Make Yourself More Valuable in Your Workplace: Develop Your 'Meta-Skills'

05/19/2015 10:32 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

"Mindset over skill set." I recently heard this phrase in a talk on smart hiring strategies, and it struck me that mindset is really what we're talking about when we talk about meta-skills. While hard skills are tangible and measurable -- you either know SQL or you don't -- meta-skills, those that help you learn new skills, are what make you a more valuable employee.

You may argue that you don't inherently have these skills or that they've lain dormant for too long. But there's good news: meta-skills can be learned. It just takes practice. In my view, the meta-skills most highly valued by today's employers fall into four categories: seeing, understanding, envisioning and doing.

Having a vision often requires taking notice of what's most often overlooked. Are you truly "seeing" what things need to change in you or your organization? Are you recognizing gaps and thinking about ways to fill them? Are you seeing areas where efforts are duplicated, tasks could be streamlined or opportunities seized?

Seeing things for what they are doesn't require that you be a visionary. Simply observing what's working well or not and being alert to opportunities to work more effectively can make you more valuable to your team and company -- but only if you make sure that what you're noticing gets noticed. As the Department of Homeland Security reminds us, "If you see something, say something." Be vocal and visible within your organization so your ideas and observations don't go unnoticed.

There's a great moment about understanding in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," when Atticus Finch is discussing empathy with his daughter, Scout.

"You can never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -- until you climb in his skin and walk around in it." One of the first steps in strengthening relationships with the people around you is to understand not just where they're coming from, but what they've overcome. Ask them about their background, goals and interests -- and listen carefully to what they have to say. What experiences have shaped who they are today? What are the challenges they've faced or the problems they're hoping to solve? What inspires them?

When you try to understand where another person is coming from, your first task shouldn't be to focus on the commonalities. If you only look for ways in which you're similar, you're bound to overlook what's different. When we can see differences and consider them on their merits, we move beyond our own perspective. We don't just see things from a different angle or in a different light; we see things in an entirely different context. New contexts create the opportunity for new ideas and new approaches to flourish.

If you could shape your ideal role in the workplace, what would it look like? What are the projects you dream about doing? How would your workplace function differently? Envisioning doesn't mean forsaking practicality. It means taking a blue-sky approach to your ideas, charting your goals, and creating a plan to get there.

If you're the kind of person who benefits from some rigor and a list of steps, then I recommend looking at Claudia Azula Altucher's book, Becoming an Idea Machine. She has a series of daily exercises that will challenge you to see the world in new ways by looking differently at what's around you. For example, she'll challenge you to come up with 10 apps that you'd download right now or to think of 10 ways to make air travel better.

As mentioned above, experiencing new contexts can unlock creativity. Not only should we look at differences in our "near-in" world to inform our thinking, we should also look for similarities in different worlds. As a board member of a performing arts organization, I am often called on to address challenges similar to ones experienced at my own organization. But solving challenges in an arts organization vs. a financial services company is very different. Same challenge, different context. These experiences have helped me think more creatively about problems in my own back yard.

Doing is the meta-skill that encourages you to dig in and get your hands dirty. It's about designing prototypes that bring ideas to life, whether it's a new product, a new process, or a new approach. Doing is the process of trial and error that hopefully leads to perfection. It lets an innovator and a valued employee quickly see what works and tweak the things that aren't working quite as well as hoped for.

In his book, The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, serial entrepreneur Eric Ries emphasizes that one of the key factors of success for many of today's most dynamic new companies is their focus on the MVP -- the minimum viable product. As Ries notes, "A core component of Lean Startup methodology is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible." This is doing; it's prototyping, and it works because it's the action, the first series of steps, that leads to reactions, improvements and refinements.

Keeping relevant
Mastering these meta-skills will go a long way toward ensuring your success as a highly valued employee in your organization. Job skills in high demand today may not be tomorrow, so being able to learn new skills and approaches isn't just critical to your success in the workplace - it's fundamental to your relevance. Seeing, envisioning, understanding and doing might not be spelled out in your job description. But the simple truth is that people who can show they have these skills mastered are the ones who stand out. They aren't just doing their job, they're creating their next job title.