Technical skills are always important, but alone they are no longer sufficient for ambitious graduates seeking to build a successful career, an education expert says. Because in today's constantly changing and fast-paced global environment, employers seek out those graduates who are resilient and can build long-term relationships with customers, colleagues, communities and other business partners.
"The ability to get on well with people and actively build relationships among all roleplayers and stakeholders is now more important than ever, and absolutely essential for those graduates seeking to distinguish themselves in the job market," says Wonga Ntshinga, Senior Head of Programme: Faculty of ICT at The Independent Institute of Education, SA's largest and most accredited private higher education institution.
Ntshinga says that while relationship-building comes naturally to some people, others have to work on it.
"Whichever category you belong to, it is essential for all graduates to exercise their muscle when it comes to working well with your team, fostering cohesion and communicating effectively," he says.
Ntshinga says there are four competencies that support the effective performance and career growth of graduates beyond their field of academic expertise, and advises students to start developing these as soon as possible – with the help of their institution's support services if need be - and build on them post-graduation.
"Effective communication is perhaps the most important competency to develop, because it is one that is not readily replaceable by technology," Ntshinga says.
"Communicating effectively allows you to build relationships, listen carefully, influence matters and build empathy."
Ntshinga says graduates should aim to use, as far as possible, simple language devoid of jargon when communicating with colleagues.
"If you are in technical field, use standard terminology and use the appropriate terms correctly. As a graduate, you need to learn how to clearly communicate your messages to your colleagues and management, as miscommunication has the potential to negatively affect even the execution of your work and projects."
Ntshinga adds that it is essential that graduates understand they will be working with multiple people across multiple projects.
"Effective communicators understand how tone, body language, and context change the meaning of words. Therefore, as a graduate, learn how to craft and package your messages - written and oral - in such a way that the message is clear and easily understandable, whether you are giving instructions to your team, or whether you are explaining strategy to management."
Related to the above, graduates must develop how they relate to colleagues, managers and customers.
"Also called enduring skills or soft skills, developing your ability to build relationships will help you become tactful, diplomatic, and eventually an excellent negotiator and mediator – all traits that are in high demand in our increasingly race, age, gender and culturally diverse workplaces," he says.
The willingness and ability to problem-solve issues in the workplace is a major competitive advantage, says Ntshinga.
"Set yourself apart by trying to find solutions, rather than simply pointing out problems and waiting for others to solve them. When faced with complex problems, break the main issues down into smaller components, and start where you can."
Do as much as you can to develop beyond your current position, Ntshinga advises.
"You need to study and understand the trade of your organisation - its clients, staff and stakeholders. You need to demonstrate expert insight into aspects of the business outside of your area of expertise, and understand the broader operating environment. You also need to constantly develop your complementary skills, for instance by doing related short courses, to remain competitive. By merely knuckling down and focusing on your daily tasks alone, you limit your resilience and ability to adapt to new roles if changes are introduced in the business."
In today's competitive environment, with many graduates competing for limited positions and career advancement opportunities, employers naturally seek those graduates who can offer the full package, and get on with the job from day one without needing to be micro-managed, Ntshinga says.
"If you are able to demonstrate your ongoing commitment to personal and professional development beyond the subject expertise you gained as a graduate, you will effectively boost your personal brand and position yourself strongly to advance your career.
"Well-rounded graduates displaying the aforementioned traits are hugely attractive to any company seeking to appoint those who can boost the strategic competitiveness of their teams, rather than just employing those who tick off tasks without demonstrating their commitment to growth."