Have you, as an employee, ever thought about how much companies hate to hire new people? The process itself is tedious from their perspective, but more importantly, it costs them a lot of money. Besides the direct costs, there’s also a major bottleneck most people are unaware of: it typically takes a new employee 12 to 24 months to become fully productive.
The situation is even worse when hiring somebody who’s just completed college. You would think that recent graduates have been taught all the fundamental skills they need to be effective at work: showing up on time, understanding instructions, operating well-known computer software, knowing when to take initiative and when to ask for guidance, working in a team, and so on. By in large, most of them are actually fairly proficient at these workplace basics. It just turns out that there’s a lot more to being an employee who adds real value.
So, what are these special skills that boost your earning potential and which managers are always looking for? The domain-specific competencies posted in the job advert are essential, of course (though it’s often the case that they ask for a master’s degree when they’re willing to accept a bachelor’s plus some experience, for example). The abilities that really make a candidate stand out and allow them to ask for a higher salary usually have much wider relevance – many of them may surprise you, and all of them can be learned to some extent.
Table of Contents
- 1 Hear and Be Heard
- 2 Public Speaking
- 3 Active Listening
- 4 Business Writing
- 5 Negotiation
- 6 Neuro-Linguistic Programming
- 7 Doing More, More Easily
- 8 Time Management
- 9 Learning to Prioritize
- 10 Speed Reading
- 11 Semi-Specialized Skills
- 12 Accounting and General Business Knowledge
- 13 Upgrade Your Spreadsheet Skills
- 14 Digital Marketing
- 15 Project Management
- 16 If You Want to Earn More at Work, Upskilling Is the Only Way to Go
Hear and Be Heard
In the modern world, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything worthwhile by yourself. Almost everybody has to deal with people above and below them in the same company, as well as numerous people with specializations different from their own. Engineers, marketers, lawyers, and accountants all “speak their own language”: each group shares certain unspoken assumptions that warp the way they interpret even apparently simple statements. In an international context, the problem becomes even worse – a joke that slays in one culture may fall totally flat in another.
Nevertheless, we all have to get along if any of us want to be productive. Though this isn’t always obvious, there are several techniques that make sharing ideas, attitudes, and information easier. Applying them will not only help you to get your point across more effectively but prevent tons of frustration and conflict. Not all that many people actually study communication, preferring to rely on their basic personalities instead. This is why learning these skills will make you way more valuable to any company, especially in any kind of managerial role.
In almost all companies, promotion goes not to the people who have the best ideas but those who can express their ideas best. This generally means doing a presentation to a number of senior people at once. Now, most of us have a pretty good handle on two-way conversations, where you get immediate feedback on whether the other person understands and agrees with you. Speaking by yourself, as if to a wall, requires a completely different skillset – not to mention that a dozen blank faces staring at you is a lot more intimidating than the average wall.
Perhaps the best public speaking course out there is presented by the Dale Carnegie company. The method they use is very different from what you probably remember from school (force you to speak in front of the class and sink or swim, possibly leaving you vowing to never end up in that situation again). This program is therefore ideal for those who struggle with self-confidence in this particular scenario, but also covers numerous other aspects of effective communication. Even if you never plan to go up on a podium, learning these makes taking the course worthwhile: whether your goal is to explain, convince, inform, or entertain, your future conversations with one or several people at a time will be on a new level.
According to the “You have two ears but only one mouth” theory my grandma was a big fan of, there are two keys to effective communication:
- Shut up unless you have something to say.
- Listen to the other guy instead of mentally formulating your response while they talk.
Most people, by contrast, prefer to focus on the active, speaking part of communication. When you think about it, though, there’s about a 50% chance that the thoughts of the guy opposite you are more important than your own. Just as importantly, it’s difficult to come to any sort of agreement with someone if you don’t truly understand what they want.
No matter how smart they are, not everyone can express themselves clearly and assertively. Learning the habit and skill of active listening – hearing someone out while prompting them in useful directions – helps to bridge this communication gap and gives you access to knowledge and ideas you could never come up with on your own, not to mention being seen as much more empathetic and approachable.
