The Skills We Don’t Know We Have

Discharging from 16 years in the regular army I didn’t have to worry about getting a new job on “civi street”. I took the skills I had acquired in the Special Forces and went back to Afghanistan to work at the Australian Embassy as a security contractor with my mates. It was an easy transition from Defence and to be honest, some would say, hardly a transition at all. While there were a few major differences in my work before and after the ADF, there were a lot of similarities. Regardless, I enjoyed the challenge of private security contracting and spent the next six years after discharging from the army doing my best to keep people safe in complex and dangerous environments.

The uncertainty and real transition for me came in 2016, when I finished working in Afghanistan.

After 14 years of working on and off in the war troubled country, I returned to Australia with the goal of starting an adventure travel business in Tasmania. It was then I learned the real difficulties of being a small player in an industry where you have to compete for every client. As a veteran, I was running a few adventure hikes for former military and first responders, taking them into the wilderness to show them how good the adventure and tranquility can be for their mindset. Around this time, I was asked to speak to a group of military veterans about my experience post army. I remember answering a question about useful skills the military teach by saying; “Most of the skills the military teach us are not useful once you get out of Defence.” I was referring to skills like sniping, proficiency with a machine gun, blowing things up and techniques for destroying an enemy.

A few years on, I now believe I answered the question poorly. At the time I wasn’t too different to a lot of other veterans (and society for that matter); I thought that getting out of Defence I needed to be totally retrained in order to fit back into normal society.

How wrong I was.

“What skills can we take from our military service that will help us in life on civi street. What skills do the military give us that make us better people. What skills should we never stop using. What skills make us more competitive in the job market and able to live a life full of passion, purpose and meaning. A life where we constantly improve and evolve?”

If asked the question again today, my answer would be very different.

The huge list of soft/core skills of course – the important skills in life

I believe there are two main types of skills in life. Hard Skills, also known as technical skills and Soft Skills or as I refer to them, core skills.

Like Simon Sinek, I don’t like the term soft skills. These skills are far from the soft ones. Simon likes the term “human skills” and points out that soft and hard give the perception of opposites and they are not. They work in parallel and you need both to succeed.

While the military teaches both, it is generally accepted that the better skills to develop in life are your core skills. Why, because it’s from developing our core skills that we develop and improve our character, build capacity and foster talent. Furthermore, let’s face it, character is key.

The strip and assemble of a belt feed general purpose machine gun or the best place to position your fire support in order to effectively suppress an enemy while you overwhelm them are hard skills. The more hard skills a soldier has, the more useful he is. Hard skills are the abilities and proficiencies that can be taught and trained. They are easy to recognise and test for competency.

The real gold dust however lies in the core skills we develop in the military. The behaviours, traits and non-technical abilities that relate to how we view and do things.

For most people, having the marksmanship skills to hit an enemy in the chest at 800m loses its usefulness after military service. However, work ethic, flexibility, mental toughness, tenacity, patience and problem solving are key attributes that will see you succeed at whatever you choose to pursue post service.

The Australian Special Air Service Regiment’s (SAS) selection course, at the time I did it was the only course in the ADF not designed to teach you anything. Its goal was purely to determine if soldiers are suitable for training, to identify those with the core skills and character attributes to become Special Forces operators. Knowing that anyone, from anywhere, in the ADF can apply for the SAS is evidence to the order of priority this high performing team of professional soldiers place on these skills. Senior instructors know they can teach you to shoot later but it is a lot harder to teach you to want to learn, to have a positive mindset when situations look grim and display mental fortitude when things get hard.

Likewise, in the civilian world today; it is why any human resource manager or selection panel worth their weight values these same skills when it comes to hiring new team members. They know it’s precisely these skills that will make you more successful in the workplace.

So, what are the personal traits and attributes that make up those desirable core skills? What character traits are the predictors of high preference?

