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3 Skills to Acquire to Advance Your Career

To get ahead at work, it's not enough to just be good at your job. To take that next step you need to learn new skills that make you a more valuable employee.

That could mean going back to school, or it could involve finding another way to expand your skill set. This isn't something small like learning how the boss likes her coffee, or even something bigger like improving your understanding of Excel, Word, or whatever software your office uses. Instead, this is an opportunity to really get better at something that's marketable and/or that makes you a better employee.

Project management

Maurie Backman: Even if you're not employed as an actual project manager, learning how to delegate tasks, coordinate multiple moving parts, and meet deadlines will all help you advance your career -- and these are all components of project management.

Project management can come into play in various aspects of your job, even when you least expect it. For instance, if you're asked to organize an upcoming team lunch, guess what? That's a project right there. You'll need to determine a budget, find a location, pick a date and time, send out invites, and follow up with attendees, all within a certain timeframe.

This example might be a bit simplified, but the truth is that learning to effectively manage projects is a skill that will serve you well as you attempt to get promoted and climb the ladder at your company. And if you need help developing that skill, there are plenty of apps that can assist.

Trello is one of my personal favorites because it's incredibly easy to use, but play around and see which tool best suits your needs, and keep developing your own personal project management hacks as well. The more you learn to pull off projects successfully, the more value you'll bring to whatever role you land in.

I'm sorry, what was that?

Tim Brugger: Many years back, when I was still early on in my financial services career, I was asked by a very insightful manager if I was the type of person who actively listens, or the type that waits to talk. I thought, "What a great question." After some introspection, I was forced to admit I was the latter. "Okay yeah, got it, let's move on" was often my first inclination.

Thankfully for me, and my career, that question forced me to reexamine how I interacted with people, both personally and professionally. The pitfalls for folks in the workplace that hear what's being said but aren't really listening are many, and sometimes serious.

Imagine your boss is sharing a new project critical to the company during what has been a tough stretch. When she's done outlining the particulars, she asks "Are there any questions?" Your co-worker's hand shoots up: "How long do we have to put all this together?"

Of course, she covered that, and while this is a rather simplistic example it speaks volumes about the value and importance of active listening.

What your inquisitive co-worker has really said, to both his fellow employees and his boss, is, "My mind was elsewhere, sorry about that, but could you catch me up on the particulars I should already know even though you just shared them with me?"

There's nothing wrong with asking for clarification on a point or two assuming you were actively listening, which makes it more likely your query is an insightful one. But hearing without really listening is a recipe for disaster in the workplace.

Learn a language

Daniel B. Kline: If you speak only English, there are a lot of people all over the world you can't communicate with. In fact, it's hard to think of a job where becoming fluent -- even partially fluent -- in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese won't help. Whether you are a CEO or an entry-level fast-food worker, speaking another language makes you dramatically more valuable.

Language Native Speakers: Non-Native Speakers: Total:
Mandarin 955 million 194 million 1.15 billion
English 360 million 603 million 963 million
Spanish 427 million 91 million 518 million

Data source: Rocket Languages.

Learning a language is, of course, not easy. It can take years of lessons, practice, and study just to achieve basic fluency. Still, language is not an all or nothing game. If you're the person at your company who speaks some Mandarin, that may still give you an edge over co-workers who speak none.

When I ran a factory owned by my family, many of my employees spoke Spanish as their first language. I had studied the language in high school but had forgotten much of what I learned. To get it back I used a popular software package every day and took one on one lessons once a week. I also spoke in Spanish as often as I could.

Of course, I never became fluent, but I did become more valuable to my company. My employees appreciated the effort and I was able to better understand their needs. That made the business run more smoothly, and had I stayed in that field my basic competency in a language spoken by much of the workforce would have been a bullet point on my resume.

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