Basic Skills, Advanced Success

Local employers share tips that can boost careers

Mike Brenan, state president for BB&T bank, says good two-way communication skills is the key attribute in searching for potential employees and team members.

Photography by Jeff Amberg

The secrets to career success seem to be the same ones as those that let students thrive in the grade school classroom. According to local business leaders, two core skills that everyone starts learning in kindergarten are still vital to success in the modern workplace — and there’s still work being done to bring them up to par.

Communication is a simple concept, and might seem like a given for working effectively until you hear Mike Brenan, state president for BB&T bank, describe how crucial it is to his business. Mike sees good communication, specifically good listening skills, as the keystone skill for team members at BB&T. 

“It’s the ability to understand each other,” he says. “Listening is important to being a member of a team at the bank, but it is especially critical when dealing with customers.” He calls it a bad customer service habit to be too much in a hurry to pitch some product or service to a customer. 

To really pay attention, make eye contact and listen are all vital skills, he emphasizes. Too often people are puzzling out what they want to say next or plotting which boxes on their sales plan to check off as the conversion continues. “Instead,” he says, “just listen and see what this person’s financial issues really are. Without this effort, you won’t be able to address their needs.” 

In addition, the potential customers will be aware of the perfunctory attention they are receiving and will not trust the bank to help them. That trust cannot be built, he says, if the bank’s customers don’t believe that someone has taken the time to listen to them.

“So a failure to listen,” Mike says, “can leave the bank short of its main customer service objective.” 

Many workplaces look for employees with such skills as good communication, but having the good habits to really use these core attributes set the best employees apart.

George C. Roper, president of Roper Staffing, hires people to fill temporary jobs, and increasingly more temporary to permanent positions. He says that many young potential employees need to develop the most basic of communication skills: to make eye contact with people. “Too often during the interview, Millennials are looking down at their laps as if reading text messages on their cellphone rather than looking their interviewer in the face,” says George. 

As an example, he tells of an experience that many can relate to. He recalls being in a fast-food restaurant and trying to place an order, only to find that he didn’t have the full attention of the young employee behind the counter. He strove to get the employee to understand the order and struggled to hear how much it cost. In the end, it was an unsatisfying way to do business, because the young clerk wasn’t engaged in the encounter and listening. “For that age group, it’s absolutely critical,” he says.

Being good at this kind of customer service, however, makes someone a much more desirable employee in any business, George says. In fact, young people who are entering the workforce should actively practice these skills to improve their job prospects. “It can be a tremendous advantage today because so many don’t have it,” he says. 


Still Ready to Learn

The second skill that leaders see as vital is the ability to keep learning new things. At BB&T, learning is a continual process, even for the president. To Mike Brenan, that’s the way it should be. He believes that given the way that technology has changed people’s lives and the financial services industry, a lifelong appetite for learning is necessary at BB&T. 

“If people don’t have a learning mindset, they probably need to go somewhere else,” Mike says.

Roper Staffing offers its customers a temporary solution to add employees who need to bring value to the company they are working with immediately. George says that his company also works with organizations that will take on an employee first as a Roper temp, then will hire them full-time. In either case, that employee needs to be ready to learn when they arrive and to put their best into everything they do, he says.

He notes that learning the skills for a job that pays well doesn’t necessarily mean a traditional college education. He sees many companies that are hunting for those who have learned technical trades such as HVAC and automotive mechanics. For those who have acquired these skills, there will always be companies out there looking to hire them.

Mike ties learning to another key trait that he likes to see in his team: perseverance. “You need people in your company who can learn something new and get past any setbacks in the process,” he says. 

Jeremiah Truax, manager of executive search and recruiting at Roper, says the job market for people with these kinds of skills has changed in the past year. As the recession has faded, most of these employees with desirable skills are already working somewhere. Now the best recruiting is finding those already working and getting them to consider a new position. It’s also true, he says, that more people who have jobs are now amenable to looking for new positions. “As the recession persisted, people were more likely to keep their heads down, being glad to have a job and uneasy about change,” George Roper comments. In the past year, there are more people starting to look.

Education and the Workforce

When not at BB&T, Mike is right in the middle of the discussion about public education in South Carolina. He is a member of the State Board of Education and one of the leaders of TransformSC, an effort to bring more innovation into the state’s classrooms. He sees a direct connection between what’s being taught in the best educational programs and what employers need. South Carolina graduates need to have the core necessary skills in such areas, as science, mathematics and English, of course. But the best programs are learning skills that will transfer into their working careers. Group projects in school classrooms help young people to be better team members, for instance. School projects can also help students learn problem-solving and critical thinking, at their best. It’s those kinds of thinking skills, beyond the academic basics, that we need our students to learn before graduating, according to Mike. 

Interestingly, employees and companies agree on many of the important “soft skills” that are needed in the workplace, according to the results of the 2015 Emerging Workforce Study (EWS) commissioned by Spherion Staffing. Both employees and employers agree that problem solving and strategic thinking are key workplace skills, the survey found. Yet workers rated expertise in evolving technology higher than employers did. Human resources professionals put that expertise only on a par with understanding data and team-building skills, with just 25 percent of those surveyed calling them essential. 

Spherion of Columbia’s License Owner Georgia Meeks, emphasizes that companies can be their own best friend when it comes to the skills of their workforce. Companies that help their workforce improve their skills will be less vulnerable to turnover and be able to instill a better company culture. “With employees of every age vulnerable to an attractive offer, one thing is very clear: employers need to do more to engage and retain the talent they have,” she says.

Even as technology continues to change business, these skills — to listen and learn — will continue to be in demand, Mike believes. As the ATM and the Internet changed banking forever, some in the industry argued that the days of the local bank branch with tellers were numbered. But what banks learned, Mike says, is that people will use all those new technology tools, yet they still want to be able to bring their business to a branch when they feel that it is necessary. 

“They still want to be able to walk in and talk to an actual human being,” he says.