In Learning Real Job Skills in School?, I pointed out disconnects between the university experience and the real world.

University students (and often the administration) are not thrilled with professors who challenge students, force them to contribute in class, make them work in groups, complete assignments on time, etc.

However, in the actual business world, everything is different.

This leads to a skills gap between what employers want and what schools produce. 

A smart student can gain an advantage in finding a job by addressing these gaps.

Companies Seek Employees with Leadership and Communication Skills

Accountemps recently surveyed 270 Chief Financial Officers of Canadian companies with greater than 20 staff. The survey found that leadership and communication skills ranked highest in desired employee traits. Even higher than functional, job related skills.

Employers know that staff may have adequately been taught their job related skills in school or through previous employment. But companies also know that these employees tend to lack strong communication or leadership skills.

If you can demonstrate to potential employers that you possess strong leadership and communication skills, you may have an edge over other candidates that lack these skills.

So what should you do?

Improve Your Soft Skills

Inside the Classroom

One, while in school, do not shy away from professors who challenge you by such things as a Socratic method, lots of questions, team work, etc.

Instead, work on developing the skills that are demanded in the real world.

The ability to complete assigned tasks on time, in a professional manner.

The ability to effectively work within teams and deal with disparate personalities. Assuming a leadership role is definitely a plus.

The ability to rationally analyze problems and arrive at well thought out solutions.

The ability to effectively communicate these solutions to others, especially those who may lack strong analytical or technical skills.

These are things that you can work on inside the classroom. Grades are important, but never lose focus on the need to develop the real skills required by companies.

Outside the Classroom

Two, it is not simply the classroom where you can build your skills. Extracurricular activities can play a major role in developing soft skills.

The longer you are out of school, the more important it is to use your free time to improve yourself.

Leadership

Leadership skills can be developed in a variety of ways. Sports, volunteer activities, self-improvement courses, etc.

Leadership can be a little tricky as some people just are not natural leaders in the usual sense of the word.

But there are many ways to lead. You do not need to be the rah-rah person, mustering the troops for that march into the enemy’s line. People can lead by their actions. They can lead by their commitment to excellence. Their dedication to the task at hand.

Companies often view leaders as those who can take ownership for their tasks. Then, complete those tasks efficiently and effectively. And over time, there should be the ability of the individual to take on greater responsibilities and achieve success. If you can demonstrate this form of leadership in your life, most companies will be well pleased.

In school or business, watch the good leaders. Try to determine why they are good leaders and adopt their traits if possible. However, you need to be seen as genuine. If the leader is an extroverted rah-rah guy and you are an introvert, be honest with yourself as to what traits you can legitimately emulate.

As well, watch the bad leaders. Why are they weak leaders? What do they do wrong? I find I learn more from bad leaders than I do from good.

Communication

Communication is easier to demonstrate to potential employers. You are a walking example of your communication skills.

During the hiring process, the company will see examples of your writing, speaking, and thought process. You may think you have adequate communication skills (based on your schooling or own perception), but I suggest you get a second and third opinion. Preferably from people in the industry you wish to enter.

I know one person, in the final year of university. His writing is atrocious. It is not that he is dumb, just that he spends so much time texting, emailing, etc., that his writing is terrible. And the quality of his writing is (sadly) on par with most of his peers. Fine for communicating with friends or a future career flipping burgers. But it becomes a problem when writing more formal papers. Yet until I started to harshly criticize his writing on two business cases I reviewed for him, he did not appreciate how poor his skills were.

If you are relatively weak in the ability to properly communicate, consider taking a course. There are a variety of effective writing programs offered at night school. Courses, such as Dale Carnegie, are also popular for those who want to improve their overall skills.

You could also consider a technical course in your chosen field. The more you understand the intricacies of your business, the easier it should be to explain it to others.

My nephew interned over the summer with a private bank. One day he explained to me some of the new products the bank sold to clients. My nephew had a decent superficial understanding of the products. But when I wanted to drill down a bit into the nuts and bolts of the offerings, he was somewhat confused. Not a problem as I did not expect him to fully understand the details at this stage in his life. But if I had been a potential customer, he would have lost the sale as soon as we left the product overview.

If public speaking is an issue, look at organizations such as Toastmasters International or local debate clubs. Public service groups (e.g., Rotary, Kinsmen, etc.) are also an excellent way to get used to dealing with new people and being out in public.

Bringing It Into the Interview Process

In addition to possessing the function related technical skills, companies seek new employees with strong leadership and communication skills.

As I write above, take concrete steps to develop those skills.

Then make sure that you bring those skills out in the interview process.

The company needs to go through your resume and cover letter before meeting you. Make sure you are clear to the firm that you have leadership potential and the ability to communicate effectively.

These may not be a requirement in the job advertisement, but rest assured it will be sought.

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