You may have heard of the three skills an effective manager needs: technical, human and conceptual. Originally proposed by Robert Katz in his paper “Skills of an Effective Administrator” published in Harvard Business Review in 1955, the three-skills model was based on Katz’s research and observations of executives in the workplace.
While technical and human skills may be fairly self-explanatory, the third skill, conceptual, is a bit vaguer. Essentially the ability to understand and use abstract concepts and relationships in the workplace, this skill is a critical one to have on your resume, whether you’re a C-suite executive or an entry-level assistant.
So, what exactly are conceptual skills? How do they contribute to a functioning organization and workplace? And why are they necessary for employees to have?
Conceptual skills are “big picture thinking” skills. People who have these skills understand how different parts of an organization work and function together, enabling them to consider abstract ideas critically, draw connections and identify relationships between the pieces of the company, think creatively and anticipate problems, all toward the aim meeting the business’s larger goals. Essentially, conceptual skills allow employees to see how the organization functions.
Conceptual skills are critical to a functioning workplace. Someone who can see the relationships between ideas, departments and other facets of a business are able to recognize which areas deserve attention which one carry less importance. This skill is especially necessary for managers and leaders, who need to consider the big picture of their organizations to understand where they should focus their efforts and devise strategies to carry out plans for improvement effectively.
Hiring managers and recruiters will notice if you have conceptual skills, and including them on your resume will make you a more attractive candidate. Remember, applicant tracking systems (ATS) are designed to cull your resume for important keywords, and having important conceptual skills that the hiring manager has flagged as particularly important for candidates (see below for examples) listed will help you stand out.
It can also be useful to mention your conceptual skills in other parts of the hiring process. For example, in your interview, you might discuss a time you used this type of thinking to facilitate or plan a transition or develop an idea for an important project or process in your organization. You should also include these details in your cover letter, explaining which skills you employed and how you used them to achieve the end result.
As discussed, conceptual skills can be helpful for people who are at all stages of their careers, since they can be applied to smaller-scale projects and initiatives in addition to larger-scale ones. However, they are mandatory for managers and leaders. Managers need to ensure that their teams and employees are working together to achieve overarching organizational goals, and in order to do that, they must recognize what the big picture is.
Leaders play a crucial role in an organization’s decision-making process and must be cognizant of what needs to happen and why. They should be able to consider all aspects of the needs of the organization and how to effectively develop solutions to obstacles, as well as proactively search for ways to improve the business. This involves looking at all parts of the company and thinking about how departments and employees can work together to contribute to the larger goals.
This list is not definitive. There are numerous conceptual skills people use every day.
Managers and others must be frequently evaluating the overarching goals of an organization and analyze whether it is achieving its aims. They must identify gaps and issues and think in terms of what can be done differently, as well as how employees can work together.
• Abstract thinking
Abstract thinking is perhaps the cornerstone of conceptual skills. It enables you to visualize concepts and “things” that are not actually present. This is the essence of big-picture thinking: you’re able to reflect on what is not physically in front of you and take a broader approach to finding solutions.
Even people who are masters at conceptual thinking can’t work alone. They must collaborate with others to realize the organization’s larger goals.
Strong listening, verbal and writing skills enable people to articulate their ideas, share them with others and meet their needs.
• Creative thinking
In order to develop new ideas, you must be able to exercise your creative muscles, taking into account all pieces of the puzzle and devising solutions.
• Critical thinking
People with conceptual skills know how to look at the different angles of problems and ideas. Being able to think critically allows them to consider every aspect of a concept before determining how to best approach it.
While many ideas and measures require careful planning, ultimately, employees need to be decisive in executing them, knowing why and when things should happen.
This one goes hand-in-hand with analytical skills. Once someone has identified an issue, she must be able to develop an innovative solution for resolving it, making decisions quickly and effectively.
As with many soft skills, it is possible to improve your conceptual skills — it just requires practice, learning and attention. Some steps you might take include:
• Working on devising solutions to problems you’re not necessarily tasked with solving (Who knows? Your solution might even earn you recognition or a promotion.)
• Observing how managers and leaders make decisions and considering why they use certain approaches
• Learning from others; you might ask a mentor or manager to walk you through certain decision-making processes, for instance
• Discussing ideas with colleagues and others in your industry
• Reading up on industry trends and news and carefully reflecting on how they might influence your organization and what steps the business will need to take
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