How to survive in a new environment without technical competencies
I learnt of this phrase, transferable skills, very early in my career. Partly because I read a lot, but also because circumstance allowed me to move a lot, and this word became a key part of my career journey.
The dictionary defines it as abilities and skills that are relevant and helpful across different areas of life, socially or professionally. I define it as the most important thing one should learn as you move up in your career.
Let me explain my career a bit. I started off as an electronics engineer which was great for my first job as a firmware engineer in the data storage industry, but it all became irrelevant from then on.
This is more common than you would think, as CareerBuilder in a 2013 study noted that 47% of college-educated workers had a first job that was outside their field.
Hence, the more urgent need to understand what works as you move across industries and job fields, as I’ve done in my career.
When I moved back to Malaysia, I found myself without a job, and having to learn to programme and deliver software in the finance industry.
Funny story: During the interview, I was given a programming test. To which my reply was, “Give me a week to learn programming and I will be back.”
Somehow it worked, and I came back in a week and got the job. I spent the whole week learning everything I could about VB6 (yes, I’m old).
That brings us to lesson #1
Make sure you have a thirst to learn and that you learn fast. We live in a world that is moving faster than most can keep up with.
There are plenty of articles out there about the need for people to re-skill as technology (in particular Artificial Intelligence) will replace most career choices.
The Future of Employment report predicts that 47% of total US employment is in the high-risk category of being replaced by automation. Even without moving careers, we will need to embrace fast learning as the No.1 transferable skill. This message was reinforced again for me when I read an article by Susan Peters, senior vice-president of HR at GE.
In describing the newly identified CEO for GE, after a six-year succession planning process, her first description was as follows: “In John Flannery, our company’s next CEO, the GE Board has selected a life-long learner and a strong operator with global experience.”
Without this desire to learn and willingness to learn, I never would have landed that job.
Passion for learning new things is something that I carry till today, and I keep it alive by reading as many things as I can get my hands on.
Technology makes this much easier now, with apps like Flipboard and Pocket feeding my thirst for knowledge.
From that job, I then dabbled in a little bit of entrepreneurship before a major solar company came calling. I was coerced into the interview by a friend.
During the interview, it was obvious that I did not have the technical skills for the job, which required automation and PLC knowledge. (At that point, I wasn’t even sure how a PLC worked).
To my surprise, I was offered the job two weeks later. I called back my interviewer to ask why, and to share my surprise at the decision. The answer was that I had the know-how to get the job done. They trusted that I have what it takes.
That was the first time I realised I could get hired for my leadership competencies and not for my functional competencies
Leadership skills are transferable even when functional skills are not. Hence, leadership skills are the most important attribute you can develop.
The prospect of joining a company that was establishing a manufacturing presence in Malaysia and to be part of that pioneer team was too much for me to resist. I began a career in manufacturing automation, which brought me great satisfaction and success.
The leadership skills that I was hired for are generally the leadership competencies that you find in most companies. A good reference is to use the 20 CCL leadership competencies, which can easily be mapped to most organisations’ needs.
Till today, I firmly believe in focusing on the competencies of leading self, leading others, and leading organisations as a basis for success.
The next step in my career took me into the world of programme or project management and delivery in the supply chain industry.
Again, I felt like a fish out of water as I had to learn a new culture, new leadership styles, a new software language, and a new project methodology, not to mention a new industry.
The most jarring was the culture and style, as the company had grown rapidly from a start-up to an enterprise software company primarily with the same group of people.
As more people were hired from the outside, there were challenges in both culture assimilation as well as mismatched expectations. I learnt my third lesson here.
Open your mind to new possibilities and adapt quickly. Most people tend to bring their baggage with them, and as humans, show some bias with “how we used to do things”.
I learnt quickly to challenge myself to assimilate and accept the current best practices in the organisation.
Only after many months of assimilation, did I then try to reach back into my experience and challenge what I knew versus what I had learnt. You see, if you don’t give it a chance, most of us will wind up being biased with what worked for us before.
That bias makes adaptation slower and more challenging. It also leads to dissatisfaction, either in the new hire or the existing employees, especially when you take on a leadership role.
We must approach all new experiences with an open mind. It’s important to bring your experience to bear on any new circumstances. But as the wise say, you should first strive to observe, listen and learn, before speaking. As the adage goes, that’s why we have two ears but only one mouth!
Those are my top three lessons that I learnt that will allow you to move into leadership roles in a new function or role, in a new organisation, in a new industry and still find success.
1. Passion for learning, and a fast learning curve
2. Leadership skills – how you lead yourself, how you lead others, how you lead an organisation.
3. Adaptability and an open mind.
Now, convincing your interviewer of the same. . .well, that’s for another article!
It also starts with you believing that what you have is enough to bring to the table.
Once you have the leadership competencies, you must have the self-belief that you will be able to help the organisation you seek to join – that you can do what it takes. You’ve got to start with that.
Sometimes it amazes me that people gave me the different opportunities that I had the privilege of experiencing.
But then I look back at how I interview people and observe how others conduct an interview and find the answer.
There is some basic functional skills that one usually tests for, as a baseline requirement, but it’s rarely what gets you the job. It’s the leadership skills that get you hired. It’s usually a specific set of competencies that people are looking for during an interview, at least at the more senior roles.
And these competencies are definitely transferable, as I’ve learnt in my career. I leave you with a quote from Martin Yate’s Ultimate Job Search Guide:
Regardless of profession or title, at some level we are all hired to do the same job. We are all problem solvers, paid to anticipate, identify, prevent, and solve problems within our areas of expertise.
This applies to any job, at any level, in any organisation, anywhere in the world, and being aware of this is absolutely vital to job search and career success in any field.