Taking the career long view

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It is very easy for us to stay focussed on the next promotion, the next job, the next assignment and to see our career as moving up an escalator one step at a time. But when we are asked to plan our finances, we recognise that there are times of investment and there are times of harvest. As we leave school and many of us go to University, we are investing time and money in our education. In the early parts of our career we are paying off student debts and working at lower rates, maybe with family obligations and buying our first house, so still sowing into the future. Then the hope is that in the second half of our career we can start to reap the benefits, earn higher amounts of money and hopefully have the storehouse that we need for retirement. That is what all good financial planners will tell you. For some reason we do not necessarily look at our working lives like that. For some reason, too often, we just look at the next step. I am in this job how can I get the next promotion? I am in this job; how can I get a similar job in a similar role at another employer? I am in this job; how can I get a more exciting assignment in my current grade? We focus very much on the short term and because of that too often we do not recognise the sort of transferable skills that we need to start to build up to create the future that is most valuable or us.

I would suggest there are five key transferable skills that we should be building into investment in our working life.

1) The capability to sell

You may not ever want to be a frontline salesman. You might not ever want to be the person who goes out and cold calls people to win a project or to sell a product, but the skills and knowledge and discipline of selling will be crucial to your future success. Selling gets you to think really clearly about the needs of the other person. Selling equips you to engage with the emotional state of the other person. Selling equips you to be an influencer in a situation and selling is a discipline of resilience because as you sell most of what you will hear is ‘no’. A successful sales person is the person who gets to ‘no’ quickly. For myself, when I was a student at university, I decided that I would spend some of my holiday doing doorstep selling. It was a real revelation, knocking on the doors of Cambridge housewives trying to sell them cleaning equipment. I learnt a lot about myself, about how people react to an unsolicited call, about how important it was for me to connect into what the needs of that person were. All I had to do was to persuade them to take a brochure and then when I came back a week later either give me the brochure back or place an order. Not a really difficult sales step.

2) The ability to coach

I am not convinced that an ideal outcome for a future workstyle is to become a coach, but I do think that the skills that you develop as a coach, that develop your emotional intelligence, your listening skills, your questioning skills, that help you to strengthen your capacity to emphasise with other people are crucial to future success. Research by Sun Microsystems (now part of ORACLE) demonstrates that people who have been trained as coaches do perform better in their careers.

3) The ability to write in a compelling way about things you care about

This is not just about writing a report or an effective presentation. This is much more writing journalistically, about transmitting ideas. This is about building a presence as somebody who has a well-formed opinion, out in the world. Writing is a key skill that underpins your ability to be an influencer, to create a presence in a whole range of areas. That writing requires the discipline of editing your work. Working in a fast pace professional services firm I learnt that to get an email to have the right impact on my audience, I needed to limit it to a certain number of lines. I needed to bring the action point at the top and the explanation further down. I needed to separate that short communication so that it hit the button for the person reading it. Those skills I am now taking out into writing articles for newspapers, magazines and blogs. I am preparing to build thought leadership in my chosen field.  So, writing skills are crucial and they underpin another crucial transferable skill.

4) To be able to perform in front of an audience and particularly in front of a camera

Learning to perform in front of an audience can require two different modes: the staged honed key note speech and the interactive round table, workshop style.  The TED and TEDx communities give you wonderful examples of the hone key note.  

If you are going to get serious then consider doing a TEDx, joining Toast Masters or finding your local chapter of the Professional Speakers Association.  The round table, workshop style is more difficult to prepare for.  I strongly recommend learning some improvisation skills – go on an improvisation course or find a local drama group that does improvisation.  This will equip you to build on the momentum of a roundtable discussion and to respond to unexpected questions from left field.

Working in front of a camera requires additional practice – particularly if you are working with an interviewer.  I have been interviewed for national TV documentaries and learning how to pace your responses, be appropriately animated and avoid ending up on the cutting room floor is best served by some media training with an experienced TV journalist.  There are even more challenges when you are trying to make an impression as a tiny box in gallery view on a Zoom video conference!

5) Learning Skills

Build into the way that you live an openness to continually learn and grow.  Growing yourself, growing your skills, stretching your experience, and developing new knowledge. That learning skill can be as much about having a regular habit of reading or listening to significant or interesting content. Or it can be about reflecting on your own practise. It can be going out and stretching yourself with completely new skills that may not directly related to your field: going and learning a foreign language, or learning to dance, or a craft. Just continuing keeping alive that capability to learn in all sorts of different situations and diverse ways.


I am surprised how many senior professionals achieve significant success in the first half of their careers without committing to build these five essential transferable skills.  I see younger professionals recognise that they will need these skills but employers rarely provide training for them.  Start to take control of your future by building the transferable skills that will set you apart from your colleagues when you want to step up or step out.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.