Enhance Your Career Prospects by Taking Charge of Your Education
Part IISunday, Feb 12, 2007
Examining Organizational Needs
What exactly organizations want? What do they expect of entry level positions? What are the common weaknesses among graduates that make them struggle during the early phase of their professional life?
Organizations need competent people with desired level of competencies in order to perform effectively in an increasingly challenging business environment. Competencies are knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics that are necessary to perform a particular role effectively and efficiently. The following section describes some important competencies that organizations generally seek among job applicants, irrespective of their role and experience. The expected level of competence however varies with experience and job context.
- The Fundamentals - They say that an expert is not one who knows everything, but who has his basics right. Understanding the basic philosophy, core concepts, typical problems and basic solutions related to a discipline is imperative. Organizations are not willing to accept individuals who despite 2-4 years of education in a related field have not been able to grasp the foundation knowledge about their discipline. It reflects poorly on one's commitment to his/her profession. Organizations "mean business" - they need professionals who can solve real problems not students with learning disabilities.
- General Knowledge - Knowledge is power, especially in the knowledge age. Having good knowledge about your discipline or job function is critical. But knowing a bit more about other relevant areas is even better. Work is generally performed in coordination with other functions or roles and not in isolation. Understanding the "language" of other areas of business is a definite plus.
Skills and Abilities
- Communication - Communication is one of the keys to success in business today. The ability to deliver and understand "messages", holistically and with context, to and from the right people at the right time, may look like a simple process but in practice is a very demanding job.
Communication in our society has not received the attention it deserves. The role of schools, colleges and universities is crucial yet, their performance in this regard is wanting. Consequently, people with good oral and written communication skills while in great demand, are a rare commodity.
- Inter-personal Skills - Many a technical experts and gurus have failed to realize their career potential for neglecting this area. Poor interpersonal skills can render your great technical knowledge and skills irrelevant in many situations - it is a recipe for disaster. Patience, awareness and sensitivity about others, emotional stability, and the ability to develop and manage relationships are some of the key elements of this rather broad category of human skills.
- Problem Solving - People are hired to solve organizational problems. The ability to analyze a problem, understanding the context of the problem, breaking it down into its logical components, finding the root cause, and suggesting possible solutions is a critical job requirement, especially for professional and managerial positions. It is related to another relevant and important skill of making sound judgments.
- Application of Knowledge - Ability to apply knowledge is often considered as a higher level of knowledge itself. But I prefer to view it as a skill, or may be an art. It implies utilizing what you know, to solve a problem, or think, feel or act "differently" (in a better way) about an event, situation, problem or opportunity, based on the "new" knowledge or learning that you have acquired.
Successful application of knowledge requires deep understanding of relevant concepts and current situation or context. But it also involves other behavioural characteristics such as motivation, experimentation, judgment, and some "risk taking". Individuals who are fearful of failure seldom take the risk of applying new knowledge without "supervision". They just don't take the responsibility of their actions or choices. They feel more comfortable, "shifting the burden". Forming assumptions (about cause and effect) before application and observation and analysis (of consequence) after application is critical to fruitful application of knowledge. Observation and experimentation are the gateway to learning and thus lie at the heart of the scientific method - a method used by scientists to create new knowledge. And finally, practice makes the man perfect.
- Self-awareness - The old Greek adage, "know thyself" has a lot of wisdom behind it. Self-awareness is a broad concept which means many things including: knowing and being aware of who you are, what you are, your strengths and weaknesses and other personal characteristics. It also involves being aware of one's beliefs, thoughts, feelings as they form and change. And also, about one's desires, aims and goals. If you know where you are heading (and are serious about it), both you and organizations can benefit from your "sense of direction". Organizations tend to work with individuals on their professional goals (and at times, even personal goals) when they are congruent with that of the organization, as that leads to higher motivation, development and productivity. "Lost people" with no aim however, have no place in the business of life.
