How to master a new skill

Finweek English Edition - - MANAGEMENT - AMY GALLO

We all want to be bet­ter at some­thing. Af­ter all, self- im­prove­ment is nec­es­sary to get ahead at work. But once you know what you want to be bet­ter at – whether it’s pub­lic speak­ing, us­ing so­cial me­dia or analysing data – how do you start? Of course, learn­ing tech­niques will vary de­pend­ing on the skill and the per­son, but there are some gen­eral rules you can fol­low.


Mas­ter­ing new skills is not op­tional in to­day’s busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment. “In a fast­mov­ing, com­pet­i­tive world, be­ing able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success. It’s not enough to be smart – you need to al­ways be get­ting smarter,” says Heidi Grant Halvor­son, a mo­ti­va­tional psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of Nine things suc­cess­ful peo­ple do dif­fer­ently.”

Joseph Wein­traub, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and or­gan­i­sa­tional be­hav­iour at Bab­son Col­lege and co-au­thor of the book The Coach­ing Man­ager: De­vel­op­ing top tal­ent in busi­ness, agrees: “We need to con­stantly look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to stretch our­selves in ways that may not al­ways feel com­fort­able at f irst. Con­tin­ual im­prove­ment is nec­es­sary to get ahead.” HERE ARE SOME PRIN­CI­PLES TO FOL­LOW IN YOUR QUEST FOR SELF-IM­PROVE­MENT:


When work­ing on a new skill or compe- tency, you need to ask your­self two things. First, is your goal at­tain­able?

“There are cer­tain lim­its to what you can learn,” Wein­traub ex­plains. “For ex­am­ple, you may want to be a brain sur­geon but not have t he eye - hand co­or­di­na­tion re­quired.” Sec­ond, how much time and en­ergy can you give to the project? “It’s not like go­ing to the phar­macy and get­ting a pre­scrip­tion f illed,” Wein­traub says. Self-im­prove­ment is hard work.

Halvor­son agrees: “Many peo­ple im­plic­itly be­lieve that if you have to work hard at some­thing, it means you lack abil­ity.

This is rub­bish.” In­stead, recog­nise that learn­ing a new skill takes ex­treme com­mit­ment. Un­less your goal is at­tain--

able and you’re pre­pared to work hard, you won’t get very far.


Wein­traub sug­gests that you also make sure the skill is rel­e­vant to your ca­reer, your or­gan­i­sa­tion or both. You may be jazzed up about learn­ing how to speak in front of large au­di­ences, but does your man­ager value that?

Un­less you ab­so­lutely need the skill for your cur­rent job or a fu­ture po­si­tion, it’s un­likely you’ll get money for train­ing or sup­port from your man­ager.

Gain­ing a new skill is an in­vest­ment, and you need to know up­front what the re­turn will be.


Some learn best by read­ing or look­ing at graph­ics. Oth­ers would rather watch demon­stra­tions or lis­ten to ex­pla­na­tions. Still oth­ers need hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence.

Halvor­son says you can f ig­ure out your ideal learn­ing style by look­ing back. “Ref lect on some of your past learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and make a list of good ones and an­other list of bad ones,” she says. “What did the good, ef­fec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences have in com­mon?

How about the bad ones? Iden­ti­fy­ing com­mon strands can help you de­ter­mine the learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment that works best for you.”


Elic­it­ing sup­port from oth­ers can greatly in­crease learn­ing. Find some­one you trust who has mas­tered the skill you’re try­ing to at­tain. And look be­yond your im­me­di­ate man­ager who has to eval­u­ate you. Wein­traub sug­gests you ask your­self: “Who in my or­gan­i­sa­tion, other than my boss, would no­tice my changes and give me hon­est feed­back?”

Then ap­proach that per­son and say some­thing like: “You are so com­fort­able with (the skill), some­thing I’m not par- tic­u­larly good at. I’m really tr ying to work on that and would love to spend some time with you, learn from you and get your feed­back.”

If you can’t f ind a men­tor in­side your com­pany, look for peo­ple in your in­dus­try or from your net­work. “Ul­ti­mately, you want to go with the best teacher.

If there is some­one in your or­gan­i­sa­tion who is able and will­ing to pro­vide qual­ity men­tor­ing, then great. If not, seek out­side help,” Halvor­son says.


Self-im­prove­ment can feel over­whelm­ing. “You can’t take on ev­ery­thing. If you do, you’ll never do it,” Wein­traub says.

In­stead, choose one or t wo skills to fo­cus on at a time and break that skill down into man­age­able goals.

For ex­am­ple, if you’re try­ing to be­come more as­sertive, you might fo­cus on speak­ing up more of­ten in meet­ings by push­ing your­self to talk within the first five min­utes.

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