Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Most Important Professional Skill You'll Ever Need

I got this really cool email a few days ago from the Community Manager at Webucator, an online instructor-led training on various technologies as well as business skills like management and accounting.  They've had tens of thousands of students from over ten thousand organizations complete their training programs, and they are in the midst of a campaign to discover what is the "Most Marketable Skill" to be successful in the workplace.

Mad. Skillz.

I am really flattered that I, arguably the most technologically illiterate person, was selected as one of the people to write about this idea.  While Webucator instructors are teaching people how to use HTML or the finer elements of project management, I'm getting seal drool on me and laughing about it.  But nonetheless, I do have a successful career and I am in management.  I've seen a lot of people come and go, and I've formed my opinions on what skill sets make people successful.

Today I want to share with you what I think is the Most Marketable Skill (MMS) you can have as a trainer or animal caregiver.  Even if you aren't in the animal field, I am confident this skill's importance extends to many, many other types of jobs.  

Before I tell you what it is, I want you to think about what YOU think the MMS is.  Here is a short-list of some of the ones I ran through as I thought about this topic (herein referred to as The List, because that sounds really cool):

Most of my work ethic is based on the philosophy of Homer.  Homer Simpson, that is.


1) Sharp job knowledge (animal husbandry, operant conditioning, etc)
2) Strong work ethic
3) Tenacity
4) Being a team player
5) Organization
6) Being a self-starter
7) Bottomless appetite for donuts in a way that defies modern day medical parameters for the average human being
8) Networking
9) Humility
10) Gaining respect
11) Leadership

Wow.  Those are a lot of Marketable Skills, right?*  Maybe you came up with additional things (and I'm eager to know what those are!).  How on earth are we going to choose ONE of those skills and declare it MOST Marketable?  This is like, totally taking me back to the dreaded high school superlatives (I never won any, because they never had a category for Weird).  How these things are selected blow my mind, because I don't think I could ever choose who has the Best Hair, much less who's Most Likely To Succeed.

Most Unphotogenic.

But you know what I've discovered over the past almost ten years I've been involved in this career? There is a skill that's not on the above list...that actually encompasses all of the list.  

It's a skill that, once cultivated, virtually guarantees you are a great self-starting, smart, team-playing, organized, creative, humble, tenacious, respected, and SUCCESSFUL person (and leader, if that's what you want to be).  But the problem is, it's not a skill a lot of people put stock in.  In fact, it's actually frowned upon by some people, because it's considered "weak" or "touchy-feely".   Even if someone doesn't frown upon it, it's often over-looked because it seems too simple.

The Most Marketable Skill is....


She makes a good point.

Oh man, I can hear the groans from here!

Groaner #1: Oh good lord, Cat.  You and your hippie,  yoga, vegetarian, tree-hugging notions.

Groaner #2:  Are you KIDDING me? What a cop-out! Empathy? Give me a break.

Groaner #3: Okay, interesting idea.  But empathy isn't a SKILL.

Well dear readers, let me tell you something about me.  There is only one thing I love more than working with animals and eating snacks.   It's telling people that they're wrong (and I'm right).  Oh, I love being right.

IF you read "Empathy" and felt immediately turned off by this week's blog, let me be frank.  You need to read this more than anyone.  You can still read through this and disagree, but at least hear me out.

So what do I mean about Empathy?  I don't mean you go around hugging people and telling them that oh, they are just the most wonderful people you've ever met.  I don't mean that you must become everyone's best friend (or even friend, for that matter).  Nor do I mean that you put your needs second to that of others.  

Empathy as a skill extends into two facets:

1) Consideration of others (both humans and non-humans!)

2) Showing yourSELF empathy by giving yourself a break and having confidence in your abilities

Being empathetic in either of these categories requires cultivation.  No one (NO ONE) is naturally good at both of these things.   They have to learn self-discipline, humility, and be pretty strong-willed in order to get a good grasp on being compassionate.  It is not simply just being nice.

