Conversations, General Knowledge, and Your Career

It isn’t enough to be able to do the technical aspects of the job – our clients need to actually enjoy working with us, as people, for us to hit our highest levels of efficiency.”

Many people are ignorant. (How’s that for a provocative opening?)

I suppose, for the purposes of this post, that I have two fairly specific meanings:

  • First, many people are uninformed, in the literal sense that they lack information; and
  • Second, many people don’t realize that there are significant career benefits to (easily-dismissed) characteristics such as being informed, exhibiting cultural literacy, and being able to carry a conversation

The Importance of Conversation

A few months ago I got together with a good friend who owns his own tax accounting business. He’s carved out a niche for himself serving businesses of a particular revenue range, based in part on the differentiator of offering high-touch, personalized service delivered by an experienced tax professional (as opposed to the junior folks who’d handle these accounts at a large accounting firm).

His number one challenge in hiring people for his ever-expanding team is not a dearth of qualified candidates – oh no, there are qualified candidates in droves – but instead a lack of candidates who can carry a normal conversation.

His number one challenge in hiring is a lack of candidates who can carry a normal conversation.

His business, which – it bears repeating – differentiates itself on high-touch, personalized interaction, needs people who can (in addition to accurately calculate taxes) actually speak with customers.

But, lest you think this is a ridiculous, cherry-picked example…

In my recent post on 10 Common Hiring Mistakes, I wrote about the mistake of going all-in on technical qualifications and ignoring the personal aspects, saying, “You end up with a computer, and no one wants to work with him or her.”

Let’s expand on that a little bit.

Consider a normal office setting: lots of people, lots of projects. How do you find out about things (i.e., acquire information) that in turn let you identify new opportunities for alignment, efficiency, etc. or prevent problems? By having conversations with your co-workers, that’s how!

That’s one reason why hiring managers give significant consideration to how easily a candidate makes conversation. Not only will this help the person to settle into the organization, but it bodes well for the general flow of information within the company.

So there’s a real advantage to the organization – and therefore to candidates who exhibit this characteristic – to hire people who can go for coffee with colleagues, or can just strike up an easy hallway conversation about some common interest, since that very convo might lead to something productive.

The Importance of General Knowledge

I recently finished Brainiac, by Ken Jennings. This passage from page 141 really resonated with me:

“Trivia, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t really be called ‘trivia.’ Facts about history, geography, books, movies, music – this is the stuff that used to be called good old-fashioned ‘general knowledge,’ the stuff that everybody was supposed to remember from school, regardless of their career niche. We lost something the more we specialized – it started to drain this vast pool of information that everybody knew. Knowledge was what connected us, and now it distinguishes us.

And so there’s an immediate sense of camaraderie, of a created bond, that results when two people realize they own some piece of knowledge in common. It doesn’t take much. If a stranger in an airport tells me that she’s from Fargo, North Dakota – well, if I know nothing whatsoever about Fargo, North Dakota, that could be the end of the conversation right there. But trivia can come to the rescue. If I remember that Yankees great Roger Maris hailed from Fargo, I can ask her if she’s ever been to the Roger Maris Museum. If I remember that Fargo sits on the Red River of the North, I can ask her if she’s ever fished the Red River. Heck, if I’ve seen the movie Fargo – of which only the first scene is actually set in Fargo, by the way – that’s at least an ice-breaker. People are flattered that you know something about them: their profession, their hobby, their hometown. It’s as if you took the time to get to know them before you ever met.

“There’s an immediate sense of camaraderie, of a created bond, that results when two people realize they own some piece of knowledge in common.” – Ken Jennings, in Brainiac

A little farther along (p152), he adds: “Educator E.D. Hirsch coined the term ‘cultural literacy’ to describe the set of core knowledge that all of us need in order to navigate society. When you describe trivia as ‘random general knowledge about life,’ you realize that trivia knowledge is nothing but good, sound cultural literacy, though it may be dressed up in game show neon.”

Maybe you see where I’m going with this (or perhaps I’ve already arrived?).

I recently caught up with a former colleague; his role nowadays involves a lot of global travel and consulting. Occasionally, the gig is too much for one guy, so he has to bring along one or more colleagues.

Given the nature of the consulting, there’s no shortage of colleagues who want to join in and contribute, but my friend explained to me that he is incredibly particular about who he’ll actually take along: (paraphrasing) “They have to have a broad knowledge, and be able to talk to people anywhere in the world. It isn’t enough to be able to do the technical aspects of the job – our clients need to actually enjoy working with us, as people, for us to hit our highest levels of efficiency.”

I’ve actually received (and delivered) feedback along these lines, myself. I’m up-to-date on current events, I have broad, global interests, I’ve read about a huge range of subjects, and I can talk about the intricacies of soccer for hours and hours and hours and … you get the idea. This working knowledge, this cultural literacy, has come in handy in my travels all over the world, both personally and professionally.

That’s why the longer passage above resonated with me – because I’ve experienced it myself, in places as varied as South Korea, South Africa, Orlando, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Japan, Italy, Dubai, and many, many more. Just a deep knowledge of soccer alone has been a real asset more times than I can remember (there’s a real novelty about a North American who is soccer-literate), but I’ve also recognized that I really should get up-to-speed on rugby and cricket (it turns out that they’re, well, immensely popular).

In a world of qualified candidates, it’s often the (seemingly) little things that set people apart and give them an advantage over their peers.

If I have two candidates of equal technical aptitude and other qualifications, then I’m choosing the more culturally intelligent one every time.

In a world of qualified candidates, it’s often the (seemingly) little things that set people apart and give them an advantage over their peers. If I have two candidates of equal technical aptitude and other qualifications, then I’m choosing the more culturally intelligent one every time.

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Posted in Careers, Everything
3 comments on “Conversations, General Knowledge, and Your Career
  1. […] p99: “Part of this neglect stems from the age-old opposition between intelligence and emotion: intelligence is following a chess match or imparting a sophisticated rhetorical argument on a matter of public policy; emotions are the province of soap operas. But countless studies have demonstrated the pivotal role that emotional intelligence plays in seemingly high-minded arenas: business, law, politics. Any profession that involves regular interaction with other people will place a high premium on mind reading and emotional IQ.“ […]

  2. […] OK, with that out of the way… I’m pretty certain that Elements of Wit just popped up via Amazon’s recommendation engine (which has a frightening about of knowledge on my book purchase habits). My motivation for buying it was a combination of “I’m always trying to become a better storyteller” and “Being able to engage in stimulating conversation is a useful skill” (on that note, you might want to check out Conversations, General Knowledge, and Your Career). […]

  3. […] I included a long (and fantastic) passage from p141 in the post Conversations, General Knowledge, and Your Career […]

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