In my experience, people are generally low in self-awareness. A large number of people that I have interviewed over the years have a very faint understanding about their aims, if any. In fact, many candidates get "confused" over the question "what do you want?". The roots of this problem lie in our culture, the education system and the socioeconomic context. Being a generally collectivist culture, individuality does not get the attention it deserves. I have also felt a deep underlying assumption behind such responses about organizations and the concept of job. People often assume organizations to be primarily responsible for determining the course of their career and driving it in whichever way suits them. They do not feel "free" to make their own career choices, and at times, even their life choices due to similar assumptions. Many people consider employment as a rather "unilateral" contract in which organizations and the individual are "unequal" parties with the organizations of course having the upper hand. Such underlying assumptions make it very difficult if not impossible for an individual to drive his life, his way. Positive or negative assumption about one's own fate is a critical factor of personal/professional growth and development.
- Motivation and Ambition - If you do not like your profession, are not excited about work, have low energy, have low or no vision about your career, chances are that you would not be given any exciting opportunity or position at work. Organizations do not fancy "dead wood". They need to struggle, advance and compete in a ruthless business environment. They need individuals who have energy and vision to move forward and keep them growing. A growing business is not interested in engaging professionals who are at peace with the status quo.
In our society where educational and career choices are often done by the "elders", or mainly through the market forces of supply and demand (employment trends) ambition is often an obvious victim. Choices made with a "cold mind", disregarding the inner voices of dreams and passion often lead to low energy, lack of excitement and even failure or long term regret. Excellence in life, whether personal or professional, needs to be fueled with the warmth of passion, emotions and ambition.
- Attitude - Attitude is our summary evaluation about an object, event, circumstances, people etc. It is either positive or negative (in some cases both positive and negative). It is about how we feel, think, believe about something. Attitude can be specific, like attitude about a particular person, about a specific job or task, or about working on a holiday etc. Or, it could be very broad or general, like attitude about women, a culture or even about life itself. It may be safe to say that attitude is the single most important personal characteristic of a person. Attitudes significantly influence human thought, emotions and behaviour and thus, work performance.
Negative emotions and attitudes are known to be spread like wild fire. Whereas people with positive attitude and frame of mind inspire and motivate others. Positive attitude can help face and successfully counter a daunting situation or challenge, whereas a negative belief, assumption or emotion about the situation or oneself can make a trivial task look impossible.
- Conscientiousness - Conscientiousness means being responsible and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. It is not sheer hard work but much more than that. First of all it requires taking (and accepting) responsibility. It involves understanding requirements and expectations, being aware of limitations and constraints, utilizing given resources to the best of one's abilities, and making all out effort to meet expectations on time and all that through ethical means.
While conscientiousness is a personality trait, it is also influenced by environment. Certain elements of our culture and education system negatively reinforce conscientious disposition. We are generally risk averse and avoid risks. Failure too, is viewed very negatively rather than as an ingredient of learning and development. Thus accepting a challenging responsibility that has a moderate chance of failure is generally viewed negatively. Seeking shortcuts and easy way out is also fairly common, especially during student life. The pervasive use of exam guides, keys, question papers, guess papers, teacher provided notes (that are crammed as is and reproduced during exams, especially in primary and secondary education) do not help students in developing mindset and skills for coping with difficulties and challenges.
Many institutions, for "business reasons", have a "policy" of not failing students despite poor performance, or doing that in extreme cases only. These life experiences have strong influence on our beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and behaviours. Unfortunately for these reasons, the young graduates face the shock of their life when they enter the corporate world, which is at times world apart from their earlier experience.
- Readiness for Learning - Knowledge explosion, technological advancement and rapid change has given birth to the ideas of continuous improvement and learning organizations. Perpetual learning is not a preference but a business necessity, and being indifferent to this need implies professional suicide. Other relevant concepts and personal characteristics are flexibility and openness to change and new experiences. Living in a comfort zone is an obsolete idea. Those who adapt - grow and advance; those who don't, are rendered irrelevant by time.