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Owning Your Career: Taking a Hard Look at ‘Soft’ Skills

By Garrett Forsythe |

A personal development strategy helps to set engineers up for success in their personal and professional lives

As chemical engineers, we have been trained to be data-driven, fact-based problem-solvers. This focus serves us well when we are tackling difficult technical problems and developing and executing process improvements. However, the need to cover so many technical areas in a chemical engineering curriculum often leaves little time for some of the “liberal arts” side of education, such as communication, psychology, writing skills and more. As chemical engineering students, we have enough challenges with kinetics, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics and process laboratory courses (Figure 1). So many of us enter the work world with a good technical foundation, but often with some skill gaps that we are not fully aware of yet.

Taking a Hard Look at Soft Skills

Figure 1. The need to cover so many technical areas in a chemical engineering curriculum often leaves little time for some of the “liberal arts” side of education

After all, awareness and effectiveness in some of these “soft skills” are crucial for personal and professional success. These include additional topics, like understanding personalities, identifying one’s strengths and weaknesses, communication skills, practicing emotional intelligence, mindsets and behaviors and effective change management. I consider these “foundational skills” and have found that young and mid-career engineers find this “new” information fascinating as they navigate their own personal growth plans. Many have not taken the time to sit back and consider that these skills can be learned and improved. The ones that do can develop advantages that help them both professionally and personally.

 

Rising up

In my years in operations, research and development, supply chain and business leadership, I have seen countless new engineers enter the workforce. Some have risen through the ranks of the workplace — distinguishing themselves as chemical engineering professors, plant managers, business leaders and even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — while others have failed to live up to their potential. In fact, some of my former coworkers have been let go due to performance, as well as personal issues. But why? Could this have been prevented?

To answer this, we must determine some of the common predictors of success. In my 40-plus years of experience, I have concluded that people who take their personal development seriously and have a (documented) plan that they follow with discipline do have an edge. Of course, technical competence is a fundamental element that must first be in place. Fortunately, several mentors shared this with me early in my career and I am forever indebted to them. It’s something I’m trying to pass on to the next generation of engineers.

If you work for a large company or institution, as I did, your human resources department likely has a targeted development planning process. Although these plans are often effective, they may not fully account for an individual’s holistic development and growth. The plans are often generated once per year and only reviewed occasionally throughout the year. (Note: many smaller companies do not have this formal process, so engineers need to develop their own development strategies and elements. Not sure where to start? Keep reading.).

As a manager of engineers for most of my career, I was responsible for helping develop these plans (for myself and others). They often focused on broad topics, such as business expertise, customer relationships and “getting results.” Although they included other important areas, like influence, negotiation skills, planning, organizing and networking, it was often a challenge to develop specific action items beyond courses and one-on-one mentoring. After all, as humans, it’s often difficult to gauge our own blind spots, gaps and personal strengths that could be leveraged or improved to gain the most benefit. This is where an effective 360-degree feedback process can be very useful.

When I had direct reports that took this process seriously, and worked to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills to their roles, these reports tended to be the ones who rose to the top of their peer group and scaled the corporate ladder (both in technical- and business-progression ladders). This, in the beginning of my career (pre-Internet), meant reading a few books and magazines (such as Harvard Business Review) and receiving one-on-one mentoring and coaching. Fortunately, today, there is an abundance of resources available — including books, YouTube videos, LinkedIn resources, TED Talks, podcasts and more. So much so, in fact, that the sheer volume of personal development tools can be overwhelming.

This is in part why a documented personal development plan keeps us on track. A plan, along with a good “develop in your current role” strategy, has proven to be a comprehensive way of building a career and growth trajectory. In reality, you are both “competing” with peers, but more importantly, “competing” with becoming the best you. We all have had stages in our career where we have been so busy with work that we did not focus as much as we may have liked on our longer-term development and personal growth. Achieving this balance is possible and certainly desirable.

Carl Rentschler, an engineer like me who has been in the industry for many years, had similar advice in an article [ 1], in which he touted the importance of communication skills and networking. Of course, he assumed that technical competence was a base to start from. He wrote, “The level of competition within the engineering field will continue and is likely to intensify.” I could not agree more­— and one way for engineers to build a unique, personal advantage is to cultivate these foundational skills, in addition to advancing their technical skills. Have you ever thought of your own personal skillset in this way?

 

Where to start?

When coaching engineers or other individuals, I first work with them to determine their short- and longer-term goals, as well as the key areas they want to focus on most. Through multiple conversations, this often morphs a bit and boils down to two to three specific targets and development goals. We usually start with some of the foundational skills, such as personality-typing and strength-weakness assessments (there are numerous tools and tests), which help the individual better understand themselves and how others likely see them. From there, we tackle specific areas, including emotional intelligence, effective communication practices, practical negotiation skills, roadmapping and leading change, managing and leadership practices, becoming a trusted advisor, and navigating the first two to three months in a new role. This is a partial listing of the topics that are of most interest in pursuing together. My goal is to find one or two areas to target that the individual has high energy in focusing on.

