Access to high-quality education has never been easier than it is today. You can buy and download best sellers the day they come out (as I just did with Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook), enroll in an online or in person class at your local college with no fuss through their continuing education department, or subscribe to any number of video training sites such as lynda.com.
2013 is a terrible time to use the old excuse that you don’t have time to learn more to increase your value in a tight job market. So with all the options available, you’ve got to figure out how to turn an ocean of available content into a manageable drink that comes at just the right time to quench your thirst.
There are three drinks worth taking as you look to advance in the business world–whether you’re running your own show or working at a company. My journey in each of these is at a different stage, with project management experience topping the skill list, but achieving mastery in all three is a long-term goal.
Knowing How to Work With Numbers
Call it big data, call it Excel wizardry, call it business intelligence. You need to know how to put all the basic math you learned in school to work in spreadsheets and data visualization programs so you can use numbers to drive decision making.
My nascent knowledge of the world of Excel is my entry-point, because it’s a tool I use every day. Go on. I dare you: make a Pivot Table. Learn how to scale formulas and analysis across multiple rows, sheets, and workbooks. My brain hurts when I look at numbers in grid format, but taking 20 minutes a week to get better at data analysis is a long-term investment that equips me to back up decisions I make with the facts that make those decisions compelling and forward-thinking.
To get started, take an Excel spreadsheet with some dated data and save it as a new file. Make this your practice file. You’ll play with this one. Then invest 10 minutes twice a week to increase your knowledge of the program and try adding formulas and data analysis to your routine.
The key to making this meaningful is to really start asking yourself this question: What do I need the data to tell me? Meaningful analysis begins with great questions. Try sketching out or writing out on paper what you’re hoping to get from your data–do you need to know average products bought per customer, average cost of items you sell, or how to project total earnings for the year? Clear goals make it easy to jump into the data and figure out what to do next.
Knowing How to Manage Projects
Back when I earned my PMP credential from PMI in 2011, I saw it as a less expensive, more practical alternative to the expensive, lengthy investment MBA. Today, I still believe that’s true. In fact, the PMP has increased in value in the past three years, in my opinion. Sure, it’s a beast to prepare for, and there are a lot of requirements and paperwork to fill out.
But investing in the ability to manage projects large and small makes you good at whatever you try in any industry. Project management is a skill much like communication–it’s broad and multi-faceted and interesting in that just as you think you’ve got it by the tail, you find yourself on a new project with a new learning curve that begs you to learn again what you thought you’d mastered.
Good project management means that you know how to understand what a business needs, how to deliver it, what it will look like once it’s delivered, how to communicate with people along the way, how to manage teams, and smart ways to buy and distribute the assets you need to get it done. It’s that simple. Being able to do it well on big projects that have millions of dollars behind them or how to scale it back to plan a company picnic means you’re versatile and know how to build results with purpose in mind. This is a core skill that separates competitive professionals apart.
Whether you intend to go after a certification or not, take some time to learn the fundamentals of project management–take a course, read a book, and start applying the principles of knowing why a project is happening, knowing the stakeholders, determining what you need to deliver, managing budgets and schedules, communicating with the team and end users of the project, and delivering the results to specifications. To get your feet wet, volunteer to take on planning a low impact event at a nonprofit you help or for your social committee at work. Start small. Make a project plan on one page that spells out what the end result is, who’s involved, the milestones and tasks that will get you there and when they have to happen, and the budget you have.
Knowing the Basics of Marketing
Customer service is marketing. Sales is marketing. How you do your job every day is marketing–it’s a message you put into the world about your company and how it does business. Knowing the tools of marketing (how email works, what click through rate is, how to use analytics programs, what your SRPs and KPIs are) is part of the conversation, and knowing the skills of engagement and content creation is the conceptual component.
At every level of every company, the people are the marketing–the walking, talking marketing. Knowing how to increase the funnel of people checking out your company, how to get more folks to convert to customers, and how to keep existing customers happy is worth your time. At the close end of the spectrum, you want to get familiar with the tools your company uses, be they Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, Siebel, or the like. You’ll also want to know the buzzwords: content marketing, SEO, SEM, social. Learn the cost to acquire a customer, a customer’s LTV (lifetime value), and your conversion rate for key products or services. This buys you entry into basic conversations that will accelerate your marketing.
At the far end of the spectrum, you want to know how to start and maintain conversations with your customers, share something of value with them, and grow your personal and business brands. So invest some time to start thinking of yourself, whether you’re a new grad or a business manager, as a marketer. An easy entry point to understanding marketing is to start creating some content of your own (as I’m doing here) and using social media or word of mouth to drive traffic to it. Monitor who’s coming to watch or read. Engage with them. Repeat.
Number crunching, project management, and marketing–three skills that you’ll be glad you have at any job you take.