Taking an Inventory

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Taking an Inventory

Peter Vogel        

Over the past three issues of Smart Access, I’ve tried to make a case for managing your skills as an investment portfolio that will ensure that you stay employed and do the work that you want to do. This month, I’m going to look at how you can define your skills portfolio.

The first thing that you have to recognize is that your skill portfolio isn’t limited to your technical skills. In last month’s issue I listed some of the members of my skill portfolio: relational database design, VBA, and XML. These are all technical items and are very valuable to me. However, equally valuable are my soft skills: listening, humor, ability to write clearly, and recognizing value in the contributions of others.

Are these skills really valuable? I’ve never had an employer or co-worker not comment on my sense of humor and go on to say how much they appreciate it. I think that laughter is the sound of your brain working in an interesting way. In addition to making a situation more enjoyable, humor helps people think more freely and feel that they’re in a non-threatening environment. There are situations where humor is inappropriate (and I’ve found them), but, in general, my sense of humor is regarded as an asset. Does this mean that you should go out and buy a joke book? The answer is an emphatic "No!" Humor works for me because it fits with my personality and the particular skills that I want to use. For all its lack of technical content, it’s a skill that I consciously nurture.

A good example of the close link between my soft and hard skills can be found between my listening and database design skills. The ability to normalize a database to produce the right data design is valuable and one that I’ve worked to develop. However, a perfectly normalized database that doesn’t have the data that the users need is perfectly useless. As a result, if I wanted to be a successful database designer, I had to learn to actively listen to my clients. This is an area that could still use some improvement, but I’m better than I was.

By the way, I’ve seen some masters of listening in action. I was part of a committee charged with selecting a third-party package that would run our whole company. The choice came down to two competing proposals. We had one sales rep in to make a presentation and he did a wonderful job. However, we gave the contract to the other sales rep because, in his presentation, we did most of the talking. The second sales rep spent most of his time getting from us what we needed, and he did that by simply sitting and listening. Was this skill an asset to him? You bet, and some day I hope to do as well.

You can’t develop all of the skills to do everything. For instance, I’ve recognized that I have glaring weaknesses in project management and administration. While I suppose it’s possible that I could have made improvements in these areas, I decided to abandon them instead. I quit my job as supervisor for a systems department and, when I started my own consulting firm, my wife signed on as our company’s general manager. I decided that I’m in the guru business, not the project delivery business.

So, when you’re looking at your skills portfolio, you need to decide what you want to do. Observe yourself at work: When do you feel most empowered? What successes give you the most satisfaction? Once you’ve identified these areas, you can start looking for the kind of jobs that will let you play to these strengths. You can then decide which items in your skills portfolio are relevant to doing those jobs. With these thoughts in mind, you can begin building up your weaker areas to become a wizard in the work that you want to do.

A technique that I use in understanding my skills portfolio is to develop a skills map. In a skills map, I try to diagram the relationship between the various skills that I own (or would like to own). In my skills map, for instance, database design is linked to knowledge of SQL, listening skills, business understanding, and expertise with the particular DBMS that my client is using. With a skill map built, my next step is to assess my competence in each of the skills. While this could get quite complicated, in general all you want to do is recognize which skill you’re weakest in and figure out how you can improve it.

You could take your chances with your career, but if you want to make sure that you’re doing what you really want to do, you’ll need to manage it.

 

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