Soft Skills

Learning: The Ultimate Transferable Skill

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

—Eric Hoffer (1902–1983), Reflections on the Human Condition, 1973

The wisdom in Hoffer’s words speaks to the question, “What soft skills remain valuable as our industry continues to evolve or if one has to change industries?” As technical professionals, our market value—our personal currency—is a function of our capacity to learn and the speed at which we do it. Learning is not just about acquiring facts, skills, or knowledge, but rather the application of all of these to a task in order to deliver results. The difference between learning in the workplace and learning at a university can be found in the balance between task, relationships, and self:

  • Task—Work to be done
  • Relationships—Interactions with others
  • Self—Our own aspirations and values

For example, our capacity to do well on a test in school did not depend on our relationships with fellow students; however, our relationships with work colleagues do substantially affect how well we perform at work. At work, all three—task, relationships, and self—are equal partners. We need to maintain an interdependent balance between achieving tasks, maintaining relationships, and fulfilling personal aspirations (self).

Work Context

The work context differs from our university experience. As we began our studies at university or college, we most likely faced entry exams and standardized tests intended to measure our competencies in reading comprehension, math, and science. The results of these tests often determined whether or not we were entered into the applicant candidate pool of a given institute of higher education. In a similar fashion, on job applications our grade-point average, actual degree granted, and some indication of soft skills competency development in the areas of teamwork and problem solving determined whether or not we were granted the opportunity for an interview.

Our university education provides a foundation of facts, skills, and knowledge.

Learning that takes place at work requires engagement with others in the work environment. This is substantially different from university-level learning, which focuses primarily on concepts and information, with testing as a mechanism to determine competency and knowledge. In the work environment, it is essential to recognize that every person we work with also is attempting to accomplish a task and may need our help to deliver results for which they are accountable. If we do not engage with others within a framework of mutuality or partnership, the next time we attempt to get their support or help, it may not be as forthcoming.

We are hired for our capacity to solve technical problems, but we are fired or we stumble due to our lack of personal mastery and interpersonal skills. In his book, Emotional Intelligence (1995), psychologist Daniel Goleman presents credible research data indicating that intelligence quotient (IQ) is only one factor in job hiring and that emotional intelligence is twice as important as IQ in determining our success. This is because emotional intelligence indicates a capacity to perform increasingly larger and more complex tasks (such as projects or strategic initiatives) within a set of relationships in the workplace, while also maintaining personal integrity and aspirational focus. This means that what is required is the capacity to achieve the task at hand while meeting one’s own objectives as well as those of others who participate.

Fortunately, personal mastery and interpersonal skills are transferable. So is emotional intelligence.

Transferable Skills

Globalization provides broader opportunities as well as greater challenges, because opportunities in other areas of the world confront us with unfamiliar contexts in which we are expected to deliver consistent results on a sustainable basis. The challenge and the opportunity are to learn quickly within a broad set of contexts involving different paradigms, values, and interpersonal communication expectations.

Ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity are acutely accentuated in unfamiliar environments, often reducing our capacity to be effective. Emotional intelligence, the capacity to make commitments, and clarity about one’s own deep aspirations and guiding beliefs, are key skills that can be transferred from one environment to another. Developing and using these competencies enables us to pick up on informational signals, allowing navigation in differing work contexts and amid the turbulence that accompanies working within complex systems.


With each task we are confronted with at work, we generally are missing something—resources such as money, people, or materials; clear ideas about how to move toward the desired outcome; and/or insertion or leverage within the organizational system to produce a desired result. Because we need something from another person or group of people, we need to be very clear about what we need from those whose help we enlist. Approaching another person with clarity sends a message of credibility and deep respect for the time and resources of the person we are attempting to engage.


Tasks in the workplace involve making commitments. These generally are made in relationship with another human being. In fact, commitment making is critical to work relationships. Commitment is rooted both in requesting something from someone and in responding with a promise. Without a specific promise, there is no commitment.

According to Fred Kofman in his manuscript, Commitment Conversations  (1996), the following are the major elements involved in commitment making:

  • Requestor
  • Request—with conditions of satisfaction
  • Time element
  • Person to whom the request is made

Both the requestor and the person to whom the request is made are responsible for honoring the request’s conditions of satisfaction. Most difficult conflicts and breaches in relationships occur in the context of misunderstandings and breaches in commitment making.

Engaging in commitment making is a form of negotiation. To have a win-win negotiation, one needs to have a high degree of emotional intelligence and also perhaps empathy. While emotional intelligence is steeped in our life experience, biology, culture, and language, empathy is the capacity to walk in another’s shoes and validate that person’s sense of reality, which, most likely, is different from ours. Empathy, more often than not, is communicated nonverbally and sends a deep sense of respect and honor to the other person. Recognizing the unique reality of the other can provide the basis upon which learning can take place.


That brings us to self, the third element of the troika. Our personal stance—the way we appear to others—is within our control when we engage in a relationship to affect an outcome. It is thus essential to get to know ourselves first by looking at our own roots. Our past is the prologue to how we interact with the world around us in the present. Clarity about our worldview, as well as our aspirations and vision, is essential not only for us but also for the organizations with which we engage.

Personal mastery starts with awareness of our emotional state at any given moment. This is the thread that will lead us to understanding who we are and what is important to us. Emotions create the field of possibilities for our interactions, so it is helpful to comprehend which emotions are determining our impulses and reactions.

Emotions inform the lens through which we view the world, our deepest aspirations, and our creativity. Our emotional state not only determines the quality of our relationships with others but also determines what potential the relationships have for achieving results.


At work, creating outcomes and delivering results depend on using our technical skills and competencies in combination with nontechnical skills. We are hired for our technical competencies; however, it is through our nontechnical competencies that we can effectively contribute to business results and sustain our relationships with others.

Technical acumen alone is insufficient for a successful technical or managerial career. In the workplace, it is not enough to have knowledge and ideas; in order to implement them, we must be able to persuasively articulate and convey our knowledge and ideas to others. In attempting to do this, we should remember that each of us is unique, with cultural, racial, and social contexts of our own.

Although we cannot actually experience what another person is thinking and feeling, we can  learn to use our emotional intelligence, capacity to make commitments, and clarity about our own deep aspirations and guiding beliefs to enable good communication and help achieve a desired outcome. The more we develop these abilities, the greater will be our understanding of and balance between task, relationships, and self. This helps build our ability to effectively learn and deliver results throughout our career—transferring our capacity for this type of learning across a wide range of situations that can have high levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity.

Since 1979, Narandja Milanovich has worked in the oil industry in a variety of capacities including engineering, management, leadership development, and coaching. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Rice University and two master of arts degrees in depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is currently a PhD candidate in psychology. She is also a member of the SPE Soft Skills Council.
Gary Eagleson has worked in the oil industry since 1979 in a variety of engineering and management assignments in service organizations, and in multinational and independent oil companies engaged in light- and heavy-oil recovery methods. He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Rice University. His work currently includes consulting services as well as project engineering for surface and subsurface projects.





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