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The most essential skill?

What is the most essential skill for those aspiring to leadership positions? As an educator and coach specializing in helping individuals to improve their communication skills, the answer has always seemed obvious: The most effective managers and executives I have encountered are those with top-flight communication skills.

I acknowledge that my response is biased, but you don’t have to take my word on this. Ask any college placement officer, hiring manager or Human Resources recruiter you know, or read just about any job listing for a position involving supervisory or executive responsibilities. It will quickly become clear that strong written and oral communication skills are consistently at or near the top of the list of the “most desired skills.”

A recent study by Bailey Norwood and Brian Briggeman, professors at Oklahoma State University and Kansas State University, respectively, cited a 2006 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employer (NACE) that ranked “communication skills” first among 20 attributes listed by prospective employers. By contrast, “leadership skills” ranked 12th and grade point average ranked 18th!

Whether you are a new or recent graduate, a seasoned professional seeking new employment, or just someone looking to move ahead in your current company, this survey argues for treating your communication skills seriously. If this is an area where you need improvement, consider taking additional courses in general communication skills and public speaking and presentation skills. There are also a number of excellent, thought-provoking books on these topics.

Whatever you do, do something. I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of students of all ages, from high school students preparing for college interviews, to mid-career executives seeking to polish their presentation skills, to senior citizens returning to college to complete the degree they never got around to finishing. This experience has taught me that almost anyone willing to invest the time and effort can significantly improve the “most essential skill.”