 

Personality and strengths

I have often found that many early-career engineers are not aware of the helpful tools that are available to understand their own personality and areas of strength. Some have done personality profiles, but have not “mined the data” enough to dig a little deeper to understand the ramifications of what they have learned. Understanding personalities is important in life and helps each of us to understand the way we individually see things and the ways others see the same things. Some of us are more task-oriented and some of us are more relationship-oriented. Some look first at the big picture and some dive right away into the details and analytics. There are many assessment tests available (for example, Myers-Briggs and DISC). Once an individual understands their personality type in more depth, they can also better determine and appreciate the personality types of their coworkers and managers, and tailor their communication strategies to their specific audience. This is not a form of manipulation at all. Each of us prefers to hear and process information in a certain way. A dominant personality, for instance, wants to get to the bottom line and options more quickly, while a cautious or compliant personality wants to know the details and understand all the facts before making a decision.

I have seen it first-hand many times. I remember vividly a situation where one engineer (a dominant) was presenting to his boss (a cautious/compliant) and did not review the details and facts to support his recommended solution. His boss was frustrated, but did not effectively explain his frustrations to the engineer. And it ultimately proved to be a career-killer for the engineer. He later left the company due to this and several other communication-related issues.

Understanding your top strengths is also an important element of your growth journey. Several good resources can help here, including “StrengthFinder 2.0” that has the CliftonStrengths assessment tool. In my past, performance reviews often focused on strengths and weaknesses equally, and often the discussions were more targeted on the weak areas. Many human resource professionals today believe that focusing on strengths is the higher priority, and I agree. Of course, weak areas that are career disruptors are crucial to identify and understand (and address). But if you are a 7 out of 10 in some strength areas that you can develop into an 8 or 9, these will help you stand out. But if you are a 3 out of 10 in a weak area, it might be difficult to raise it to anything above a 6. In your own development planning, you must determine if this weak area is worth the additional focused effort or not. If it is a significant gap area or even a career disruptor, then it should warrant some attention.

 

Support teams

To avoid the fate of this engineer and cultivate your foundational skills, I recommend that you develop your own “inner circle” of support for your growth. Your targeted development plan with your company, if you have one, is only part of this process. This includes finding a mentor or accountability partner to work with. It’s best that it not be your direct boss or anyone else on your direct work team, though they should have an active part of your personal growth plan. She or he should be chosen carefully and have the desire and time to invest in you for a routine one-on-one lunch or short meeting every few weeks or so. An effective mentor or coach will ask probing questions and help you to process areas that you are actively working on to improve your capabilities and skills and mindsets.

It is desirable to have several people in your organization, besides your direct supervisor, to discuss personal development with. Be selective, since unfortunately not everyone has the desire or mindset to support you in this process. Try to pick only one or two key areas at a time to work on and remember the “SMART” process of having your growth goals specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (Figure 2).

Working on foundational skills is something each engineer can and should be doing in a deliberate way, no matter our age and position in the workplace. But as one performance coach, Brendon Buchard, says, “the world cares less about your strengths and personality than about your service and meaningful contributions to others.” Results matter, but the way you get those results also matters. Are you a good listener? Do you allow others to make their points before injecting yours? Have you done your homework to be sure your proposals and recommendations are well thought out, and have you considered alternative approaches? Have you considered things from the other person’s point of view?

Figure 2. To cultivate your foundational skills, try to pick only one or two key areas at a time to work on and remember the “SMART” process for your goals

Communication skills

Learning to communicate effectively is a critical skill regardless of your personality type, and regardless of what your strengths and weak areas are (Figure 3). In his excellent book, “Everyone Communicates Few Connect,” leadership expert John Maxwell says, “It’s not enough just to work hard. It’s not enough to do a great job. To be successful, you need to learn how to really communicate with others.” A Harvard Business Review article agrees — “The number one criterion for advancement and promotion for professionals is an ability to communicate effectively.”

Do you look for opportunities to improve your communication skills? This includes writing skills, as well as your speaking skills one-on-one, in small groups and in front of larger groups. I remember one engineer who was uncomfortable speaking in front of groups, and he decided that he wanted to work on this in a deliberate way. He joined a Toastmasters group to practice speaking in a comfortable setting where others were looking to do the same thing. He did improve and became a very effective presenter and communicator.

Soft skills for engineers include communication

Figure 3. Learning to communicate effectively is a critical skill regardless of your personality type, and regardless of what your strengths and weak areas are

Robert Dilenschneider, a CEO, wrote about a “power triangle” that each of us creates around us that helps us be effective in our work and with others. He said, “The three components of this triangle are communication, recognition and influence. You start to communicate effectively. This leads to recognition and recognition in turn leads to influence.” As engineers, chemists, teachers and business leaders, we all can take the time and put in the effort to improve incrementally so that the cumulative effect is noticeable and beneficial to our careers.

 

You own the process

Each part of our career journey offers opportunity for delivering results and developmental growth. Personal growth can be an exciting, lifelong journey in which you can take a deliberate approach to pursue and achieve. If you do, I am confident it can accelerate your career and personal satisfaction — both at work and in your life away from work. ■

Edited by Dorothy Lozowski

 

References

1. Rentschler, Carl, Career Guidelines for Young Engineers, Chemical Engineering, January 2018, pp. 56–59.

 

Author

Garrett Forsythe (Email: forsytheopex@gmail.com; Phone: 610-304-0630) is an engineering consultant and executive coach specializing in operational excellence and leadership development. With DuPont, he had operation leadership experience, business and sales roles, and helped design and execute major enterprise-wide continuous improvement programs. He now operates JGF Performance Consulting, LLC and focuses on coaching early and mid-career individuals. He has over 40 years of varied operational, supply chain, business, and consulting experience, primarily in the chemical and mining industries. He holds a B.S.Ch.E. from the University of Delaware.

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