Asia School of Business

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The Top 10 Smart Skills of the Future: The Skills of the Future are Smart and Sharp!


As a business school professor, I am constantly asked: what skills do I need for my future? Is it AI, coding, bitcoins, fintech? Or do we need to work on communication, negotiation, managing people, etc. And this is a question in everyone’s mind: career professionals, employers, students and graduates, academic and practitioners. What “soft” skills should we work on and what “hard” skills should we invest in?

But what if the skills of the future are not “soft and hard” but rather “smart and sharp”?

In 2019 I published an article in BizEd proposing a new semantical framework that evolved the traditional “soft and hard1” skills to “Smart Skills” (replacing soft) and “Sharp Skills” (replacing hard) and a new interpretation of how we should think of these skills in action. You are probably asking yourself now, “Does it matter how we name the skills, as long as we have them”? UC San Diego Prof. Lera Boroditsky, a leading cognitive scientist in the fields of language and cognition and former faculty at MIT says:

“By choosing how you frame and talk about something, you are cuing others to think about it in a specific way. We can drastically change someone’s perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something.” We assign new meanings to words every time we speak in a particular context and hence, we believe that both these skill sets i.e., smart and sharp, need to be looked at in light of the roles that each play in our day to day lives.

“Smart skills are co-developed with other humans, and sharp skills are co-developed with computers.” ASB Professors Willem Smit and Ong Shien Jin

The same goes for “sharp skills”. We need to constantly learn how to optimize business solutions using science based management, data analytics and analytical reasoning, we have to become digitally literate and employ system dynamic thinking. And we cannot say once you have learnt these skills, you are done. These skills need constant updating, they need to be sharpened at all times!

“The Job is Easy; The People are Not” is my professional mantra. Working with people is hard! We are complex algorithms: think computers but with mood swings, hunger pangs, and plenty of ego that need constant validation therefore the need for “smart” skills to “augment our own humanity”.

As the Faculty Director of our award-winning Action Learning Program, during which, our global students work with companies from all over SE Asia and beyond to solve various business challenges, I see firsthand my students’ struggles: dealing with diverse peers and hosts, managing their emotions in a climate of constant change, the need for humility and followership, the struggle to listen and to adapt, and so much more.

To help them in this journey, we empower them with smart skills! So without further ado, here are the Top 10 Smart Skills I am helping my students develop:

The Top 10 Smart Skills at ASB

1. Emotional Maturity = “The ability to understand, and manage your emotions as well as the emotions of others and especially your reaction to your emotions.”

Emotional maturity allows us to have an argument and then reach a compromise and find a solution; to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions in order to subsequently recognize the other person’s point of view. Emotionally mature people are able to regulate their impulses and feelings to not let a conflict or a difficult challenge get the best of them. They act with empathy for themselves and others and recognize is a lifelong process of learning and self-improvement.

2. Validation = “The ability to provide or ask for recognition or affirmation that a person’s feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile”.

Working with people is a constant exercise in validation. After all, like Oprah2 said, is the one thing all humans have in common! “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation…I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire.” Offering validation is the simple act of letting people know: I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters.”

As a manager and professor, I had to learn that validation helps someone feel heard and understood: it calms fears and concerns, can reduce or resolve conflicts, make and allows people to open up. I have also learnt how to recognize the excessive need for validation and how to deal with it.

3. Listening = “The ability to focus completely on the person/s speaking, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully.”

How many times have you been in a situation where you felt unheard or misunderstood and only wish for the person in front of you to listen! And that’s what I ask my students to do – listen more, focus on the problem before you focus on the solution.

4. Followership = “The capacity or willingness to follow a leader, a mission, a cause.

The truth is, we follow more than we lead and while we talk a lot about leadership, we don’t value followership enough. Followership doesn’t mean following directions or blindly accepting everything a leader says. Good followership is characterized by active participation in the pursuit of organizational goals. A skilled follower will help the team reach the goal and support an inexperienced leader to succeed. Even with a strong leader, if teams are unable to carry out the vision, the organization will fail.

