Ep 187: Essential Skills for Successful Teens

Episode Summary

Mark Herschberg joins us to talk about the kinds of skills they don’t teach in school, like negotiation, planning, compromise and collaboration! We’re discussing how teens can develop these skills to find career success.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

What makes a person successful in the real world? Is it their technical knowledge, their accounting abilities, or anything else they might learn in school? 

While these qualifications  are important, there are other skills which are just as essential to personal and professional success: things like teamwork, negotiating, and planning! Without these abilities, your teen could be the greatest math whiz of all time…but find themselves unable to communicate or collaborate enough to bring their innovations into the world.

If kids aren’t learning skills like this in school, how can we teach them to be strategic and savvy adults? Turns out, we as parents can set examples about compromise and negotiation that kids take with them into adult life!  With the right conversations, we can encourage them to become leaders, developing the confidence and collaborative abilities they’ll need to cultivate the career of their dreams.

To understand how we can set up our kids for success, we’re talking to Mark Herschberg, author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You. Originally an engineer and chief technology officer, Mark has spent much of his career launching and developing new ventures at startups, fortune 500s and academia! His MIT Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program is often referred to as MIT’s “career success accelerator”. Mark is the perfect person to tell us exactly how teens can  thrive in the professional world!

In our interview, Mark and I are discussing some of the most important qualities teens need to find success, and how they can cultivate these abilities. We’re also talking about how teens can take notes on their failures or success to inform their future endeavors, and how parents can become better negotiators to reach compromises with teens–without either side sacrificing their interests.

Essential Skills for Successful Teens

As Mark was navigating his own career as a young adult, he found that there were certain skills that were necessary for success–skills he didn’t learn in class. These abilities were not only desirable to those striving to be leaders, but to anyone with goals and dreams within the professional world! Mark realized that if he could cultivate skills like confidence, collaboration and teamwork, he’d be able to launch his career in a major way. 

In the episode, Mark uses the ability to negotiate as an example. When our teens find themselves at their first professional job,  they may simply settle for whatever salary they are initially offered. But if they attempt to negotiate, there could be some seriously awesome benefits, says Mark. Even if they just negotiate an extra thousand dollars annually, they could rack up forty thousand over forty years….or, more importantly, learn a lesson about how to negotiate, making them a bit better at it for when they’re hired the next time!

Mark explains that essential skills like these are not taught in high school or college. Instead, they’re discovered either by simply doing or through peer learning. If you want your teen to get a head start, Mark suggests creating a peer group to foster peer learning. In this community of young people, teens can dissect a book, podcast, or video centering on self-improvement every week. By speaking and listening to one another, they’ll gain perspective about how to change their own lives, and learn things they may have otherwise overlooked!

Another way Mark believes kids can learn is by self-reflection. Examining our past success can help us be successful again in the future–and the same goes for avoiding failures!

The Power of Self Reflection

In his experiences working in tech, Mark has often found that projects tend to go off the rails, leading those involved to complete a “post mortem” and find out just what happened. In these situations, collaborators realize that things started to go badly only a few weeks in, but no one stopped to reflect long enough to do anything about it. This causes a lack of communication, only for the whole project to go up in flames.

Mark recommends that we encourage teens to practice self reflection as they go through life, so that they don’t end up in this situation! For a teen routinely struggling to score well on the SAT, looking at the specific sections that challenged them and engaging in focused practice might allow them to improve the next time around. He explains that systems like the military and medical science often do this, calling it an “after access report.” If teens and parents can do this in their own lives, Mark believes they’ll cultivate a greater rate of success!

When a failed project is collaborative, it’s human nature to point fingers and assign blame for why things went wrong. If only our coworker wasn’t so incompetent, everything would have been fine! But Mark points out that although this is a common human tendency, sometimes we have to realize that there might be other reasons why they never responded to our email or turned in their report on time, like a sick family member, or a miscommunication! If teens are going to be successful in their careers, they’ll have to learn to be flexible when working with others.

When it comes to communication and collaboration, compromise is essential! In the episode, Mark is sharing how we can be better at compromising with teens without sacrificing what we want…while also showing them through example how to work well with others!

Why Compromise is Critical

As parents, we tend to dig in our heels and take a strong position–teens can’t have a phone until they’re a certain age, can’t go to the party they so desperately want to attend, can’t stay out past midnight. And when teens argue, it’s so tempting to throw them a “because I said so” But this isn’t going to set a very good example, says Mark. When kids enter the professional world, “because I said so” isn’t exactly the best way to communicate their intentions! Plus, it will only frustrate teens as it makes us seem like we’re just bossy and care more about control than teens happiness!

To set a better example and get teens to actually listen, Mark suggests expressing your intentions instead of taking a position right away. If you communicate what you want and your teen does the same, the two of you might be able to find a middle ground that works for both of you…as well as reach a greater understanding about what the other person is striving for! If you want your kid home before you go to bed but they want to stay out extra late, extending curfew by an hour could help both of you achieve your goals! Mark explains that compromises like this one are much more effective than “because I said so.”

