Your sustainable career advantage isn’t what you think

We hear much in the news these days about the increasing need for coding skills, data analysis, and similar qualifications considered career success building blocks for the twenty-first century. But evidence is mounting that the only real sustainable competitive advantage in an age of increasing automation is, paradoxically, not the ability to work with computers, technology and information, but interpersonal skills and competencies.

As Michael Bloomberg recently noted, “The part that’s most important in an education is how to deal with people. There’s no job I know that you do by yourself.” This sentiment is echoed by fellow billionaire and Virgin empire founder Richard Branson, who cites emotional intelligence, relationships, and leadership (among others) as some of the critical skills for success that aren’t currently high on the educational agendaThe Economist, in recent articles and podcasts, also makes a persuasive case for acquiring and improving the human skills that have been overshadowed by all the tech talk, and a Workopolis survey of Canadian employers identified leadership and teamwork as among the top 10 most desirable skills for employees. Meanwhile the CBC’s The Current reports that the Business Higher Education Round Table believes that “too many students are entering the workforce without the practical skills that employers want,” including teamwork. Perhaps there’s an assumption that these should be innate qualities rather than learned skills, but that’s not the case.

Focus on the creative industries

In the arts, entertainment, and cultural industries, the need for interpersonal skills is arguably even greater, since it’s a sector where the quality of one’s relationships has a disproportionate effect on repeat employability. Ours is, after all, a network-oriented business, one in which shows are necessarily contract-based jobs. They are as essential to the studio floor as they are to the C-suite. As Harold Vogel writes in Entertainment Industry Economics (a staple text for entertainment business management programs), “the care and feeding of many large (if not often irrationally inflated) creative egos is in and of itself a decisive management skill” (p. 141). “People skills,” as they’re sometimes loosely called, are as critical to getting the job as they are to doing the job.

I conducted my own analysis of 20 common occupations in the arts, entertainment, and culture sector in Canada using data gathered by the Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC), a national, non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening Canada’s cultural workforce and improving the HR environment within the sector. I examined the competency charts and occupational profiles for Recorded Music Production; Booking Agent; Development, Marketing and Distribution in the music industry (A&R, marketing, promotion, etc.); Music Artist Manager; Music Publisher; Presenter (Promoter); Cultural Manager; Cultural Mentor; Interactive Media Producer; Film and TV Director; Director and Producer of Documentary Films; Location Manager; Film and TV Producer; Production Manager; Showrunner; Automation Technician; Entertainment Rigger; General Stage Technicians (Stage Hands); Book Publishers; and Magazine Publisher. Based on this disparate but reasonably representative cross-section of roles and responsibilities in the creative industries surveyed by the CHRC, I note the following observations (among others):

• 85% demand the ability to “practice active listening” (also described as “ability to listen,” applying “listening techniques,” and “demonstrate[ing] listening skills”);

• An equal amount (85%) require the ability to negotiate;

• 70% require the ability to “exercise leadership” (and/or “demonstrate leadership” or “lead a team”);

• 35% cite the ability to give (and receive) feedback and/or constructive criticism;

• 25% demand the skills necessary to resolve, manage, or mediate conflicts and handle grievances;

• 30% specifically identify the ability to “collaborate,” and a further 50% specify the ability to “demonstrate teamwork skills,” “function as part of a team,” “work as a team member,” and in one case (that of film & TV producer), “assemble a production team.” (In comparison, 30% of jobs in my sample required the ability to “exercise” or “demonstrate,” creativity, or “establish/maintain a (safe) creative environment.”) And,

• 30% explicitly require the ability to “empathize” or “demonstrate empathy.”

Here I’ve focused on a handful of skills specifically relevant to working effectively with others, but of course there are other mission-critical personal competencies identified by the CHRC as being common to many of the jobs, such as adaptability/flexibility, decision-making, the ability “manage stress,” “work under pressure,” “motivate,” “facilitate group interactions,” “build consensus,” “set an example (role model),” “demonstrate accountability,” and so forth. In short, there are just as many (if not more) of what I would characterize as emotional intelligence skills as there are technical skills vital to each job studied.

Like the technical skills, these intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies are seldom innate but can be developed. The problem right now, as noted in the Globe and Mail, is that there aren’t enough training programs “to build skills — and confidence — for Canadian mid- to senior-level cultural leaders so they can ‘step up and take on these big jobs across the country.'” The good news is that there are resources already available, with more on the way. Let’s hope that as awareness of the need grows, the training opportunities increase commensurately. It may not be as sexy a topic as artificial intelligence or machine learning, but a misunderstanding with Siri or Echo is nowhere near as harmful to your career as the inability to deal with bosses or co-workers effectively.