Dissect America’s corporate strategies and needs throughout the past 12 years, sort through the business-related research and anecdotal material, engage executives and entry-level employees, study the best journals and books, engage the top consulting firms and storied business school faculty, and you’ll find a phenomenal consensus on the needed competencies for career success. Though these competencies are oriented to parents and college students, they also provide a relevant perspective on learning and career pathing for those already in the workforce. Reduced to the most basic elements, here’s the list of key competencies:
1. A technology background or related expertise in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors. You want to major in a liberal arts program outside those technologies? Excellent, but make sure you get four to six STEM courses. (Major in sociology, but add statistics, computer science, etc. Or, major in English lit, dance, German studies, or archaeology, but pick up some STEM background along the way.)
The actual value of the STEM 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 STEM workforce, we will become less competitive in the global economy. However, without the broadly educated liberal arts grads, including those with liberal arts STEM majors — not mere technicians — 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 the faculty in your college major is halfway decent, the subtext, often unstated, is that your major discipline works on the basis of a specific set of cognitive models. My undergrad history major forced me to think big picture, look closely at data, and analyze potential causes underlying historical events. Applied to business, I found myself with superb analytical, tactical, cause-effect, and strategic competencies. Translated into business categories, here is what one English major learned. In the global marketplace, however, these are merely foundational competencies. You’re going to have to constantly build upon thinking skills. That will include 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 communication competencies 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 bottom it’s the 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 Gen-Yers seem 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 ability to respond to and manage change, and know how to learn. Few companies have a career ladder and few careers are linear. Instead, employees will need to adapt to a market that 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 miserable middle between now and then. 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 constant. Adaptable people understand that experience and work are chaotic, fragmentary, deviate from cherished values, and are given to imponderable ambiguity. Adaptation itself comes out of encounters with novelty that may seem chaotic. In trying to adapt, we often have to deviate from cherished values, behave in ways that we’ve barely glimpsed, and seize on clues that are merely fragmentary.
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 workroom. 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 I 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 entrepreneurial person regularly rebuilds his job and career in order to adapt to business needs or change 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 a high school degree gets you nowhere, that a bachelor’s 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. I’ve found that a typical liberal arts bachelor’s degree, requirements, major and all, provides space for meeting these basic expectations. However you read this blog, don’t miss the point that these competencies form the backdrop, indeed, the new normal for career success. So, go on about the business of acquiring and honing these skills, regardless of where you are in your career.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.