Another skill all adults are assumed to have, but many don’t, is the ability to express themselves using the written word. All of us have received emails that are so poorly drafted that you can’t make out what the sender is referring to, who else is involved, what the thing’s current status is, or what exactly they want from you. If something is difficult to understand…most people just won’t make the effort. At best, this causes what should have been a simple conversation to take several days of back-and-forth questions and clarifications; at worst, they’ll simply ignore you.
When it comes to bad writing, email is probably the most common offender, as many people skim through the original, write a reply as quickly as possible, and send it without proofreading. There are more serious examples, though: what about company policies and procedures people are supposed to follow? If people can’t understand what’s expected of them, they can hardly be blamed for doing whatever they think is best. The person who wrote them is ultimately at fault – don’t let this be you.
In addition, people both inside and out of your company will judge your professionalism by the tone and content of the documents you send them. In this sense, clear, concise writing is just as important as dressing appropriately. Assuming that you already speak English reasonably well, a short course will allow you to express and present yourself much better. The idea is not to convert you into a new Hemingway, just teach you how to organize thoughts coherently so the reader will get what you’re trying to say.
If you don’t ask for what you want, the answer is always no. Just asking is probably not going to yield a “yes”, either: you have to do so in the right way and be prepared to offer something suitable in return.
If your job involves negotiating with outside parties, you probably already have a fair idea of what you’re doing, but there’s always room for improvement. Even if your job technically doesn’t require it, this is still a skill that can boost your earning potential at work: every time you ask to be assigned to a specific project and definitely when asking for a raise, you are most certainly negotiating. Many of your interactions with coworkers, too, involve negotiation in some form. It’s therefore worth learning the basics and putting them into practice when appropriate.
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a psychological theory that comprises numerous skills you can use to boost your earning potential at work. While its scientific basis is controversial, many people have found its techniques to work well at improving verbal communication, interpreting body language, overcoming mental blocks, and more.
A full seminar covering NLP theory and its practical applications typically runs to several days and at least a thousand dollars. Face-to-face training is preferred to online courses. You don’t need to learn from a certified trainer to try out some of this system’s basic tricks, though – you can always experiment with these and look into the matter further if you find them to be effective.
Doing More, More Easily
Nearly everyone will nod emphatically when you tell them that it’s better to work smart than hard…and then go back to doing things exactly as they used to a minute later. This is despite certain routines and approaches to working giving demonstrably better results.
Part of the reason so many people refuse to optimize their workflow comes down to simple force of habit. Another factor has to be that most of us are conditioned to just get to work instead of thinking about how we work. Overcoming this natural tendency requires some effort, but actively looking for better ways to do things has huge benefits, not least of which is achieving more while seemingly working less.
In the modern workplace, it’s becoming increasingly common for (smart) bosses to value an employee who gets his job done in 8 hours and then goes home more than one who struggles with the same workload until 9 p.m. The latter guy – dedicated but less efficient – may be able to claim a moral victory of some sort, but the former is likely to be promoted sooner. He’s obviously ready for more responsibility.
The distinction between these two employees may come down to sheer competence but, often enough, the difference lies merely in their ability to draw up and follow a schedule. If you simply start a job and keep going until it’s finished, you’re often being busy without being efficient. Planning your day in advance helps you make better use of two of your most important resources: time and mental energy.
As an introduction to time management, the following tips should help:
- Almost all major projects can be broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. It’s best to allocate time for every one of these separately (and track how long you end up spending on each).
- Try to organize complicated tasks that require your full concentration into longer blocks – it takes nearly half an hour to regain your focus after paying attention to something else.
- The same break timetable doesn’t work equally well for everyone, but you do have to schedule rest intervals in your day. Many people swear by 5 minutes of relaxation after every 30 minutes of work.
- Everybody is most productive at some particular time of day. Plan to devote these hours to something worthwhile rather than gazing at Facebook or running trivial errands.
