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ESSENTIAL COMPETENCIES: 20 skills for the 2020s

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 3/2020 vom 18.03.2020

Auch in den 2020er Jahren wird die Suche nach dem besten Geschäftsmodell und das Experimentieren mit möglichen Lösungen weiter anhalten. BOB DIGNEN erklärt in zwanzig Punkten, worauf es dabei ankommt.

As we enter the 2020s, the search for the perfect business model intensifies. Reorganization follows reorganization and “continuous transformation” is the new mantra.

In the end, however, what ensures organizational performance is not structure but people. Organizations need highly skilled individuals working in highly collaborative groups and networks to get things done together at the right time and at the ...

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... right level of quality. So, as you prepare yourself for the coming decade, we are going to look at the essential skills that you need to develop in order to engage with others as effectively as possible. These skills range from language to leadership, from your inner world of feelings and emotions to the outer world of customers and economic trends. This article will help you set goals for yourself so that you and those around you can perform better and achieve greater success.

Five skill sets that matter

There are five skill sets that will prove decisive for you and those around you in the international world of work in the 2020s:

professional communication excellence

intercultural competence

soft skills

international leadership capability

In each of the five areas, we identify four important sub-skills, giving you 20 essential skills for the 2020s.

1. Language skills

After 30 years of involvement in English language teaching, I’ve seen an industry help thousands of people develop their ability to communicate around the world. However, I’ve also seen an industry with bias, focusing on some aspects of language use at the expense of others - and in some ways, undermining the ability of people to communicate internationally. The obvious example is the historical over-focus on grammar and accuracy, under the mistaken belief that speaking grammatically correctly is key to international communication. This is clearly not the case. If it were, native speakers would be the best international communicators. In fact, they’re often the worst. So, which language skills really matter, and why?

Focus on relevant vocabulary learning

For me, the core of foreign language learning is vocabulary. It is estimated that learners need between 3,000 and 5,000 words to communicate in relatively complex contexts. Importantly, learners need to learn the right words, internalizing them sufficiently so they can recognize and recall these words quickly when communicating. What is the best way to learn all these words, and the contexts in which they can be used? Conscious planning and goal-setting are essential here, deciding which areas of relevant vocabulary you should learn for which role. For example, if you’re a head of production in a pharmaceutical facility, you might focus on learning terms connected to macroeconomics, business, pharmaceuticals, production, finance, leadership, health and safety, and terms for building personal relationships. You should build a personal glossary of key terms to review, use and internalize over time.

Communicate well to be more successful

Learn the art of clarification

Clarification is a vital tool in any situation, but it is particularly important when you are communicating internationally in a foreign language. Words can have different meanings in different places. Also, non-native speakers often have a limited vocabulary and are thus forced to speak using the words they know, not necessarily the words they want to use. So, ask this question more often: “What do you mean by that?” Or reformulate what you hear by saying: “So, you mean that…?” Such clarification can be transformative. It slows communication down, reducing the pressure on both speakers and listeners, and allows you to build dialogue based on better mutual understanding.

KISS: Keep ideas short and shared

Non-native speakers often place a lot of pressure on themselves (and their listeners) by trying to say too much in one go. Learning how to say less is essential. This means making just one key point and then inviting others with an explicit question - “And what do you think?” - to share their ideas. The ability to shorten one’s own communication and integrate others into dialogue is fundamental to effective international communication. It is more important than any point of grammar you may have spent years learning to perfect. So, say less, hand over with a question and enable dialogue to happen in digestible chunks.

Develop your confidence

I can imagine that some readers may be thinking the following: “That all sounds very simple, but I don’t feel confident enough to do all of this. It’s just easier to say nothing and let the more dominant personalities and fluent speakers do the talking. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t interrupt them, and they wouldn’t listen.” This is a fair point, but this approach can lead to frustration over time. It can also generate inefficiency for your team, as your ideas - possibly the best ones in the group - go unheard.

Two micro-skills can help you here. First, get used to interrupting positively. Develop the ability to stop others talking with inclusive phrases such as: “That’s a good point. Can I just add something?” Sell your interruption as positive feedback and people will gladly give way and allow you to participate and express your opinion.

Second, realize that your level of English, with all its imperfections, is still more user-friendly for listeners than native- speaker speech, with all its complexities and subtleties. If your level of English is at B1+ or B2, you will normally be easily understood by the average global speaker of English. Stop aspiring to talk like a native speaker; this speaker profile can be highly ineffective internationally. And it is certainly less effective than you are.

2. Professional communication excellence

Professional communication skills, also referred to as “situational skills”, refer to important aspects of working life such as meetings, telephoning, email communication, negotiating, giving presentations and socializing. Here are four aspects to prioritize for these skills.

Develop interpersonal connectivity

Business is at heart about people. However complex a task may be technically - and however much expertise and equipment is needed - positive working relationships are likely to make things work more effectively. To get the most out of your working relationships, develop your ability to connect to the underlying motivations of other people: their values, their beliefs, their life priorities, their passions. Respecting and connecting to others - finding the points where your motivations intersect - is the key to creating trusting relationships. Connections take time and patience to build, but the reward in the longer term is a network that will support you and enable you to perform better.


