How Working Outside The Box Can Accelerate Your Career

Feuerwehr vor Flammenwand
Are you wondering if doing your  MBA  might accelerate your career and  give it that extra boost? Have you just stopped playing your favourite sport so you can spend the next 2 years studying for an extra qualification  that you believe will advance your career?  Are you one of those  university students  who has  given up all outside activities, convinced that committing yourself to studying hard for a couple of years is worth it, to get you the results that will see you land a job in one of the Big 4 accounting firms?

If this is you, then this message I’m writing here is especially for you. It is great to have all those technical skills and qualifications, but it is your non-technical skills – your Soft Skills – that can enhance and accelerate your career and often provide the X factor. These are often developed and enhanced in out- of- work activities, not in the workplace or in formal education.

Lydia Dishman wrote an inspiring article recently in Fast called Four CEOs On How Their Side Jobs Made Them Better Leaders. It’s about how the activities these CEOs engaged in outside of their work, as a firefighter, a rancher, an IT manager, and a start-up mentor, taught them much about leadership and enhanced their roles as CEOs.

Bill Ho, CEO of Biscom, a multi-million dollar enterprise-secure file transfer company attributes his work as a volunteer firefighter with CEO skills of staying cool under pressure. Fire-fighting requires an extremely co-ordinated strategic approach in what is often a very chaotic situation that he also often finds himself in running his business.

Gay Gaddis, CEO of T3, the largest woman-owned independent advertising agency in the US says it’s the CEO skill of making tough decisions on the cattle ranch she runs with her husband, to mitigate risks that can’t be eliminated so they can survive through adversity, that has been such a good learning experience for her as a CEO.

Dan Graham, CEO of the $90 million year company,, has found that one of the most important skills to enhance his CEO role – listening to others – has come from his work mentoring and supporting start-ups  in his business incubator.  As he listens to and acts as a sounding board for their ideas his own entrepreneurial spirit is kept alive.

Tiannna Barnes is a corporate IT Project/Program Manager who has just launched her own start-up – a high end shoe company. In IT she has felt she has been a puzzle master who knows where to put all the pieces to achieve success and it is the CEO skills of managing lots of moving parts that has been the greatest learning experience for her.

The message that Dishman is communicating here is that many of the skills that make us exceptional professionals in our field are best learnt when we involve ourselves in activities that have nothing to do with our work.

The same message was re-iterated in a study by The Australian Learning and Teaching Council on the changing skill set needed by professional accounting graduates – Accounting For The Future: More Than Numbers (2009) – which I read recently. In this study, the researchers interviewed students, employers of accounting graduates, including the Big 4, some mid-tier/niche and small accounting firms; the 3 professional accounting bodies; large and small companies; and the public sector across Australia, as well as recent graduates and current students.

The researchers discovered that what employers wanted was  people with a range of well-developed non-technical skills, what are often called “Soft Skills.” They indicated that these were often seen as the decisive point of difference when employing people with similar academic grades. They made the point that while grades are good, they are not everything. “They want graduates who are well-rounded, who have experience in areas other than study, whether it be volunteering, part-time work, or, for example, sport, so that those graduates are being prepared for management positions they have the ability to develop relationships that are the basis for growing and sustaining a business. The technical ability is assumed; however, it is the non-technical ability that will distinguish the outstanding from the good graduate,”  the researchers found.

One of the Big 4 accounting firms, whose comments encapsulated much of what other employers across the country were saying, expressed it this way:
“What we are looking for is people who are well-rounded, so if you have got students who have got outstanding results, that’s all they have got. So if their CV indicates all they do is study, study, study, we would be a bit concerned about that person. Their grades would probably get them through the first screening, but there would be some really serious questions asked about that person’s capability in the longer term. We do often look for work experience, a part-time job, or having done vacation work, as evidence of how holistic this person is, trying to give us a bigger picture of the whole.”

This firm made the point that it is these experiences that make them very employable because the very important quality they need in their people is “relationship building ability” because when these people get through to very senior levels, the senior managers and  partnered ranks, it is all about relationship building. The firm went on to say that it expects everyone to have technical Excellence, but that it is “that X factor, that quality that somebody has that says they are a well-rounded person,”  that makes them highly sought after.

So instead of going off to do some more formal education to gain more qualifications and letters after your name, you may find that doing some volunteer work or joining a sports club, will add a touch of that elusive X Factor to your CV and accelerate your career down the success highway at a faster speed.

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