Hone skills or risk becoming obsolete

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

In a New York Times Magazine article (Nov. 27, 2011) titled “When did the rules change?” Adam Davidson raised many non-political questions about the future nature of the U.S. economy.

He especially considers the employment and income distribution data we are trying to digest. Many workers will find no jobs because their skills are obsolete, and the income variance is wide across industries for the same skill sets. Many students are training for jobs that will not exist in the future and few seem inclined to excel in programs of study that are more challenging. As I read this article the third time, an often-quoted poet came to mind.

The British poet Samuel Butler (1835-1904) is credited with many common sayings, such as, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature.” Paying attention to this adage may keep managers from facing obsolescence.

During December and January, I traveled in three Southeastern states and talked with several marine industry managers in preparation for a research project. With each manager (at different levels), I gleaned a sense of personal insecurity as the economy picks up. Most firms have downsized at least once during the last four years as sales declined. Now that sales are improving and the latest predictions suggest increasing national production growth, many firms are developing plans for possible reorganization tailored to an improved economic picture.

Why are these managers showing signs of insecurity? Could they be concerned that they are not prepared for what they’ll face in potential new assignments? This is a common ailment for managers as they move from one area of responsibility to another. Younger managers have heard throughout their education that they must be prepared for new assignments, and they typically have the skills they need. Managers with years of experience in one area may not be as prepared.

Several questions (asked of yourself) may help you be better prepared and less insecure. It will help to write down your answers. (Caution: A “none” response is likely not an honest one.)

• What are the major skills you can offer either your current employer or a new one? Be honest with yourself: What up-to-date work skills and management skills are you currently an expert at using?

• What are other positions that can use your current skills? Would any of these positions offer you a greater challenge/enjoyment?

• What additional skills would be ideal to have in your current position? In the other positions?

• When did you last participate in a management update or management training session?

• If you “had to go” to a management training or skill update program, what areas would you like to gain greater knowledge/skills in? (PowerPoint, environmental regulations, delegation, anger management … or choose from a multitude of possibilities).

• What newspapers/magazines do you currently read to maintain your expertise?

Current major skills: You probably had to think for a while before responding; most do. If you have more technical skills listed, you are a normal supervisor and might tend to be a micromanager. If you identified some managerial skills, great. It would be a positive effort for you to sit with your boss and validate these. If you wrote down few skills, that is not uncommon. Managers at every level often get so involved in the routine administrative tasks that skill development is lost. This is dangerous to a manager’s long-term employment health.

Possible uses of these skills: All managers aspire to do well at their current job, yet being considered for a new position is a goal. If you identified a new position that could use the up-to-date skills you possess, what other skills could be needed to achieve that position and function effectively in it? On the back side of your sheet of paper, list these skills. Label this set of skills “C.”

As you considered your current position, did you identify some managerial skills that you’ll need to upgrade — either in the self-examination or in a talk with your boss? List those on your sheet of paper and label this set “B.”

When did you last attend such an update program (whether sponsored by your company or not)? How long has it been? Write the number of years on your sheet of paper. If this number is higher than three, you likely are in need of some new ideas in one or more areas. If the number is higher than five (years), you need to examine yourself carefully and find appropriate management updates. Regretfully, smaller companies often discount the value of continuing management training.

Here are some ideas:

Needed skills: Look at your “B” and “C” lists. You might have one skill on each list, or maybe several. Which is the most critical for your position now and tomorrow? Take all you have in list “B” and prioritize. Choose the most critical one or two, in your opinion, and write those skills down as list “A.” Now rank those skills you identified as “C” items, take the top item and add it to your list “A” to make three in that list.

Now what do you do with the list?

Where to seek help: You have identified three skill areas in which you believe you need help to be of maximum value in your current position and to prepare you for another assignment. Consider these steps:

• Talk to your boss about how you might gain these skills; some bosses will be very helpful. Next go to your human resources department and find someone who is aware of such training classes — either in your (large) company or elsewhere in the community.

• Your local school system might have a work force training program. Check there to see what is offered; the staff will suggest other community resources that are available at a minimal cost. Your chamber of commerce knows other possibilities locally.

• Community college and technical institutes often offer adult classes in business as well as in many technical skill areas. Fees usually are low, and if your company does not have a reimbursement program you will find this a good investment in your professional career.

• Check with your marine professional associations. They usually offer such training on a regional basis and at conventions.

• Check with your state universities. They usually have a management or leadership training program and offer short courses or weeklong courses. These are more expensive than local programs. On the plus side, you probably will be in workshops with managers from organizations other than your own, which frees you to be more open in your comments.

• Many consulting firms conduct several-day sessions of programs in their specialty on a regional basis. Your university office can suggest some of those.

Immediate efforts: Although I recommend that you follow these suggestions as soon as possible, it is likely to be the summer before you can get the development efforts under way. What to do in the meantime? Start reading to open your mind. Go to your bookstore and ask for help in finding a book in the skill area(s) chosen. Sit and read a chapter or so and be sure it is directed to your needs; maybe you can look at several books.

At the same time, look through some business magazines: Bloomberg Businessweek is excellent for keeping the reader up to date on the state of business, with many short items. On the other hand, Fortune offers greater depth in its topics and often looks at particular firms and leaders. A subscription to both would be ideal. I hope you already are reading boating industry publications.

Obsolescence is a terrible state for a manager. Active behavior can keep it from happening to you. If you need other ideas, feel free to contact me.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

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