In late spring 2005 I was in the second semester of the first year of my MBA program. It was a few weeks before finals and the completion of the “first year core” curriculum which consisted of required courses in the “hard skills” of Marketing, Finance, Accounting, Strategy and operations culminating in a case competition capstone class. More importantly, it was the time to enroll in courses for the fall semester, the first time we could choose our own classes. Options for coursework fell into three major categories:
- Functional Courses in Marketing, Finance, Operations, etc. provided either more advanced study in these areas or a “deep dive” into sub-functions like Brand Management (Marketing), security analysis (Finance) or non-core functions like Business Law or Entrepreneurship.
- Industry Focused Courses provided insights and domain expertise in focused industries. Examples included focused courses on the Medical Device Industry, Marketing Consumer Packaged Goods, and Petroleum Operations Management.
- Soft Skill Courses focused on skills that were broadly applicable across functions and industries and included Negotiation, Team Management, Labor Relations, Organizational Design, etc.
My goal was to focus on strategy and management but to spend over 50% of my time developing soft skills and assumed most of my colleagues would do the same. In speaking to other students, I was surprised to find that the majority planned to focus almost exclusively on Functional courses with a few who were more focused on specific industries. Very few wanted to take coursework in soft skills. When I asked people why they weren’t interested in studying the soft skills, answers ranged from eye-rolling to “nobody cares about that fluffy BS.”
Those of you who have read my earlier post about my thoughts on the MBA [Should You Get an MBA?] know that I am rather lukewarm on the value of the degree. However, looking back, I use what I have learned from the soft skills classes (especially Negotiation and Team Management) on a near daily basis whereas I would be hard pressed to remember any specific from my “hard skills” courses. One of the major failure modes I see in the corporate world is individuals struggling to transition to larger roles because they have not adequately developed their soft skills. In fact, I think most employees do not spend nearly enough time understanding their soft skill gaps and creating a development plan to address these gaps.
The key to being adequately prepared for larger roles is to understand the knowledge and skills required to succeed at each stage of your career, how to master those skills, and which skills you will need to demonstrate and hone to prepare you for a larger role.
- Early Career/Individual Contributor. Success at lower levels within an organization generally requires focus on a specific set of defined deliverables in a functional area. For example, a Financial Analyst will likely prepare monthly financial statements whereas an Operations Analyst will measure efficiency of a manufacturing process. The key to succeeding in these roles is to master the functional requirements of the job (that is why you were hired, after all). The secondary focus should be to understand the dynamics of the industry in which you work to build domain expertise while building soft skills that will enable your success (teamwork, communications, etc.)
Primary Skill Focus: Functional Expertise (Marketing, Finance, Etc.)
Secondary Skill Focus: Domain (Industry) Knowledge & Basic Soft Skills (teamwork, communications, etc.)
- Mid-Career/Middle Manager. As a middle manager, you will likely have a broader responsibility meaning you will have to put more of the “pieces together” on how the business works (ie. the business model). You will also likely manage a team and interface directly with other functions. If you are a functional leader success requires deep expertise in your specific function (it will be hard to lead a Marketing team if you are not an expert in Marketing and cannot differentiate between good and bad Marketing). You will also require a basic understanding of the other functions with which you interface and deeper domain expertise in your industry. Finally, you will need more advanced soft skills around negotiation and conflict resolution.
Primary Skill Focus: Cross-Functional Expertise and Domain (Industry) Knowledge
Secondary Skill Focus: Intermediate Soft Skills (negotiation, conflict resolution)
- Executive/Senior Leader. Many people expect executives to be experts on every function, the industry, and soft skills. However, that is an unrealistic expectation and nobody can realistically be an expert in these areas. The big “secret” is that most executives are not functional experts. In fact, many could not effectively do the job of each contributor within their organizations. Why? Well, they don’t have to. Their focus is on setting a compelling vision and strategy to achieve that vision and ensuring the organization has the resources, processes and metrics to execute effectively. Success as an executive is first and foremost about mastery of soft skills. Industry knowledge is important, but can be learned in time. Functional knowledge is important so far as the executive needs to keep the team honest.
Primary Skill Focus: Soft Skills including Leadership, Motivation, Organizational Design, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.
Secondary Skill Focus: Domain (Industry) Knowledge and Functional Expertise
In hindsight, many of my colleagues in business school did a disservice to their career by focusing solely on hard skills and not enough on soft skills. This is a surprisingly common mistake. The key to advancing rapidly in the corporate world is to understand what success looks like from a skills perspective and ensuring you are developing the skills needed to achieve your career goals.
The good news is you do not have to do this on your own! Ask for feedback from your manager on which skills are required for success now. Target the role you want in the future and meet with people who have (or have had) that role and understand, again, what is needed to succeed. Every company is different and every role is different, but the fundamental skills are the same. Master the right skills at the right time and there will be no limit to your potential.