When it comes to career learnings and competency, age doesn’t always equal wisdom. Sure, experience matters. But it’s what you do with that experience in terms of gaining insights, acting on them and honing your skillset that makes the biggest difference.
As you mature in your career, it’s important to check in with yourself and whether you’ve acquired or you’re on track to acquiring some essential skills to carry through decades of professional endeavors — ups and downs and pivots and readjustments included.
We dove into a 2018 IBM Institute for Business Value report on skillset and the workforce and tapped on the shoulder of HR expert and executive coach Matthieu Degenève to help guide your efforts around the most important career skills to master — especially as the rise of AI raises new questions around employability potential.
Here are eight crucial career skills everyone should ideally learn by 40. Those abilities are actually timeless, industry-proof gems you can rely on regardless of your age, but you definitely don’t want to reach 40 without possessing the majority of them.
1. Focusing on service
Few professional skills are as essential as the ability to focus on bringing value and serving your team and organization. The earlier you grasp this in your career, the better.
“You will always be noticed if you execute well. You need to master your ego first. Learn how to be led before aspiring to more responsibilities. Say ‘yes’ to everything that is thrown at you and do it with a smile. Time will do its work. People will appreciate your dedication and reward you for it,” says Degenève.
“Until then, be the best servant you can be to your boss and colleagues. You might not see the direct benefits right away, but they are truly there! Opportunities will present themselves if you are patient.”
According to IBM, the ability to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change is the most critical career skill for members of the workforce today — and mid-career workers have an edge on that front:
“Many mid-career workers – those typically between the ages of 35 and 45 years old – often bring a wealth of real-world experience and possess many of the behavioral skills employers deem critical to be successful in the workforce.”
Your life experience is an asset. Aim to become more adaptable by transferring learnings from different areas of your life to your career — think tapping into the resilience you developed by overcoming a personal challenge or using the interpersonal skills you picked up during a gap year abroad.
3. Active listening
Degenève says soft skills such as active listening are not in danger of being replaced by AI anytime soon — so you better develop them before turning 40:
“Listening and asking the questions that matter are the most important [soft skills] because they allow you to assess needs, pinpoint priorities, and understand underlying issues in any given situation. They will still be as valuable in 50 years from now.”
4. Effective communication
If you want to be a respected professional, mastering the art of effective communication is critical. Not to mention the fact that being able to write, speak and create content is particularly useful in our digital age.
“Writing, speaking and content publishing are the most transferable skills one can possess nowadays. You can rely upon them throughout your whole career within any job or industry,” says Degenève.
According to him, advanced communication skills can also give you a serious edge at work because a lot of professionals don’t focus on developing their abilities beyond the basics.
When it comes to the most in-demand skills in the workforce, IBM mentions time-management right after adaptability. In a world where speed is crucial, there is an overload of information to process and decisions have to be made all the time, the ability to prioritize can save an organization tons of valuable resources.
Not everyone is going to be a developer. But regardless of your background or industry, tech-savviness is really important these days. And you don’t want to reach the age of 40 without being able to quickly learn how to use a new platform or figure out how to understand a basic set of data. Wanna go above and beyond?
“Programming is the skill of the century. You will never go jobless with such a tool in your arsenal. It includes machine learning and AI. We can also add data processing to the current mix of highly-marketable skills,” says Degenève.
You can’t afford to reach the age of 40 without learning how to be a team player — the third most important career skill cited in IBM’s report.
Are you reliable? Do you understand your role in a group and welcome collaboration? Do you commit to having a positive attitude and focusing on the collective good? Reflect on where you can improve your ability to contribute to a team environment.
Degenève says the ability to clear your mind and disconnect from the abundance of noise all around us is one of the most overlooked professional skills to master.
“It allows professionals to differentiate themselves career-wise and to gain back their most important resources (time, focus and creativity),” he says.
He recommends meditation or going on a “dopamine detox” to practice mindfulness:
“This means unsubscribing from newsletters, quitting social media, turning notifications off your phone, blocking specific apps and websites, not answering calls, responding to emails within dedicated timeframes, setting auto-responders, automating recurrent processes, avoiding video games, unplugging your TV, etc.”