How to Adult (Part I): 5 Professional Skills to Jumpstart Your Career

by Molly Tracy

If you’re just starting out in your career, you’ll likely see that the technical skills traditionally taught in the classroom are just a small part of what is required to get things done in the workplace. Particularly in more technical jobs, what boosts young professionals to higher levels of success are the soft skills that are often overlooked in higher education. Below are some crucial skills to focus on when starting out with your career (or better yet, to focus on while you are still at university).

1. Networking

Ugh. Networking. After spending years in school prioritizing what you know, young professionals often experience some initial shock when first discovering that who you know is equally or more important. Research has shown that 70-80% of jobs aren’t even published! How do you keep track of people? How do you find the time to keep in touch? Let’s break down networking:

  • Get a LinkedIn profile. It’s a great first step—it’s free, it’s easy, and it has become a “must-have” for professional networking. Create a profile that highlights your work experience and skills, similar to an online resume. This will help when you "connect" to more well-established professionals, especially ones who are out of your network or checking your profile to see if you might be a candidate for a job. A professional picture and good descriptions can help you to stand out from the online crowd.

  • Make a contacts list. Business cards often get misplaced, and they start to pile up over time. When someone gives you a business card, put that person’s name, email, phone number, and company in a central location, whether that be your email contacts, an Excel document, or a Google sheet.

  • Set aside time to reach out. Once you have a LinkedIn and/or contacts list, use it! Professional connections are like personal relationships—unless you invest time and effort in them, they fade. Set aside some time each month to reach out to connections on your contacts list. It can be a simple email letting them know what you’ve been up to recently at work, or sharing an interesting article you’ve read. If writing emails takes you a long time, make a generic version, fill in names, and add a small personal touch.

  • Don’t force it. Networking works best when it happens organically. Put yourself out there and meet new people, but try not to push professional relationships when not relevant or appropriate. Instead, strike up natural conversations first with an inviting at warm attitude. Then, if the conversation goes well, end with “If you are interested, I’d like to keep in touch. Would you like to take my card?” Remember - setting aside time to keep in touch with email contacts is not “forcing it.”

2. Collaboration

No matter where you work, you’ll likely have to work with other people, which can become confusing and messy. How are professionals able to collaborate with others effectively in order to achieve a common goal? Here are some useful skills to help you get things done, no matter who you work with:

  • Tact. Practice getting your point across in a considerate and professional manner by thinking before speaking and then reflecting and asking for feedback afterwards. How could you have phrased things better? What did your body language look like? The more you practice thinking of how best to send a message, the more prepared you are for the next conversation.

  • Active listening. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie highlights the ability of active listening to make people feel valued and increase your ability to empathize with their position, which can allow you to communicate more effectively with them by appealing to their perspective and opinions. Practice active listening by speaking less and by showing the speaker attentive body language.

  • Negotiation. Negotiation is the ability to reach an agreement. It takes negotiation for everyone to win at their interests in the workplace. Some great reads for beginning to develop negotiation skills are Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher et al., as well as Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Stone et al.

3. Problem Solving

In any job you take, you will likely be employed to solve problems of one type or another. Unfortunately, problem solving is hard! Many people just solve problems by guessing. This article, “You Are Just Guessing; Stop It!” illustrates the tendency to guess at solutions rather than understanding the problem. Another common problem-solving error is to attack a problem in a way that wastes energy or portrays the problem through a limiting lens rather than using a robust or structured method. For more information on solving problems strategically, read “Do You Solve Problems Like a NASA Rocket Scientist?”  

To learn even more about how to solve problems effectively, be sure to read Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers by Nat Greene.

4. Communication

No matter where you work, you will need to effectively communicate with others to be successful professionally. We send snapchats and tweets with ease, but workplace communication and professional etiquette are a different ballgame. At work, there are two common means of communication that are frequently intimidating:

  • Presentations. Presentations are the primary means of communicating to a group in the workplace. Toastmasters is an organization that develops confident public speakers through practice and feedback. Whether you practice through such an organization or at home with a few friends, giving presentations on any topic will improve your ability to send messages clearly and effectively. Here are two Youtube videos, “How To Give a Great Presentation - 7 Presentation Skills and Tips to Leave an Impression” and “Killer Presentation Skills,” to get you started.

  • Emails. Emails are sent and received constantly in the workplace, but email etiquette can be so confusing! For important conversations, follow these steps:

    1. Ensure it’s clear what key points you’d like to get across. Put your main message or request right up front.

    2. Start from a template (look online for tailored templates)

    3. Ask a friend to review your email before sending

    4. Try to eliminate phrases with multiple possibilities for interpretation

    5. Keep it as polite and concise as possible

    6. Don't be afraid to use bullets, bold sections or other formatting tricks to make reading the email simpler

5. Improvement

You won’t be perfect at everything you do at work (no one is!). You need to be willing to embrace your areas of development and work on them, rather than trying to pretend they aren't there. A conscientious focus on improvement, especially in the workplace, is perhaps the most important skill to develop. Take time to reflect after each presentation or interaction to practice giving self-feedback. In addition, frequently request feedback from coworkers to encourage a culture of feedback surrounding your professional experience. Your manager is there to help you, and will want to see you succeed. Asking them for feedback not only helps strengthen your professional relationship, but lets them know you want to improve. If you don’t feel comfortable receiving feedback from your manager, try finding another mentor from within your organization.