- Blocking out 5 to 10 minutes before every meeting to review the minutes of the previous one and any notes you may have will cause you to be much more on the ball.
Learning to Prioritize
One of the keys to getting more out of each workday is to understand the distinction between what’s important and what’s urgent. Urgent tasks, obviously, are those that need to be completed by a certain time just to keep the business running effectively. The timeframe for important tasks is more flexible, but they can also have a much greater impact in the long run. Let’s illustrate this with some examples:
Urgent: Complete and submit a report your boss needs to make a decision.
Important: Write down your ideas for a process improvement that could save all your coworkers time.
Urgent: Return a phone call to an unhappy client and have a 30-minute conversation.
Important: Cold-call three potential new clients and introduce yourself.
Urgent: Reorganizing (refactoring) a thousand lines of computer code by hand.
Important: Studying a software manual to see if this task can be automated.
Did you notice that each pair of tasks takes roughly the same amount of time? In general, it’s also true that urgent obligations are done in response to some external pressure, while important jobs tend to be more creative and fulfilling.
Image by David Morris
The Eisenhower matrix of urgent vs. important tasks, as adapted by Stephen Covey
So much for the theory. How are you supposed to apply this principle to increase your value and earning potential at work?
- Plan around looming deadlines to prevent routine chores from becoming urgent and crowding your schedule.
- Restrict yourself to more challenging timeframes for urgent tasks that don’t really need to be finished to a high standard of quality. This leaves more time for what’s important.
- Deliberately allocate at least part of your workday to important tasks that don’t need to be finished any time soon – sooner is still better than never.
- Sometimes, people will ask you to do something quickly even though it’s neither urgent nor important to you. Depending on your relationship and other circumstances, you may be within your rights to explain that this isn’t part of your job and choose to spend time on your own goals instead.
The average person reads only about 200 words per minute; for busy executives, the number is roughly twice that. These people are expected to digest a huge amount of information daily just to keep up with current events. The faster they can read without sacrificing comprehension, the more likely it is that they will go home before six.
Here’s the interesting thing, though: the way we all learn to read as children (KAH – AAH – TUH = “cat”), while probably the only way to teach how it all works, isn’t necessarily the most efficient. Most users of ideogram languages, where each character represents a concept rather than a sound, read faster than those using alphabet languages – despite Chinese writing, for instance, being written using over 5,000 unique, intricate “letters”.
The reason for this, it is theorized, is that ideograms can be translated into thoughts directly. Most European language speakers have to take the intermediate step of converting strings of letters into sounds. There’s no reason for this to be the case, though: speed readers interpret the information on the page or screen visually and routinely manage about 600 words per minute. Counter to what you would expect, they actually understand and remember more of what they read than people who take their time with the written word.
With regular practice, it takes most people a couple of weeks to learn this technique. As a tool to increase your earning potential at work, this is invaluable: simply knowing about events in your industry by scanning through journals and newspapers will make you an authority people listen to.
Sometimes, you only need to know a little more than everybody else in order to seem like a genius. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to trivia like baseball statistics or the weather in Timbuktu. On the other hand, even something simple like being the only one who’s taken the time to learn how to replace the toner in the office copier can give you a special status.
It’s difficult to translate a knack like that into earning more money. When you make a systematic effort to improving your abilities in some given area, though, you become much more employable even if your core skill set is on the mediocre side.
Accounting and General Business Knowledge
By far the majority of people, at work, are small cogs in a big machine. Many are entirely happy to remain in this situation. If, however, you want to move up at some point, you need to start seeing and understanding the big picture.
Accounting is about more than shuffling papers around, it’s the fundamental language of business. If you want to communicate sensibly with managers or become one yourself, it’s essential that you’re able to decipher financial statements and correctly use terms like return on investment, the time value of money, depreciation, margin, and several others. Luckily, though this field can get complicated, the basics are surprisingly logical and easy to learn.
