The Corporate Skills You Didn’t Learn In College

My wife and I have three children, each born under the supervision of a different doctor. Our opinion of each doctor’s performance varied greatly. We loved the first doctor; we really, really liked the second; we strongly disliked the third. As I’ve reflected on our criteria for rating these doctors, I’ve come to this startling realization: each doctor’s technical skill was never a factor in our assessment. To this day, we don’t know which doctor performed better in medical school, which doctor completed more successful surgeries, and which doctor scored highest on his medical board examinations. Rather, our assessment was based on other, less tangible skills. For example, how willing was each doctor to listen to our philosophy about childbirth? How sensitive was each doctor to my wife’s feelings during the delivery process? How skilled was each doctor at giving his opinion and insight without coming across as pushy or arrogant?

While these might not be the most objective or rigorous criteria with which to judge a doctor, they are the criteria that mattered to us. And given that we, the patients, wrote the checks, they are the criteria should have mattered to our doctors as well.

Similar rules apply in the business world. Technical proficiency and raw brain power, while helpful, aren’t necessarily the primary indicators of career success. I’ve observed many smart and capable employees become disillusioned because they assumed that stellar grades in the classroom would translate into fast upward mobility at work. At the same time, I’ve seen individuals who barely squeaked by in their accounting classes go on and have remarkably successful careers. Where’s the objectivity in that?

Warren Buffet articulated this principle while speaking to a group of students at the University of Florida in 2007:

“Think for a moment that I granted you the right to buy 10 percent in one of your classmates for the rest of his or her lifetime…who are you going to invest in? Are you going to pick the one with the highest IQ? I doubt it. Are you going to pick the one with the most energy? Probably not. Are you are going to pick the one with the best grades? I doubt it….no, you are going to look for more qualitative factors. I would say that if you thought about it, you’d pick the one you responded the best to; the one that was going to have the leadership qualities; the one that was going to be able to get other people to carry out their interests.” See the video here:

Just as doctors should pay attention to how they are truly measured by patients, so too should newly minted corporate employees forget about their stellar grades and look to the true drivers of success in corporations. Here is a sample of skills that aren’t taught well enough in school but that matter a lot at work:

Time Investment: Forget about time management, where the goal is to get everything done in the most efficient way possible. Time investment asserts that trying to accomplish everything efficiently produces a poor ROTI (Return On Time Invested—just made that up). Time investors invest their time for maximum return by finding high leverage activities that are at the intersection of what they are good at, what they like doing, and what is valued by their particular organization. They have a keen ability to ignore busy work and focus on things that will really drive their businesses forward.

Story Telling: School generally trains students to be data tellers—to solve a problem with the “correct” answer. At work there often isn’t a correct answer, so often it’s the person with the most persuasive story that wins. Those that can tell great business stories are able to synthesize data into an understandable set of conclusions and then make sound recommendations based on those conclusions.

Influencing and Persuading: Being a solid individual contributor works well in school, where assignments and projects are graded on an individual basis. But influential people at work recognize that one person can only do so much and that the best work comes by a group of experts working together. Rather than trying to get things done alone, they seek to enlist others in their vision and thus magnify their efforts.

Presenting: There are only a select number of times that new employees are truly on display in an organization, and those times tend to be when they are assigned to present something to a large group. Many new employees graduate school without understanding the basics of creating a clear and concise presentation. Often the downfall of otherwise good presentations is too much detail and too much complexity. Good presenters, on the other hand, don’t get too cute with their presentations. They recognize that this formula works: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Perspective and Balance: Corporate success is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. There is no cramming for a promotion at work like a student would cram for a test. Advancement at work comes through consistent hard work and strong performance over time, not by pulling a few all-nighters. Balance and perspective comes through learning which activities are most important and which can wait until tomorrow.

Now for the good news: my wife and I are expecting our fourth baby! Since we have recently relocated to a new city, we’ve had to select yet another doctor. Guess how much this new doctor’s medical school performance mattered to us in the selection process?

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