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The five essential skills to thrive at work

Which skills would make the biggest difference to your career?

That might seem an impossible question. You may not know what direction your career may take, or what knowledge you’ll need. You might have a really specific answer that’s unique to you. But there’s a more universal answer to this question than you might expect.

Every job role you’ll ever have will bring with it specific requirements - knowledge of Excel, good negotiation skills, customer service, knowledge of the law, a good phone manner. Each of these specific requirements will enable you to perform a specific job well.

But even if you’ve mastered these tools of the trade, there are higher level skills that will allow you to move from competence to excellence. The good news is that these skills are the same in almost every typical job role, and mastering them sets you up for success both now and in the future, regardless of your career path or level of seniority.

While lots of different skills are useful, we consider five to be essential in order to truly thrive at work. These five skills are the key to high performance. Without them, we can’t achieve what we’re truly capable of, either day to day or in the long run.

So what are these five magic skills that unlock our potential and allow us to truly thrive at work?


Focus has elsewhere been described as ‘the most important skill of the 21st century’, and it’s easy to see why. Research from Harvard in 2010 found that we spend 47% of our time at work distracted from the task at hand. Aside from being a huge drain on our time and productivity, this distraction was also found to make us less happy. The decade since this research has only seen our distraction increase, with the pull of our smartphones, pings of social media notifications and interruptions of email and chat platforms conspiring to interrupt our attention at every turn. Think of your own experience - when was the last time you read an article in full without being distracted by something else, or gave your full attention to a complex work task for more than a few minutes without deviation?

Focus may be a skill we take for granted, but its erosion is a quiet catastrophe that goes unnoticed.

Our inability to focus our minds fully on a task for any great period of time means we are productive for just under three hours a day, a huge waste of our time and potential.

Recapturing the skill of focus can unleash our productivity, unlock our best thinking and significantly reduce our work-related stress and anxiety issues. Reclaiming focus should be our number one priority.


By leadership we don’t just mean the people at the top. We mean the role of managing and leading others, whether a whole company or a single direct report. We all look to our line managers and senior colleagues for guidance, examples and inspiration, and any role that includes managing or influencing others comes under the banner of leadership.

Leaders and managers are often cited as the biggest reason people leave a job. But good leadership is about much more than just keeping people from leaving. Nothing in work is as influential on our morale, motivation and perception as our managers and leaders. For better or worse, intentionally or obliviously, they shape our understanding of what is expected, what is acceptable and how we should behave. Leaders dictate culture. We look to their example to see if the company really lives by its values, whether the latest initiative should be taken seriously, and whether our efforts really matter.

And yet positions of leadership are commonly a tag-on to a certain level of seniority. By being good at the technical skills of the job, we are promoted to a position of managerial responsibility. It’s assumed that our technical expertise and experience will translate into good leadership skills. We all know enough bad managers to know this isn’t necessarily the case.

Giving people the training and support to become great leaders isn’t just an obligation to them and the people they lead and influence each day. It’s an investment in the performance of your entire team, enabling the people who most influence their performance to do so in a positive way.


Crafting and delivering powerful stories is how people persuade, inspire and unite those around them. Storytelling may not seem a natural part of your role, but having great ideas or solutions is nothing without the power to engage people through compelling communication. Whether you communicate through presentations, networking, written words or one-to-one conversations, the ability to convey your message in a compelling way is key to making your voice heard, your opinion count and your words powerful.

We all admire the power of a great storyteller, from Maya Angelou or Martin Luther King inspiring hope and change, to Carl Sagan or Dr Hannah Fry making the unfathomable accessible and engaging. Crafting and delivering our words effectively allows people to engage with us, to better understand and appreciate our perspective. The skill of storytelling elevates our communication. It makes us better salespeople, better networkers, better relationship formers, better consensus builders and all round more compelling communicators. There are few roles that don’t benefit from this skill.


Having diverse perspectives is hugely important to the success of a project, team or organisation. If everyone in your team thinks in the same way, you’ll also share the same blind spots and weaknesses. Having colleagues who see things differently enables smarter innovation and better collective thinking. Mixing the dreamers and the deep thinkers, the pragmatists and the purists, the people-focused and the task orientated, the bold and the considered, all enables the collective to be smarter than any lone genius.

This isn’t just theory. When Google wanted to analyse what differentiated the best teams from the rest, they considered hundreds of potential factors across 180 different teams, from engineering to sales. After analysing their rich data through 35 statistical models, they found that it wasn’t expected factors like collective team experience or qualifications that differentiated the best groups, but psychological safety - the feeling that your teammates enable you to bring your unique and diverse strengths to the group without fear of judgement or ridicule. In short, the teams that were able to bring their individual perspectives and diversity of thought to the table with confidence were the ones that flourished.

Finding ways to bring different thinking to the table is what stops your brilliant new innovation from running out of budget, or your ambitious change agenda from alienating your employees. It’s what stops you from ever having to say “We didn’t think of that!”.

But in order to tap the potential of all of these different perspectives, experiences and insights, we first need to collaborate well. It’s an unfortunate truth that our psychological opposite - the person who best sees what we can’t and complements our thinking - is the hardest for us to communicate with. While having colleagues and collaborators who see things differently brings great advantages, it’s also a daily challenge to communicate and work well together.

Even if we were to lower our expectations for collaboration to merely maintaining working relationships, it remains the case that to succeed in our roles we’ll need to form successful relationships with people who have a very different outlook to us.

This is where strong collaboration skills are crucial - to maximise our individual work relationships and our collective team intellect. Developing our ability to get the most out of ourselves and each other relies on better understanding one another, learning to adapt to others and identifying the different strengths and contributions we can all make. A team that makes the most of each member’s skills in a complementary way will always far exceed a room full of smart silos.


Of all the skills in this list, self-awareness is both the most frequently cited as lacking and the least frequently addressed. We’re all well aware of the shortcomings of our colleagues, and equally aware that they have no comprehension of their own weaknesses. While we know very well our areas of expertise and knowledge, we often have little insight into our more human strengths and weaknesses - how we might overplay our strengths to the point of weakness, how we alter our behaviour under stress, how our well-meaning comments may be misinterpreted by others. We often lack even a language and framework to contextualise the different aspects of our personality. We spend little time thinking about how we could improve our interactions with others, uncover blind spots in our thinking or alter our approach to get better results.

Because higher levels of emotional intelligence, intuition and adaptability seem to come naturally to some (and those people tend to progress to senior positions), we tend to assume that personal insight and self-awareness will come naturally over time, as experience imparts wisdom. As with leadership, there are more than enough counterexamples to disprove this idea. And even if it were true, why wait for years of experience to accrue when the right development could provide a fast-track to the benefits of greater self-awareness?

Developing greater self-awareness smooths out the bumps. It allows for more considered personal development, for greater confidence in our own skills and awareness of our areas of weakness, for more effective communication and more realising of potential.

4and20million passionately believe in the importance and potential of these five skills. We also see them being hugely overlooked and under-developed.

While technical skills, experience and industry knowledge will enable us to perform our roles effectively, we cannot truly flourish and perform to our potential without developing our focus, leadership, collaboration, storytelling and self-awareness. We’ve helped companies large and small to develop these skills, and have seen first hand the lasting impact on individuals and whole organisations.

We’re willing to bet that whatever your role or industry, they could benefit you too.

If you'd like to discuss how we can help your team to develop these skills, just get in touch!

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