is that a typical liberal arts degree provides space for meeting these basic expectations but that’s only the beginning. These competencies form the backdrop, indeed, the new normal for career success. Regardless of where you are in your career, you need to carry on acquiring and honing these skills and tell your kids to do the same.

Thanks to Dan Erwin, http://danerwin.typepad.com/ for allowing the redrafting of his this post.

By |2012-12-04T15:19:22+00:00December 3rd, 2012|Blog, Uncategorised|0 Comments

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