The list is long, and examples include:

  • Drive and perseverance and determination,
  • Resilience,
  • Adaptability,
  • Humility,
  • Integrity,
  • Affective intelligence, Problem solving
  • Team ability, Collaboration
  • Curiosity,
  • Emotional strength,
  • Courage. Physical and moral, Professionalism,
  • Capability,
  • Physical ability,
  • Dependability,
  • Initiative,
  • Interpersonal skills, Communication
  • Stress tolerance,
  • Creativity, innovation
  • Motivation and purpose,
  • Endurance, mental and physical toughness,
  • Adaptability and dependability,
  • Interpersonal or people skills and empathy.
  • Identification and management of your emotions,
  • The ability to self-evaluate yourself and your performance,
  • Teamwork as well as the ability to work and achieve results alone, unsupervised, (having both, despite popular belief, is not common)
  • Positivity and work ethic,
  • Conflict resolution and tolerance for other ideas,
  • Risk management and the ability to accept risk, (something modern society is becoming less and less able to tolerate)
  • Clear and concise communication, as well as listening skills,
  • Punctuality and time management; and
  • Prioritisation and problem solving.
  • Reliability, Punctuality
  • Numeracy, Digital, Reading, Writing, Listening.

The million-dollar question is how do we improve our core skills?

Many will say technical skills can be taught but talent cannot. I believe though talent/character and core skills can be developed. While I used to jokingly say that “I’m the last of the great all-rounders”. I know know that what I meant was that while I lacked some hard skills required to make it in the world post military, what I did have was talent and good character; and with my core skills came an ability to learn hard skills.

While it is quite easy to listen to a talk on leadership, it won’t instantly make you a good leader. Unlike hard skills that can be taught in a 40-minute lesson and cemented with practice over time; experience is the critical factor in soft skills. It is why there are thousands of highly educated yet poor leaders but also thousands of great leaders, communicators and problem solvers that have never taken a single class in leadership. Maybe their parents were good communicators or maybe they had a footy coach that was a great leader. Most likely they have just learned through experience what works and what doesn’t, how to get the best out of people and express their ideas, perfecting these skills over time since they were young.

The common saying “you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with” is also very relevant when it comes to soft skills. If your five closest friends tell you it is OK to hit the beers until late on a Sunday night making Monday’s performance at work sub-optimal; you will think the same. This in turn will likely erode other peoples (including your managers) perception of your personal traits, dedication for one. But if your close friends and work colleagues promote focus and the value of not letting the team down, you are more likely to have two beers then head home for a good night’s rest.

Self-awareness is key with core skills. Some you will undoubtably already have to a good standard – identify these so that they can go down on your resumé and help you win that next promotion. Equally as important, is recognising any areas that could do with improvement.

A simple system of improving soft skills:

  1. Identify the soft skill you are lacking and want to improve. Be conscious of when you are and aren’t using them.
  2. Research these skills and possible actions to improve them.
  3. Be aware and practice the skill. Integrate them into your life.
  4. Reflect on your experience.
  5. Evaluate and collect feedback.

Improvement in your soft skills in life should be a steady and continuous cycle, one that never ends as they assist us in all aspects of life not just work. Good core skills will assist us to live a purposeful life full of passion, meaning and unforgettable experiences; and with experience will come more development and improvement of core skills. From the everyday moments in your family relationships, to the personal achievements and epic adventures you experience before your limited time comes to an end.

In Summary:

  • Soft skills are non-technical skills that are transferable through life to everything you do.
  • They are harder to acquire, perfect and measure than hard or technical skills.
  • The military and emergency services are good at teaching soft skills. Veterans and front line workers often have well developed soft skills.
  • Soft skills can substantially enhance both your performance in the workplace and accomplishment in life.
  • You can consciously train and improve your soft skills and in doing so, improve your life.

Written by Mark Direen, former Australian SAS Soldier. A speaker, learning from a Life Less Ordinary and sharing and documenting lived experience.

2 thoughts on “The Skills We Don’t Know We Have”

  1. Graham Halton

    After sitting back and digesting your comments on Soft skills, how true your skills taught in the service are of advantage to you in civi street.
    When I recall my roll in civilian employment my confidence was sky high when communicating with senior management and management in other industries.

    Well presented Mark and congratulations.

  2. Well done Gumps! This all rings very true but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it described so clearly or concisely. Keep up the great work.
    All the best mate.

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