Getting a handle on finance will already give you a much greater understanding of why your company operates as it does and how your job fits into the greater scheme of things. The next logical step is to expand this knowledge until people are willing to listen to you about the state of the marketplace and the probable way forward. There are several ways to accomplish this:
- Find a mentor inside your company you can meet with once a week. Some companies have formal mentorship programs. Alternatively, you can approach a senior staff member yourself – this makes both of you look good come performance review time.
- Read as much as you can on what’s happening in your industry and about business generally.
- Sign up for courses when these are available through your company. Systems like ISO 9001 and Six Sigma are genuinely useful, and it helps to have someone explain their complexities to you.
Upgrade Your Spreadsheet Skills
There’s a widespread feeling among non-geeks that everything related to computers is somebody else’s problem. Here’s the thing, though: computers are nothing more than tools that don’t care who’s making use of them.
They do care about how you use them. This principle is called GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Contrariwise, someone who knows how to talk to computers can multiply their effectiveness (and by extension, their earning potential) by simplifying otherwise laborious tasks.
Probably the best example of this is the spreadsheet. Many people use this only as a glorified calculator, but it can also serve as a quick-and-dirty database, a modeling and planning tool, an automatic report generator, and more. The following ideas can be good starting points for leveraging these capabilities:
- Learn something about statistics. This may sound boring and impractical, but statistics is literally the science of information and decision-making. Spreadsheet applications contain numerous statistical functions, so you don’t have to learn an entirely new program to apply this knowledge.
- Figure out “advanced” functions most people never learn how to use: pivot tables, macros, conditional statements, and more.
- Start to use Excel’s powerful data integration features. The “Insert Hyperlink” command is useful, but understanding what PowerQuery can do for you will make a lot of copying and pasting a thing of the past.
Whether you sell to consumers or other companies, the internet is increasingly where it’s at. Everybody knows this, but surprisingly few people understand just how to exploit this trend.
Digital marketing is the art and science of using online channels – social media, search engines, advertisements, and more – to promote a brand and drive sales. Someone with this skill can command a pretty good salary, as there’s a big difference between the ROIs (Returns on Investment) of a poorly crafted and a strategically designed campaign. They can also strike out on their own as a consultant once they’ve gained some experience.
Establishing yourself as an expert in this field requires significant and ongoing work, as what used to work six months ago may no longer apply. If you’re willing to invest the time, however, and especially if your current job touches on sales, web design, or publishing, this knowledge will be hugely valuable to your company and may well translate into a promotion. It will also be well worth learning if you hope to pursue a lucrative, internet-based side hustle in the future.
Project management comes down to planning and implementing a complex undertaking consisting of many moving parts so that the job gets done on time and within budget. That’s the simple version: in practice, this requires a broad and perpetually in-demand skill set.
Though project management is a specialized discipline, it finds its way into almost any kind of business activity: sales and marketing, engineering, IT, human resources, or whatever your job may be. Getting a PM qualification can therefore be an excellent complement to whatever you’re currently experienced in and is very likely to boost your earning potential.
Bear in mind that not everyone is cut out to be a project manager. Though the skills and techniques you’ll learn in this field are useful in any career, shepherding a major operation to completion according to a schedule requires a high tolerance for stress, excellent problem-solving skills, and leadership ability.
If You Want to Earn More at Work, Upskilling Is the Only Way to Go
There are numerous skills that will boost your earning potential we didn’t include here, often because they sound a little abstract. Many people consider these to be personality traits, but they can indeed be learned. Emotional self-control, for instance, sounds like something you either have or you don’t; it is in fact very possible to improve in this area by studying and exercising a few principles. If you want to discover areas such as these in which you can improve, you generally need only listen carefully to your next performance review.
How will learning the above skills affect your career? During the hiring process, unfortunately, some will help less than others. Some recruiters are more than a little out of touch with how the businesses they serve actually run, and won’t be able to see the value of (say) a technician who’s comfortable giving a talk to a room full of clients. Once you’ve found a position, though, all and any of them will steadily earn you the reputation of someone who gets stuff done, cementing your position in the organization. A better salary and network of contacts are sure to follow before long.