So let's first address how empathy gets you some of the things on The List that people have the most trouble seeing.  You know, it's easy to understand how this skill makes you a good team-player, develops humility, makes you a good networker.  So let's look at the others:

Sharp job knowledge (animal husbandry, operant conditioning, etc)


As an animal trainer or caretaker, you know that getting to know your animals in a way that provides the absolute best care requires you to be empathetic or compassionate towards your animals.  Knowing your animals as individuals not only provides an incredible opportunity to forge a unique relationship, but you are the first to recognize signs of illness or injury.   The more in tune you are with your animals, the better you are at providing animal husbandry.  Period.

Yes, you can go through your career with a semi-detached methodology of animal care.  You can rely solely on medical samples obtained through voluntary or involuntary methods.  But you cannot tell me that a person who only takes systematic lab samples is able to detect when something is wrong compared to the person who is aware of the minutiae of behavior in an animal they know well as an individual.  Things are caught earlier more often by trainers/keepers who are well aware of each individual's realm of normalcy.  

This obviously extends to animal training.  While I could write an entire series of blogs on this topic, let's settle on a general concept that, as long as your training methods are fair and predictable, you have to rely on your ability to empathize with your animals to ascertain what is motivating.  You become a better trainer the more you pay attention to what your animal is responding well (or not so well) too.  Empathy makes a better trainer (and it doesn't mean you're being "anthropomorphic", either!).

Strong work ethic

Removing algae is fun if you know it's for a good reason, and you know that maybe you can eat it later.

A hard-working animal trainer knows they cannot cut corners on cleaning, record-keeping, or diet preparation.  They also know that as they grow into their career and work their way up the ladder, they will be responsible for more and more important facets of animal care, training, and teaching personnel.  They will work long, hard hours.  They will work through holidays, and miss vacations, and family events.  

The best employees with the strongest work ethics are those guessed it, empathy.  They know that there is a REASON behind the hard work that they do.  It is not just simply to get it done, or because they have to do it to avoid getting yelled at, or that they'll get some kind of immediate reward after the work is completed, or they are finally checked-off to do a task.  No, the hardest working people know they are working hard for something GREATER.  Empathy makes a hard worker, because it provides you with a sense of purpose that gets you through really rough times.  You know that your work, from the mundane to the grander tasks, affects more than just YOU.


I like what you're thinking with the helmet and everything, but you're still screwed if you go for it, dude.

This is the topic that most people bring up when I tell them what the MMS is. 

"You can't be touchy-feely with people, Cat.  Sometimes, you have to tell them that they made a mistake."

"You have to get thick-skin in order to grow stronger/better."

"Being too soft or nice means you may become a doormat."

Yes, all of those statements are true.  This is where empathy is misunderstood.

When I have to tell someone they made a mistake, and this includes the times where I'm like, "Dude, STOP MAKING THIS SAME MISTAKE OR ELSE",  I don't think, "Oh, man, I have to be nice to this person because I don't want them to feel bad...even though they are really messing up."  


To be truly empathetic means I have to think, "If I don't tell this person they are messing up, and it's getting serious, then I'm not doing them any favors later.  It would be inconsiderate of me to be dishonest with this person just because I'm afraid of hurting their feelings."  I would much rather be honest with someone, even if it stings in the moment, because I know that is the right thing to do.

Now let's talk about growing thick skin, because we all have had situations at work where we: 1) keep making the same mistake and get into a rut and 2) have a boss who is a little harsh at delivering feedback.  How does empathy help us in these situations?  

I won't, little duckling!

Recall that I mentioned that the MMS in question deals with two scenarios: how you deal with others, and how you deal with YOU.  In situations where you really feel beaten down, embarrassed at messing up, or angry and frustrated at a superior who gives you very harsh criticism, this is when you have to learn to extend compassion towards yourself.  Empathy teaches you how to receive feedback constructively REGARDLESS of how it is delivered, and it helps you persevere through harsh times.

Let's look at a few examples, comparing when we are using empathy and when we are not.  Whatever is in parenthesis is what's going on in my head:

Without Empathy

Boss: Cat, what the hell were you thinking in that sea lion show?  Bridging that behavior was the dumbest mistake you could've made.  You're a supervisor for crying out loud!  You can't make mistakes like that!  I promoted you because I thought you could handle it, but mistakes like that make me wonder if you are really ready for the position you have.