Use questions to help the dialogue to flow

Deliver benefits

A useful rule in professional life is to forget about objectives. We often over-focus on our objectives and forget to think about collective benefits. So, as you prepare your next presentation, start your next meeting or negotiation, or sit down to dinner with a business partner, think not just about what you need but what others can gain by listening to you.

Delivering benefits to others is, ultimately, about having a mindset of collaboration. This affects both what you speak about and how you speak about it. You spend less time trying to convince others of something and more on collecting ideas. There is less disagreement and our curiosity increases, as we try to discover what really matters to others. Of course, not all professional life can or should be spent serving others. But take time to consider seriously how useful and effective it is to communicate your own agenda as frequently as you do.

Think “group” - and facilitate

Many meetings that I observe fragment, with the louder or more senior individuals simply arguing each other into submission or frustrated silence. In very few meetings do I see a strong focus on facilitating a group process that liberates the talents and perspectives in the group in order to take the best decisions possible. Yet facilitative behaviours are surprisingly basic in character. They involve posing lots of questions to stimulate a flow of ideas, using positive feedback to encourage this flow further, engaging quieter speakers, silencing the louder ones and fostering a climate in which people feel safe to say what they really think. Individuals who think about the group and less about themselves - and who can stimulate high performance in meetings - are exceptionally valuable to organizations. So, learn the art of facilitation.

Be a creative negotiator

When professionals sit down and negotiate - even if you have briefed them on the benefits of “win-win” approaches - something close to warfare usually ensues. This is primarily because professionals fail to think beyond their initial positions, and are thus drawn into the defence of their various views and needs. But a key attribute of highly effective negotiators is creativity - the ability to come to a negotiation openly and to transform the scope in such a way that the negotiation can focus on exploring new and potentially mutually beneficial options. A key rhetorical skill here is using “why”-questions to discover the other person’s underlying interests - what really matters to them.

3. Intercultural competence

Intercultural thinking exploded into life in the 1990s. It was very popular for over 15 years, but is now somewhat in decline. On the one hand, this is positive - if it reduces the focus on national cultures. But it is also a pity because intercultural thinking helps to focus attention on diversity and on the deep and sometimes invisible differences in values and beliefs that can unravel cross-border communication and collaboration.

Build positive relationships to get results

Become a skilled cultural scientist

Many interculturalists focus too much on national culture as an explanatory mechanism for the challenges of international working life. This can lead to overgeneralized and inaccurate analyses that provide few solutions for dealing with specific individuals or analysing the dynamics of specific multicultural teams. But the intercultural literature does include fascinating and useful insights into potential differences you might encounter when working internationally. Use these insights to think about ways in which you can modify your behaviour to become engaging and flexible. Watch like a scientist the results of your changed behaviour, and then keep reading and experimenting with your behaviour.

Think more openly and creatively

Perhaps the most important intercultural competence relates to thinking rather than behaviour. Corporate training programmes on topics such as cognitive bias (see Business Spotlight 4/2018) and mindfulness have exploded in recent years. Such programmes address the need for individuals to learn how to think more openly and creatively - beyond the confines of natural ego-driven processes that induce negative and intolerant thinking. Emotional intelligence, which is a popular topic for soft skills training seminars, is another route to access this enormously important body of knowledge for personal development and self-leadership.

Co-create your own culture

We should not become victims of our culture, trapped in inherited modes of thinking and behaviour that are counterproductive. We should not be shaped by culture but rather be shaping culture, discussing our own rules of engagement with others. We should be co-defining team cultures, so that teams can make the most of their talents and perform in the most efficient manner for specific situations. Learning to discuss culture and negotiate “micro-cultures” within a larger corporate culture is one of the most essential competencies for those working in multicultural teams.

Make clear what is non-negotiable

Much of the literature on culture emphasizes flexibility. Yet cultures are not only defined by rules; they also actively define rules. When working in a diverse team or environment, it is therefore important to make clear what is non-negotiable - what will be regarded as non-compliant, uncollaborative or unacceptable behaviour. Developing the confidence and the skills to set clear standards and boundaries, as adults do with their children, is essential for creating a working environment in which people understand what they need to do - by knowing what they cannot do.

4. Soft skills

Many people criticize the use of the term “soft skills”, as it suggests a subservience to “hard skills”. Whatever the terminology, skills focused on the human side of business are increasingly recognized as central. There are four essential dimensions to these skills: understanding yourself, connecting to others, working with others and finding ways to make the collaborative performance sustainable.

Know yourself

The cornerstone of soft skills is selfknowledge: understanding one’s own motivations, talents, biases and potential as a basis for finding personal fulfilment in connection with others. There are various mechanisms that you can use to achieve this and to develop personal competencies such as creativity and openness. These include self-reflection, coaching, therapy and the use of psychometric tests. The challenge is how to prioritize time for this foundation activity. It’s often easier to assume that one’s own mindset and behaviours are effective enough. You will then focus on getting things done “in your own way”, identifying the failings of others when things get challenging. To avoid doing this, take the time to understand your own mindset better.


