Volunteer to polish next-level skills

Jan. 15, 2021
While technical skills are important, they're not what will make you promotable

H. Leo Staples, former ISA President, gave the message “Volunteer” to student members new to the ISA Section at Oklahoma State University. It rang true to me, and I’m pleased to pass along my version of that message.

First note this contrast: a student gets recognized, honored and accepted into the next student level by being a great student, by getting all their tasks done and done correctly. By contrast, your coworkers who get promoted to levels of higher authority in business are not necessarily those people who have and demonstrate the best job prowess.

Here’s why: the engineer’s supervisor plans, coordinates, budgets, interfaces with upper management, and coaches employees for improved performance. These are not engineering skills. The people who rise into management were good enough at their prior job, but also have acquired the alternate skills to perform at the new level, and they're perceived to have the potential to acquire the additional skills necessary to perform at the next level up.

You don’t acquire those next-level management skills, or demonstrate your ability to perform at the next level, by focusing on improving technical skills at your current level. Of course, you should continue to improve at your current job; but at the same time, you should prepare for the future jobs that you would like to hold.

How to prepare for the next level? One way is to volunteer. There are professional societies, civic organizations, religious organizations, youth sports teams, community service organizations, and some employers give employees a chance to volunteer for temporary leadership of initiatives within the company. There are many opportunities where you can volunteer. Seek such.

One of my volunteer activities was to coach boys’ and girls’ gymnastic teams at the local YMCA; and though it may seem odd, I credit that athletic work with children as developing essential management career skills. By investing to become the best coach possible, I learned a lot about getting people to push themselves to overcome setbacks, to venture into their scary places, and to become their personal best. Of course, there was a technical aspect; I had to understand the physics associated with gymnastics “tricks.” But I was also immersed in safety, health, injury prevention and emergency handling. I had to understand gymnastics judging, so I could ensure that my gymnasts’ routines met the continually evolving criteria, and that they stayed competitive. I planned events for a year or more, into the future, including all details associated with schedule coordination, team travel, chaperones and funding. I interfaced with my team parents, and the “Y” board of directors to assure those stakeholders that my influence on their children was consistent with their values. Voted by other coaches, I became the state director for several years, during which I hosted the three-state regional meet, in which gymnasts qualified for national competition.

In all of this, I learned and demonstrated the ability to cope with diverse personalities (and hidden agendas) and to plan, budget and ensure that everything was both on task and compliant. I was developing my next-level engineering management skill, and demonstrating my ability to do the job. Although coaching youth sports was not on my annual performance appraisal, my understanding of, and readiness for, managerial assignments became visible in discussions. Perceiving that I could become promotable, company-sponsored management training experiences were placed on my professional development plan.

My message has four aspects: 1) Volunteering to lead in any organization will complement your on-the-job training and will develop your potential. You don't have to volunteer in a discipline-associated professional society to do so. 2) Volunteer for real. Don’t just get your name on a roster. Lead programs that add value. It's by investing your focus, time and effort, and by risking failure to create success, that you develop next-level skills. 3) The joy of accomplishment and the appreciation of others will be personally satisfying, and spill over into your professional and personal life. And 4) You’ll leave the place better than you found it. You’ll add value to the community.

About the author: R. Russell Rhinehart
About the Author

R. Russell Rhinehart | Columnist

Russ Rhinehart started his career in the process industry. After 13 years and rising to engineering supervision, he transitioned to a 31-year academic career. Now “retired," he returns to coaching professionals through books, articles, short courses, and postings to his website at www.r3eda.com.

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