With Empathy

Boss:  Cat, what the hell were you thinking in that sea lion show?  Bridging that behavior was the dumbest mistake you could've made.  You're a supervisor for crying out loud!  You can't make mistakes like that!  I promoted you because I thought you could handle it, but mistakes like that make me wonder if you are really ready for the position you have.

Me: I understand what you're saying.  I'll make sure I will be more careful next time.  (Even though I don't appreciate how you're telling me this, I can understand why you are frustrated with me.  I also feel embarrassed and angry that I made a mistake like that.  I could be really hard on myself, but that isn't going to make me improve, it's only going to make me feel worse about myself.  So okay, I have to move forward and give myself a break.  I also have the confidence in myself to know that I can make this change and not make this mistake again.  I know that I'm good enough to get through this, and to come out on top.)


Being empathetic towards yourself is the EASIEST, FASTEST way to grow thick skin.  If you give yourself a break, that doesn't mean you're shirking your responsibility to learn from your mistakes and improve.  It just means that you focus on HOW to improve, instead of needlessly punishing yourself for messing up.  Who cares, you messed up.   It's so much easier to slip into a rut if you're being so miserable towards yourself for every big and small mess up...and how does that help with your work ethic?  How does that help you rally and get yourself to a better place?

And no no no, being empathetic does NOT equate to being a doormat.  It doesn't mean you take every pot shot, or allow people to treat you poorly.  Treating yourself with respect and kindness means you know when to stand up for yourself (because if you didn''re not really being respectful to yourself, are you)!

Gaining Respect & Leadership

If your leadership development follows that of Cartman's, you're way off base. 

Okay, these two concepts are the same thing.  You gain respect, you become a leader.  Not the other way around.  Read that again.  It is not. the. other. way. around.

Developing the aforementioned skills using empathy as the main motivator is a guaranteed method to establishing meaningful and lasting respect.  People want to follow people who have their act together but who are approachable, professional, and lead by great example.  They do not want to follow someone who is emotionally all over the place, someone who is mean or callous, nor someone who is lazy or has no passion.  You might think, "Oh Cat, I've had some bosses...." but being a boss doesn't mean you're a leader.  Being a boss simply means you have a weak shred of leadership that's only based on title, but that alone does not give you a successful, lasting team.

Think about the best boss you've ever had.  Or think about someone on your team right now, who maybe doesn't have the title or technical authority over others, but you trust and want to be around.  Why is that?  Isn't it because of what I've just written here?

Bottomless appetite for donuts in a way that defies modern day medical parameters for the average human being


I mean, if you love yourself, you'll eat donuts.  If you care for your coworkers, you'll buy them donuts.  The end.

Okay, you should be empathetic AND buy donuts.  Just take my word for it.

So how is Empathy a Marketable SKILL?  No, you can't put it on a resume (which is a shame), because the word really elicits this weird like, drippy goopy let's all love the world la la la feeling.  It most definitely does not have any kind of professional connotations.  I'm not going to change the workforce's collective opinion on this matter with the Middle Flipper, but I'd submit that whatever you call it, Empathy is still a SKILL.

As I touched on before, you have to learn to develop this skill.  Some of us are really socially intelligent; we know how to treat others with respect, how to have compassion for the animals we care for and let that drive our work ethic.  And while there is always room to improve, some of us just sort of "get it".  But...those people are usually the WORST at being empathetic towards themselves.  They are very self-critical and let other people's opinions destroy them, get deflated when they get constructive feedback, and feel like they deserve to feel bad when they are called out on a mistake.   


The opposite is true in many cases, too.  Some of us are naturally self-confident and pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We know it's okay to mess up, and we focus on improving ourselves.  But sometimes, we do this to the detriment of others.  We may think, "Hey, I did it just fine, why is this person whining like a baby? I don't have time for that nonsense."   Or once we get into more experienced positions, we may treat our subordinates poorly because we don't understand why they are messing up, or we assume they will deal with their adversity in the same exact way we did.