5. Managing Up = There are two definitions of this concept:

5.1 Classic Definition – Managing up is about developing a good working relationship with a superior.
5.2 Modern Definition – Managing up is solving problems that your stakeholders need solved.

One of the biggest challenges my students identify in their action learning projects is managing various stakeholders: their host, faculty advisor, faculty director, business coach, each other and they always ask me: Who do I listen to? Who is my “boss”?

The truth is that modern managing up requires balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders but once you know how to master this skill, you can become truly essential to your organization.

6. Humility = “To recognize your value and others value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourself into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be.”

Our ASB President, MIT Sloan Prof. Charlie Fine says: “The world is full of smart and arrogant people out there. I want to work with the smart and humble ones”. The truth is that most MBA’s lack this skill but the ability to be humble is constant practice and awareness that “the more I know the less I know”. So, you want to learn how to become humble? Learn more so you realize how little you know!

7. Adaptability = “an ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions”.

One of my favorite fields of knowledge is evolution and like Darwin said, the only species who survive are the fast and adaptable ones (have you seen any dinosaurs lately?) Same with the humans. Professionals with strong adaptability skills will make it. The rest are probably going to spend their time in Jurassic Park. 😉

8. Cultural and Ethical Literacy = “The competence and knowledge of understanding the differences between yourself and people from other countries/backgrounds/race/religion, especially differences in attitudes and values and the willingness and ability to identify moral and ethical contexts and dilemmas”.

And because of the global expansion of the workforce, there has never a better time in our history when these critical smart skills are more needed.

9. Strategic and Critical Thinking = “The process of conceptualizing applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach a goal, and have a plan for execution”.

Every time I ask an employer about what skills they value the most, strategic and critical thinking come on top. Obviously, right? This smart skill empowers you to solve complex problems in the absence of a blueprint and SOPs.

10. Cognitive Readiness = “The mental preparation (including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions) that a person needs to establish and sustain competent performance in our complex and unpredictable environment”.

This is a hard one and that’s why I left it for the end… Leaders and their teams have to be constantly prepared to face ongoing dynamics, ill-defined, and unpredictable challenges in the digital, highly disruptive and VUCA-driven business environment.

So now the question left is how do we do it? How do we teach these smart skills? In action and through reflection. When our students go on site in a remote corner of the Philippines to formulate an integer programming model for scheduling a food processing factory, and teaching the plant staff how to use the model they developed, they think, “Wow, this is a big challenge!”

What we actually learnt is that the first onsite experiences are all about smart skills: knowing when to listen and when to speak, keeping your ego in check, accepting that you are no longer the smartest person in the room, balancing your emotions when you had a 12h day that is still not over. Believe me when I say that the programming model looks a lot easier in comparison!

By the second time they go onsite, they might recognize some of the patterns not just in themselves but in their team mates and stakeholders, they have probably received some painful feedback in your 360-peer evaluation and they are a lot more introspective. And by doing this over and over again, each semester for at least a couple of times, they learn about highly diverse cultures, they start to see various political and strategic perspectives, and they get exciting opportunities to test their growing smart and sharp skills in various industries, companies, and positions before graduation.

This is our recipe to develop principled, transformative and market ready leaders: smart and sharp in action!

At Asia School of Business we are just at the beginning of our journey and we have so much more to learn. But we confidently believe that the latest generation of management students and practitioners need a full suite of smart skills to navigate the complex organizations and ecosystems that drive today’s economy, as well as sharp faculties for cutting-edge analysis of complex systems.

So, let’s get smart and sharp at ASB and stay tuned for the Top 10 Sharp skills.

Read more about the Smart and Sharp approach at ASB

Prof. Loredana Padurean would like to extend special thanks to her co-author Prof. Charles Fine, and recognize the editorial contribution of ASB MBA student Devika Manoj Made, ASB Professors Prof. Willem Smit, and Prof. Shien Jin and Ms.Iwona Fluda, Founder and CEO Creative Switzerland for their thoughts and feedback.

The SMART Executive Leadership Program

Iclif Executive Education Course by Prof. Loredana Padurean (2 day online course)

The next course will be held on 1 and 2 March 2021 from
1.30pm – 4.45pm each day.