Understand that others might think differently

Help to build teams

Working with others is about more than creating friendships. Whether in a formal leadership position or simply as a team member, your priority should be to foster and cultivate a sense of “team”. This means combining formal activities - clarifying the purpose of the team, defining goals and roles, organizing people and structures - with the informal tasks of supporting people, smoothing differences that threaten to undermine cooperation, helping people to connect and maintaining team spirit with positive feedback.

Influence others through listening

Effective influencing skills - the ability to convince others to do what “I” need them to do - are the Holy Grail of soft skills for many people. Yet curiously, few really understand the mechanisms of influencing. It is built on our ability to listen and empathize, and to create the conviction that we are there to enable others and not to manipulate them. If you want to become a great influencer, you will need to become a super listener and super supporter.

Give and receive feedback

The only guarantee that I give my clients about working internationally is that they will be misunderstood. As a result, they will frustrate and irritate others and they will be frustrated and irritated in return. And this despite the fact that all parties are probably working “professionally” to achieve the same objectives. Why is this? Well, people define “professionally” differently. And when these differences begin to create problems, rather than engaging in open and constructive feedback, people complain and play the “blame game”. The confidence and ability to receive and give feedback effectively - and to create a constructive learning environment that smooths the inevitable misunderstanding - is perhaps the single most important soft skill to foster in yourself.

5. International leadership capability

Over the previous ten issues, Business Spotlight ran a special series that looked at the challenges of leading internationally. As we discussed, leadership is a complex subject involving diverse, and sometimes conflicting, approaches and beliefs. Here are four impulses for your 2020 leadership development.

Increase your contextual intelligence

Almost daily, we get bombarded with new management literature describing the behaviours and mindset of the perfect leader, which we should aspire to being. It may sound harsh, but much of this literature is nonsense. In the end, our style of leadership should depend much more on a clear assessment of the specific context. This includes the abilities and motivations of the individuals concerned, the nature of the task at hand, the time available and the quality of work required. Focusing on leadership personality and related traits that should be displayed in all contexts at all times is an outmoded way of understanding leadership. Learn to assess and lead people in complex and dynamic contexts on the basis of the situational needs - not your personality.

Communicate the big picture

One of the most destabilizing phenomena for those working in a large international organization is unexplained change. Yet many senior management decisions redirect strategy or reorganize structure without giving sufficient information about the rationale behind it or the desired result. Organizations are complex, and it can be difficult to get messages across to large numbers of people located in different locations. But that doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t try to communicate the big picture. In regular monthly or weekly meetings, extraordinary staff meetings, email discussions and coffee conversations, leaders should take every opportunity to explain what is happening, why it’s happening and how everyone can play a part in bringing about the desired objectives. This takes time, of course, which leaders often claim not to have. But not taking the time will only make things worse.

Don’t perform, enable performance

One of the biggest lessons that senior leaders have to learn is that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Of course, their performance is important, and even critical in some cases. However, the bulk of the work in an organization is done by other people. And how they perform ultimately determines organizational success, not the 80-hour working week of a senior executive. This partly explains the rise of coaching as a leadership tool, with its focus on unleashing the motivation and talent within an organization. Learn coaching skills. You will find them valuable for the rest of your personal and professional life.

Take responsibility for leadership

The vast bulk of leadership literature makes the fundamental mistake of locating leadership exclusively in leaders. In the end, leadership is a shared responsibility (see Business Spotlight 1/2020). Clarifying goals, making collaboration work, giving and getting feedback, supporting team members under stress, delivering creative decisions in meetings, building relationships and trust across borders - these are tasks shared by everyone in any organization. Relying on superhero leaders to make our organizational world a perfect place and keep us all happy and motivated - and complaining when they don’t - is in fact the abdication of leadership. It’s the sort of behaviour that we normally expect in an authoritarian regime, not in a thriving participatory environment with democratic values. Yes, there are final decision-takers, but we can all aspire to be part of decision-making. Taking responsibility for leadership - whatever your position - is a key competence for the networked organizational world.

Final thoughts

The business world is facing challenging times. Instability is increasing, from the threats of global trade wars to the rise of new digital technologies that may sweep away organizations and industries that have been seen as impregnable. For societies and individuals, the future will lie in developing a blend of advanced human and more technical skills that can deliver sustainable economic prosperity.

Skills matter more than ever; yet the time we make for skills development seems to diminish year-on-year. The choice is yours. Remain a hamster in the wheel until the wheel breaks. Or take a measured and structured approach to developing the skills you are going to need in the coming decade.

is a director of York Associates (www.york-associates.co.uk) and author of many business English books. Contact: bob.dignen@york-associates.co.uk

Take your share of leadership responsibilities



You can try our exercises on this topic on Business Spotlight Audio as well as in our exercise booklet, Business Spotlight Plus. To order, go to www.aboshop. spotlight-verlag.de

Illustration: tomozina/iStock.com; Foto: privat