By Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO
If you've been on a job interview recently, you've likely experienced the confusion of having to discuss your strengths in one instance, and explaining your skills in another. I've seen many interviews head south fast as candidates struggle to explain themselves in these areas. In fact, I recently interviewed a candidate who looked good on paper, but because of an inability to articulate himself in person, I had to tell him that I wouldn't be able to offer him a job until he gained more experience and could demonstrate measurable technical skill.
So what gives? Why all the fuss about strengths and skills? Well, to be honest, there are several reasons, but among the most important is that because the world of international business is becoming more competitive, companies are segmenting business units much more than in the past. This means that in order to innovate or pivot to keep pace with rapidly changing markets, having team members with expert-level skill is no longer a luxury, especially in tech industries. Similarly, in service industries, strengths are valued (and compensated) at a premium, as it is the ability to identify and respond to consumer demand quickly that combines with innovation to offer companies the type of competitive advantage necessary to maintain market share.
Skills Pay Bills
I'm sure you have heard the saying that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill and become an expert in it, right? Well, if you do the math, that means about 5 years of work experience using that skill. Anything that you can practice doing for 5 years and get progressively better at is a skill. Think of the possibilities: building financial models, doing presentations, making explainer videos, creating marketing campaigns, building websites. The list could go on for days. But you get the picture. Think of a skill as something that you can take a course to learn, practice consistently, and get good enough at doing to get a paycheck. When thinking about your potential career path, be sure to look at enough job postings to identify which skills are associated with the intermediate level and senior level positions, then work out a plan to acquire those skills until you can demonstrate expertise in them.
Strengths Make Bank
Unlike skills, strengths can be characterized as things that you are naturally good at, along with character traits. For example, maybe you have an ear for languages such that you can develop conversational fluency simply by interacting with native speakers. That would be a strength. On the other hand, your ability to speak Mandarin or Italian would be a skill. While crafting your professional profile, don't underestimate the importance of strengths such as ease of learning languages, communication, and leadership. I have come across many professionals whose career trajectory hit a plateau because, while they possessed great technical skill in their areas of expertise, they lacked the strength profile to continue to climb the corporate ladder and ascend to leadership positions. Indeed, it is rare in an unbiased (read: not tainted by corruption or nepotism) environment to have people in leadership positions who do not have strong soft skills or leadership ability.
Generally speaking, interviews can be segmented, according to their aims, into two streams: competency-based and strengths-based interviews. The competency-based interview tries to uncover what your skills are - what you have done, and what you can do. On the other hand, the strengths-based interview is aimed at learning what you are good at and what you enjoy doing. Pinpointing this synergy is crucial for companies hoping to attract and develop new talent.
In HR manger speak: a measurable ability that adds value is a skill; and a skill that is accompanied by passion is a strength. Try to keep the distinction in mind as you prepare for your next interview, and be sure to let your passion emerge when you are discussing your strengths.