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Workplace Skills You Need Most What do bosses want most in their employees?

Technical knowledge, communication skills, critical thinking, a gift for leadership, a great attitude, or all of the above? Knowing the right answer may land you a job or enable you to keep the job you have.

There is no single answer that’s right for all jobs and all organizations. But employer surveys and other research on the needs of the current workplace do point to certain skills that can be considered essential everywhere.


A 2008 study titled "Critical Skills Needs and Resources for the Changing Workforce," conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and, found that managers and employees both placed high value on familiar skills and traits such as:

  • critical thinking
  • written and oral communication
  • ability to use information technology well
  • leadership
  • creativity
  • teamwork

Large numbers of those surveyed said these qualities had become “much more important” in recent years.

The trait that topped the list was "adaptability/flexibility." Among experienced workers, 47 percent said this had become much more important; 60 percent of the human resources managers said the same. So the ability to adjust to change may be the best job-keeping and career-advancing trait of all.


Adaptability is one of the so-called "soft" skills that can be difficult to measure and teach, at least through formal training programs. Critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership and teamwork—all among the top half-dozen skills listed by managers in the SHRM study—are in the same category.

"Hard" skills such as computer mastery, engineering expertise, a knack for written communication and a thorough knowledge of financial procedures can also make an employee extremely valuable. But workers can be in trouble if they have only these tools and none of the people skills or insight that can help them work with others and adapt to the changing needs of the organization. The same goes for those with an on-again, off-again work ethic.

Jean Kelley, a workplace coach and author of Get a Job, Keep a Job, notes that employers tend to ask 2 questions about employees when they are deciding which ones to keep and which ones to lay off:

  1. "Does this person get along with everyone?"
  2. "Do they deliver what they promise?"


The simplest way to find out what skills your employer would like you to have is to ask. Normally, your annual (or more frequent) review should answer that question, but it never hurts to ask if you’re not sure. "Bosses are often overloaded with direct reports," says Kelley, "so it’s up to the employee to ask now and then whether they are on the right track."

Another way to learn what management wants from you is to look at its training programs. If it will pay the cost of teaching you something, it must want you to learn it. Take the company up on its offer of free training.

Some skills are so universally applicable that you should polish them even if your employer isn’t footing the bill. Public speaking is one of these, notes business strategist Vaughan Evans, author of the book Backing U: A Business-Oriented Guide to Backing Your Passion and Achieving Career Success. It makes you better at communicating with co-workers, talking to clients and the public, and raising your profile in an organization. It also makes you more adaptable. Evans tells the story of a shy market researcher who enjoyed her work “until she saw that the rules were changing” and that researchers were going to have to stand in front of clients and present their own findings. "She was petrified," he said, "until she joined Toastmasters."


Some skills are not so easy to learn. You can’t really take a course in creativity or instantly transform yourself into a natural leader. But you may have some of these qualities already and have not really shown them off.

How do you identify those strengths? Services such as the popular StrengthsFinder program (which requires a book purchase) are one method. Kelley suggests the simple (and free) alternative of asking trusted friends or family members to pinpoint what they see as your top skills.

Whatever you come up with, it's important that you put those skills into action at the workplace, and in ways that get noticed. "Sometimes employers don’t know your skill set," she says. "You have to lobby for yourself."


StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. Gallup Press, 2007.
Contains an access code for the online test

Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance by Marcus Buckingham. Free Press, 2007.

The Truth About You: Your Secret to Success by Marcus Buckingham. Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Toastmasters International

"Critical Skills Needs and Resources for the Changing Workforce" Study
Society for Human Resource Management and the Wall Street Journal

Sources:Jean Kelley, president, Jean Kelley Leadership Consulting,; Vaughan Evans, founder, Vaughan Evans & Partners,; Society for Human Resource Management,

By Tom Gray
© 2009 Achieve Solution®