When we talk about careers, we often talk about your knowledge, your skills, your deep understanding of the work you do. While this is certainly important, there can be another aspect of career that is lacking in many of us. No matter how well we know our work, if we don’t also have some basic business skills it can make our career much more difficult.
What business skills do you need to succeed? First and more importantly, you need to understand money, cash flow and budgeting. If you can’t understand and manage how much cash is coming in and how much cash is going out, you will forever struggle in both your life and career. While there are times in all our lives when you will carry some debt, crushing levels of debt can stunt your career before it ever gets started. Heavy debt can often cause you to make the wrong decisions about your careers at the wrong times. I often see people who remain in bad jobs far too long mainly because they don’t think they can afford to go anywhere else. Even a short break in earning and their debt threatens to consume them. Debt shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your life and career. It limits your possibilities and, in some cases, can lock you into a cycle of bad jobs, for bad pay, that make it very difficult to escape from your debt.
Monitor your income and your expenses closely and carefully. There are a host of programs and web sites that can assist you and many are free. There really isn’t an excuse anymore. Sure, even I had difficulty reconciling my accounts using the old paper methods, but with the help of some financial software like Quicken and others, I can reconcile my accounts to the penny every month. Even more, I can monitor how much I spend on various categories over time. Nothing can be quite so striking as to see how much money you spend on eating out, but many of us never take the time capture that information and use it to our advantage.
Another important business skill to learn and use is sales and promotion. If you want to make money in your career, either as an employee or freelancer, you need to be able to sell yourself and your skills to your “clients.” For myself, this has always been one of the most difficult tasks and yet one of the most important. You can’t bring in income if no one knows “what you do and how well you do it.” You have to spread the word about yourself and your work so that jobs, projects and other opportunities can find you. Don’t limit yourself by only looking for work when you need that next job. Always be sharing your work and seeking out those opportunities that come your way. I often say to myself and others, “If there is money on the table, figure out some way to pick it up.”
For me, this is the antithesis of the stereotypical, high-pressure, sales process. Sales isn’t something you do at a particular time or place, but rather something that is integrated into every day and every action you take. Thankfully, the invention of social media, podcasting, online video and other tools has allowed me an avenue for sales that better fits my sensibilities and needs. It has also allowed me to integrate sales into everything I do so that I don’t feel that familiar fear of “Sales” with a capital S that so many of us dread.
People are often the most confusing, most obtuse, most troubling part of any career or business. Humans are inherently “messy” creatures who often do things for no apparent reason (at least to other humans), or work against their own best interest and, for the worst of them, try to take advantage of other humans at every opportunity. While this may sound depressing, it is also best to remember that there are also many people who are organized, skillful, smart and caring. Of course, these are the people you want to bring into your life, career and business.
For me, there is a certain amount of “gut feeling” that goes into deciding who I work with and who I work for. If you are attuned to it, people often give you very clear signals about who they are and what is important to them. While snap judgements aren’t always the best judgements, there will be times when it is perfectly clear whether you should work with someone.
The trouble is, we often ignore these signs. You discount what you are feeling about someone because you are pressed for time or pressed for money or simply aren’t paying enough attention. This can lead you into bad situations — with bad people. You end up working with others who find no problem in taking shortcuts in their work, even if it harms the customer or client. You hire people who will take advantage of both clients and yourself if given the opportunity. Be aware of the traps that can be found in human relations. Again, there are lots of great people out there, but if you don’t actively seek them out, you may find yourself saddled with people who don’t share your values or goals and this will greatly restrain your success. If you truly want to succeed in your career, you need to become a keen viewer of other people and human nature in general and react accordingly.
Ignore your business skills at your peril. Trying to develop a great career without them is difficult, if not outright impossible. No matter how good your skills, how creative your ideas or how wonderful your projects, if you don’t have a handle on the fundamentals of business, you will constantly struggle.