I am a high school drop-out.
Now, after spending four decades in the world of work, it sometimes feels quite cool to introduce myself this way. It serves as a small reminder to myself, and hopefully to others that professional achievements are built upon a foundation of not only your successes but even more importantly sometimes, your failures. In all honesty, I also like to imagine that it conjures up this cool image of a carefree, rebellious rule-breaker, albeit a rebel in a suit and tie.
Alas, despite owning a Harley, I am not a rebel, nor was I at 16. The reality of the situation is I didn’t drop out of high school willingly; I pretty much flunked my exams and being brought-up in a coal mining town in Northern England in the 1980’s had nowhere else to go at age 16 other than the local unemployment office.
My first job was as a bag boy at a local grocery store; however, fast-forward eighteen years and I found myself working as a Country Manager for the Coca-Cola Near East Region. How had I gone from a vastly underqualified, high school dropout, to a manager at a Fortune 100 company, living and traveling all over the world? What factors allowed me to surpass the expectations society had for me when I left high school?
At the time, almost as a survival mechanism, I found myself focused on observation. I started noticing how the successful managers I was interacting with behaved, what aptitudes they seemed to possess that differentiated them from the pack. I tried to be aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, slowly learning how to strategically put myself in positions that played to these strengths while simultaneously making a concerted effort to develop the skills I found challenging, the skills that I noticed seemed key to professional success. My premature departure from formal education had inadvertently caused me to focus passionately on what would eventually become my field of expertise, my ‘soft’ skills.
My hard work paid off; my developing skills set started being noticed, and in time I was able to sever myself from the typecast of the high school dropout. With the benefit of hindsight, I now believe that my success is largely due to a mental shift in focus. I stopped worrying about eligibility (due to a lack of academic qualifications), and I focused on suitability instead. I may not have been the most eligible candidate in most of the interview rooms I stepped into in those early years, but on occasion, I was still the most behaviorally suitable. Personal Disclaimer: I am not suggesting eligibility is not important, I did eventually deal with my lack of qualifications by returning to school and completing my MBA. However, at the start of my career, I did not allow my lack of qualifications to stop me. This practical experience revealed a fact that years later I would discover has been the subject of much research in the business world, that suitability is equally important to professional success and recruitment as eligibility.
Changing my focus from eligibility to suitability also altered my definition of a successful job match, and after years of experience in the business world, I realized how often these ‘soft’ skills are undermined by the over-reliance of technical and professional eligibility in the recruitment process.
The years continued to pass, and by 2007 I had founded a successful training and development business in Dubai with a thriving international client list and an unrivaled reputation in the field of professional competency training and development. I used this platform to try and transform the manner in which soft skills are perceived, to help organizations improve productivity and increase their ROI through investing in the behavioral development of their staff, teaching them the importance of developing these key skills. The term, soft skills, is almost derogatory in itself, it places these skills on a lower hierarchical rank, beneath what people perceive as a more ‘concrete’, ‘technical’ skills set. The Oxford English Dictionary defines soft skills as: “Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people”. Effective interaction is vital to professional success, so why do we diminish it?
The journey from bag boy to business owner was at times tumultuous, but the lessons I learned were innumerable; what advice can I share? Well, first and foremost, it’s important to remember the obvious: every achievement will be contingent on one necessary component, hard work. I once read an article that expressed the sentiment perfectly and throughout the years it has stayed with me: Every inch of progress is preceded by a mile of blood. After every professional setback I experienced, I rebounded with twice the zeal, reminding myself that no matter how qualified anyone is, opportunities are rarely just handed to you. We create our own luck, and in the professional world, there is no substitute for hard work and determination.
The second piece of advice I’d like to share relates to one of my own personal strengths, an attribute that I realized early on helped me advance in my career more swiftly than some of my other colleagues – the ability to empathize, be self-aware and to communicate. Hindsight is 20/20, and I now realize that collectively these abilities were the foundation of my Emotional Intelligence (EQ). As a young adult I instinctively, almost blindly, reached for that seed of talent out of desperation because dropping out of high school had made me temporarily ineligible for many opportunities. I now know that by honing my skills as an empath and a communicator, while simultaneously remaining aware of my own needs and abilities, I was inadvertently developing my own suitability. The focus on my suitability provided me with opportunities that would not have presented themselves had I been considered from the perspective of eligibility alone. Once I realized the impact that applying certain ‘soft’ skills could have, I never looked back. If you want to be influential within your organization, if you want to progress and successfully develop your career, focus on your EQ, on your own behavioral preferences and challenges, on your communication skills as much as your industry-specific technical abilities. If these skills were beneficial to me 40 years ago, they will be infinitely more important in a future workplace characterized by automation, optimization and transformation. Your human empathy and your behavior are what will make you indispensable to an organization of the future; no piece of technology will be able to replicate these skills.
Nowadays, there is an active trend toward recruiting candidates that are both eligible and suitable; eligibility still has its place at the table, it is just no longer the only seat at the table. This is a response to one of the prevalent issues in the endless commentary I have read on the biggest challenges facing organizations and society at large: the skills gap and the sparsity of the current talent pool. I simultaneously understand why we have found ourselves in this situation but also, I wonder why we are still in this situation. I recently read an article on the “impending crisis” of the skills gap and the need for education to evolve alongside the needs of industry. I found myself agreeing with the sentiment of the article before noticing that the article was dated 2003. It’s been over a decade, why are we still grappling with this issue? Has anything substantial been done to alleviate the problem?
Often during times of recession, there is a trend toward the “harder” subjects, a viewpoint which has in the past been perpetuated because of the outdated negative perception of soft skills. However, the growing awareness of the need for soft skills in the workplace is creating a steady demand for suitability in the recruitment process; the tide is slowly but surely turning. Education will eventually respond to the changing demand in the job market and begin encouraging the improvement of skills related to Emotional Intelligence. Schools will begin to provide measures of EQ for their students to assist them in their search for both the correct degree and career, which will allow students to make more informed decisions, leading to a better job match. However, until the necessary educational reforms occur, industry and the new generations of workers need to start implementing the change themselves and they can do that most effectively by initially focusing on changing the recruitment process and career planning.
One’s behavior preferences, work aptitude and work environment match are powerful indicators of their fit with a role. Studies reveal that employee productivity sky-rockets when we successfully match positions and candidates. According to another study by Leadership IQ, 46% of newly-hired employees fail within 18 months. However, only eleven percent of these failures can be attributed to a lack of necessary technical skills, the remainder is predominantly due to issues with compatibility, coachability and communication – all factors which directly relate to soft skills.
I am proof that soft skills can be acquired and improved, just like any other skill. We simply need to continue acknowledging their importance and continue learning. I was fortunate enough to recognize the importance of this at an early age, which is why I have chosen to continue contributing to the conversation on recruitment and the need for improved job matching. If we continue to learn and remember just how powerful the development of our soft skills can be, future generations of workers may be able to experience more success and even more importantly, more happiness, in their professional careers than ever before. Progress in fields related to IQ in the workplace is constantly evolving; we must ensure that knowledge contributions to the field of EQ, continue to evolve alongside it.