The Core Skills You Need In Every Employee

Managers often struggle in keeping talented and ambitious employees engaged. Don’t jump to promoting them into a role they aren’t ready for, focus instead on skills development.

In The Hiring Guide I write a lot about skills, and how to incorporate them into job descriptions and interview toolkits.

There are two kinds of skills: skills that are essential to roles, and skills that every employee in your company needs. Most senior managers would agree with this sentiment, but few go so far as to implement a training programme that seeks to develop those skills.

While the full set of company-wide skills may vary from business to business, there are five core skills I believe any fast-growth, early-stage company needs from its employees:

  1. Self and social awareness
  2. Confident communication
  3. Organisation
  4. Analytical problem-solving
  5. Engaging external entities

Each core skill can be broken down into sub-skills:

1. Self and social awareness

  • Understanding your personality, strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how they affect your decisions as well as the people around you.
  • Understanding other personality types, and how to interpret and work with other people’s behaviours and emotions.
  • Applying techniques that let you achieve the above while acting and thinking objectively.

2. Confident communication

  • Giving, receiving and acting on constructive feedback, be it positive or negative.
  • Writing reports, emails and briefing notes.
  • Presenting ideas in a way that facilitates fast and accurate decision-making.
  • Listening and speaking actively, communicating non-verbally.

3. Organisation

  • Using a range of productivity tools e.g. Trello, Evernote, Calendly, Zapier.
  • Having a system for juggling, prioritising, multi-tasking and context switching.
  • Managing calendars and schedules effectively.

4. Analytical problem-solving

  • Collating and interpreting data, and using it to make decisions.
  • Understanding what metrics mean across departments and how to calculate them.
  • Applying root cause analysis techniques to solve problems and stop them recurring.

5. Engaging external entities

  • Having positive interactions with candidates, suppliers and clients.
  • Pitching the company fluently, accurately and persuasively.
  • Having good negotiation skills.

I don’t expect every candidate I hire to have mastered all of these skills; I may even make the call that it’s okay for some candidates to be lacking in one or two.

Over time, though, it’s important that every employee develops all five. It makes them a well-rounded professional, prepares them for whatever path they want to take, and is ultimately a massive perk in terms of their personal development.

At some stage every manager finds themselves facing a smart employee, someone who is early in their career, bursting with potential and hungry to progress. Some managers get stressed over this situation and promote the employee quickly out of fear of losing them – often against their best interests. They’ll struggle to succeed without first mastering these five core skills. (Let’s face it, we all probably know senior staff who are struggling because they don’t have these skills…)

Instead of prematurely progressing your best employees, I recommend designing a core skills training programme that focuses on building the skills within their current roles. It’s a surefire way of developing and retaining staff, and directly benefits the work they do for your company. When presenting it to employees I like to compare it with a weapons armoury: fill your armoury with as many weapons (skills) as you can, because that’s what gives you options down the line.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard a few counterarguments to this. A CTO once argued that “developers don’t need these five core skills”, which I countered with the following examples:

1. Self and social awareness
Developers tend to need different working environments and patterns, which can cause tensions with other teams if not properly managed.

2. Confident communication
Developers work in teams to find solutions to complex problems. Because there’s no one right or wrong way to solve each problem, they need to choose an approach through effective collaboration.

3. Organisation
Developers are assigned problems to solve. They need minimal distractions and maximum concentration in order to work at pace, and beat the competition.

4. Analytical problem-solving
Developers are sent countless tickets every day, which can take a while to make sense of. A good product team might filter out feature requests and translate tickets into pain points, but developers still need to do their bit in helping teams articulate problems instead of solutions.

5. Engaging external entities
If you’re a tech-powered company, your tech team is your engine. The more you feed into it, the faster you grow, and the competition to attract quality developers is fierce. Equally, if more than half your company are developers they represent your majority workforce. Developers need to understand their responsibility, and their role in attracting candidates.

An effective core skills training programme is not “one size fits all”, and should be designed with levels and approaches for each skill that correspond to seniority level. Take “confident communication”, for example. A graduate, who needs to learn how to write succinct reports, could take part in a group training session and benefit from getting lots of practice; a senior staff member, on the other hand, who needs to know how to deliver a keynote speech to a large crowd, might need coaching or exposure to TED talks.

Smart people want to be smarter, and this kind of programme promotes the importance of development, instead of making promotions seeming all-important. Plus, it’s a much better perk than tasty office snacks or discounted movie tickets.

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