Skills for the Future of Work: what I’ve learned about people while building FlexTeam

I started FlexTeam in 2015 with two other MIT alums. In the early days, we all worked on everything: project scoping, operations, operations strategy, people ops, staffing, business development / sales, marketing, customer success, engagement management, project management, community management, content creation, quality control, copyediting, product development, consultant training & education, social media management, invoicing, and all the other things that come with running a startup or small business.

But as we’ve grown, we’ve all narrowed our focus a bit. My focus now lies mostly with our consultants — onboarding, education, training, learning & development, community building, best practices & processes for projects, project placement, etc.

My personal interest in FlexTeam has always been our consultants.

I’ve long thought that project-based work was the key to finding work-life fit, and once I became a mother I began dreaming about creating a mom micro-consulting firm to help women stay as engaged professionally outside of the traditional workforce.

So when we started FlexTeam, I was the one who sent out our first call for consultants. We started with a simple email to our sorority list (yes, I was in a sorority at MIT). The subject line was “remote / work-from-home opportunities,” the body of the email was five sentences long (plus our contact information) and included a link to a google form to sign up to work “as a freelancer remotely for FlexTeam.” That google form got 30+ responses within a few days.

That was 2015.

Today, we have hundreds of independent consultants in our database and a long wait-list of women who want to join us. Our consultants are alums of MIT, HBS, Wharton, Stanford, Princeton, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Bain, Merrill Lynch, & many more elite organizations, who reclaim their time by working with us on challenging projects for our clients. Our consultants work with FlexTeam to help them create their own work-life fit. And our clients get access to highly experienced, highly educated women that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to hire (whether on a project, part-time, or full-time basis).

So what have I learned about people and career success?

First, computational / algorithmic thinking is fundamentally important to being successful as a management consultant working remotely and independently.

What is computational thinking?

Computational thinking is a term that has been used for decades. The phrase computational thinking popularized by an essay by computer scientist Jeannette Wing. Wing suggested that thinking computationally was a fundamental skill for everyone (not just computer scientists). I think of it as the ability to solve problems algorithmically and logically:

  • the ability to break down a problem into its component parts;
  • analyze and organize data;
  • recognize patterns (within the problem and with past problems);
  • identifying, analyzing, and implementing potential solutions;
  • and iterating when feasible.

I think the ability to work with uncertainty is also part of computational thinking.

Why is computational thinking an important skill?

As the world becomes more complex and interconnected, so does the work people do. More importantly, as machine learning and artificial intelligence begin to do more of our work, it will become more important for people to do work that machines find it harder to do.

But for FlexTeam, I’ve found that solving client’s problems requires consultants (or, at the very least the project manager, who supervises other consultants) to be able to think computationally. Our clients expect the work to get done; but they don’t want to spend time telling us how to do the work. That’s why they’re paying us — to get it done without having to expend additional resources or brainpower to it.

A consultant lacking in computational thinking skills is able to get the work done, but requires attention from others to figure out a plan of action. More than that, she needs help with gut checks (does what I’ve produced make sense in real life?), has difficulty coming up with recommendations (a key component of FlexTeam’s offerings), and she sometimes lacks creativity to get the job done.

The computational thinker is more adapatable, agile, and able to manage time and priorities. And as they are self-motivated and curious, they find joy in solving problems.

Communication skills are also important

Since we work remotely (our consultants are all over the United States, with a few spread out across the globe), written communication skills are obviously important to us — our consultants communicate with our clients via chat on project pages, and our consultants communicate internally with each other via Slack. Also, most of our projects require us to deliver a report or memo of some sort to the client, so it’s important to write clearly, effectively, and precisely.

But we think that effective oral and written communication skills are important to succeed in any career these days.

Again, as machine learning and artificial intelligence begin to do more of our work, it will become more important for people to do work that machines find it harder to do — effective communication is one such task. Computers can surely put together pieces of writing, but understanding nuances of communication are best left to humans.

Can a computer take a client’s message, and tease out what the client really means? Can it tailor their message (whether oral or written) to the audience? Can it read the audience to know how best to phrase their message?

I think not.

Our best consultants are able to intuit what a client’s main concerns are, even if they are unspoken. They are able to intuit how frequently a client wants to be updated, and how much detail the client wants. They are able to communicate effectively to other consultants what work needs to get done and when, and knows how to motivate them when necessary.

You can certainly get by without superior oral and written communication skills, but you’ll be more successful if you excel at those skills.

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson say in Rework, “Hire the better writer.”

“Soft skills” make all the difference in career success

So far we’ve learned that computational thinking and writing skills are important to career success. Obviously, some core competency in knowledge is also important. But it may surprise you to hear that “soft skills” like grit, resilience, persistence, being a good listener, empathy, a desire to learn, a cooperative attitude, resourcefulness, kindness, a “always do your best” attitude, optimism, ability to deal with difficult personalities, and manage conflict (among many others) are just as important.

The benefits of soft skills can be hard to measure, but new research reveals that training employees in soft skills can bring substantial return on investment to employers while also benefiting employees.

In fact, we’ve found that consultants who lack these “soft skills” typically produce work that client’s are less satisfied with. These “soft skills” enable consultants to go above and beyond for our clients. And the truth is that having soft skills like emotional intelligence usually correlates with computational thinking abilities and writing skills. These skills build on each other!

So what?

If you are looking for a job, assess your computational thinking abilities, writing skills, and “soft skills”. Where can you improve? How can you work toward improvement? Where do you excel? How can you highlight those skills in your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile?

If you are hiring, recognize that at some point there is a level of technical capability or job function competence that is sufficient. After that, the person who is the better writer, who is better at computational thinking, and who has better “soft skills” is going to get you more productivity than someone who is simply more technically brilliant. He or she will be more eager to learn, more eager to work, and simply achieve more. She’ll get more done and go above and beyond.

If you work in education, think about how you are teaching these skills to your students. Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, or a college professor, what can you do to help your students learn these skills? Read Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play — this book talks about the importance of computational thinking and creativity in the future of work, and discusses how to teach and cultivate it. Read Dr. Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need and What We Can Do About It — published in 2008, the 21st century skills listed in this book are still relevant. In fact the “7 survival skills” are traits that most of our best consultants at FlexTeam excel at.

And if you’re a busy business person looking to get more done, think about working with FlexTeam. Our top consultants excel at all of these skills and are ready to help you achieve more.

Let me know what other skills you think are important to career success!

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

FlexTeam  is  a mission-based micro-consulting firm, co-founded by Yolanda Lau in 2015, that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors. FlexTeam’s most requested projects are competitor / market research, financial models, and investor decks. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.