Regina George's empathy-towards-others skill level is at about a 0.0

Learning how to be empathetic MEANS how to: control your emotions, relate to others (humans and animals alike), boost yourself up while always knowing you can improve, and focusing on what's important. It is a SKILL that requires practice, introspection, constructive feedback, and dedication.  Do the work, and your reputation will speak for you.  It might not be a bullet point on your CV, but people will say, "Wow, that so-and-so is a fantastic employee.  Almost everyone enjoys working with him, he's professional, and he's motivated."  

The best part about empathy as the MMS is that you can use it ANYWHERE.  Any facility, any boss, any coworker, any group of animals, any situation.  Certainly there are easier situations and people than others to practice this skill with, but nonetheless it is 100% within your control to use and master.  The more you practice it, the better you become at it, and the more likely others will be influenced positively by it. 

Can you be successful without Empathy?  If you've gotten to the end of this blog telling yourself that it's all a bunch of bologna, that's your prerogative.  Because yes, I know you can be "successful" without being an empathetic person.  You can train lots of behaviors.  You can get promotions.  You can be well-known.  Of course, we'd have to figure out what we define as success.   What I define as success is not only training lots of behaviors, learning as much as I can about husbandry and training of marine mammals, getting promoted, or being recognized in the field.  I mean, those things are definitely part of my definition.  But the other part involves: do I make a positive difference?  Do I strive to do my best for the sake of the animals, my coworkers, and myself every single day?  And do I in some way set an example for someone else so that they also can be successful?    


You can be snarky to your coworkers, disrespectful to your subordinates, or think that being empathetic is a total waste of time.  But you cannot be truly successful and influential in the workplace without it.  And let's face it, WHY would you not want to be?   Empathy is a skill that costs you no money, is guaranteed to improve with practice, and creates and incredible work environment for you and your coworkers. Yes, it takes a ton of work.  But it creates strong leadership and a creative, exciting team.  It is not only the Most Marketable, but the Most Influential and Most Important Skill.  Use it often, and use it well.  Everyone you work with in every animal kingdom taxa (including yourself) will thank you.

* True or false: I actually have "Can Eat The Heck Out of Some Donuts" on my resume


  1. I vote "True" on "eat the heck out of doughnuts" on your resume, but not as a newbie.

    I'm still working on this skill called empathy in the area of being Too Hard On Myself. It extends to my job search. Every time I get a We Are Moving Forward With Other Candidates letter I want to hang my head in shame, but after reading this, my take is somewhat different. It is now I Can Do This! I'm NEW to the field and no one knows what I'm capable of yet including myself and it's ok.
    This blog speaks to my inner soul, so I figure I should go out on a limb and ask a few questions.

    First, I fall in the Too Nice department. In my short career I have already had people walk all over me. How can I avoid letting this happen as much as possible even though I must do Every Thing I Am Told To Do Or Else without compromising my niceness?

    Second, I tend to let people bring me down. I have experienced some really Mean People in the animal care field. Even though these individuals have my Dream Job, they are still Uber Competitive, snarky, don't have time for newbies and treat them like dirt, and dare I say it... Bullies. It doesn't bode well for a Nice Person that Internalizes Everything. How do you deal with these personality types while being professional and yes, empathetic, even though the individuals mentioned seem to have the empathy level of Regina George?

    On a less serious note, where do you find rainbow frosted cake doughnuts like the ones pictured??????? How could you NOT be happy after eating one of those?

    P.S. On the last day of my last internship, I totally had a Cat moment and brought doughnuts! They were a hit as soon as they arrived in the office!

    1. I think it's good you recognize you're really hard on yourself; that can make a huge difference in how you move forward. I'd also challenge you to reshape your view on the people who you perceive as mean; not to say they are or aren't really mean, but categorizing them like that can actually make it harder for you to be easy on yourself. For example, if you work with someone who is not so good with newbies, instead of thinking, "Man, they're mean" (which separates you from them and creates less opportunity for empathy towards them and yourself), you can think, "There's some reason they choose to act that way. I don't like being treated like that, but the best thing I can do is show them kindness, continue to focus on my own development, and set an example of how I'd like to be treated in my actions and attitude towards them."

  2. Agree 100% Enjoy reading your blog.