In the episode, Mark talks about how parents can set a good example by making compromises. Good examples and role models can be an incredible way for teens to start developing important skills like teamwork and communication by seeing them in someone else! Mark suggests that teens take a closer look at those they look up to and pinpoint exactly what it is about that person that they admire, making it possible to absorb the qualities that make them an effective leader.

In the Episode…

It’s so important that teens learn life skills alongside things like history and chemistry! In my illuminating conversation with Mark, we also discuss:

  • How working under a boss is a skill of its own
  • What made Martin Luther King a great leader
  • Why teens need to learn to speak up
  • How teens can nail a job interview

If you enjoyed listening this week, check out thecareertoolkitbook.com for more from Mark as well as all kinds of resources related to the topics in today’s episode! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Tell me a little bit about what got you here doing this Career Success Accelerator at MIT. And you seem to have a lot of experience with helping people to think about their career and think about their trajectory into the business world.

Mark: Yeah. I’ve had this very interesting path to get where I am. When I came at MIT in the ‘90s, I began as a software engineer. And I realized early on, I wanted to become the CTO, the Chief Technology Officer, that’s the person in charge of the engineering team.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: And what I realized that to get that role, it wasn’t just about being the best engineer. It wasn’t just about solving the equations and doing the engineering problems. There were other skills I needed, leadership, networking, negotiating, team building, but no one ever taught me these skills. If you think about, we’ve heard this all, we tell our kids, oh, networking is so important.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Parents say that, interest say that, has anyone ever taught you how to network?

Andy: How do you do it?

Mark: Yeah. We tell them these skills are important, but we never actually include it in our education. So I had to learn these skills for myself and as I was doing it, I realized they’re not just for the senior people, they are for everyone.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: And as I was coming up with ways to train my team, MIT had been surveying employers and asking what are the skills you want to see? And lo and behold this is the same skills, leadership networking, team building. And this research, by the way, this isn’t just for MIT students. I have seen similar research performed by other universities. Consistently companies say they want these skills. These skills apply to everyone, not just engineers, but accountants and salespeople and everyone in all these different office jobs, and at all levels. Recognizing that no one’s teaching it to anyone, MIT wanted to create a program, which is now referred to as the career success accelerator.

Mark: When I heard about that, I reached, I said, I’ve developed some training programs for my team, I am to share that. And I thought that would just be maybe an afternoon conversation, but they invited me to help create the class which I did. And then they asked me to help teach because while MIT has world class professors at Sloan, for example, we’ve got experts on leadership and negotiations. They also wanted to bring in practitioners like myself. So for the past 20 years, in addition to being a CTO, I’ve had a parallel career teaching at MIT and elsewhere, and speaking about these career skills. And now of course, the book, The Career Toolkit, Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You.

Andy: You cover so much stuff in here. I think there’s a lot of really, really helpful information. One thing that I found interesting towards the start of the book is you talk about depth versus breadth. You’re specifically walking us through what it takes to create a career plan at the beginning of the book. But I think a lot of times we have a kind of idea of what’s interesting to us or where we want to go. But in order to get there, to what extent do we focus on getting really, really good at one thing and becoming an expert versus trying to learn all kinds of skills and make ourselves really well rounded. It’s not an easy question to answer or problem to solve.

Mark: What you bring up two important points. The first is about having a career plan, because often people say, well, I don’t know, how can you think that far ahead? How can I know what I want to do in five or 10 years…

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Where I want to go. Now imagine for the parents listening who have jobs, imagine if your boss said, here’s a really big, critical project. Next two years, this is a make or break project for the company.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Would you ever say, well, two years, that’s a long time. So listen, let’s not waste time creating a plan or a budget or milestones. Let’s just get to work and we’ll cross our fingers and I’ll see you in two years and hopefully we’ll do it. That it’s completely unacceptable yet for our career.

Andy: Right.

Mark: Which is longer and far more important.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: We have no plan. Now, just like a project plan at work when you create that two year plan, you know the day you create it, you know it’s not going to unfold exactly as you have it planned and that’s okay. You’re going to adjust the plan. You know when you create the plan, it’s very clear what you’re doing maybe the next two months, what you’re doing in 14 months, that’s a placeholder and that’s going to change, but still you have a plan so you can figure out, are you on plan? Are you off plan? You’ll recognize when you change the goal, as we know, CEOs often do, you can say time to update the plan. And the same is true for our careers.

Mark: Simply saying, well, I hope to get there in 10 years is not a sufficient plan. Coming up with a plan, that’s going to be maybe a little fuzzier, further out is okay. And we’re going to check in and adjust our plan as we go, just like in our project plans. And especially important if you are three years into your plan and you suddenly say, you know what, I don’t like this career anymore. I don’t like this industry. I won’t be something different.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: You can change it. It’s not sand in stone.

Andy: Sure.

Mark: And that trips people often. Because they think once they create the plan, they’re committed. It’s your plan. Do with it what you want.

Andy: Yeah. You feel like a lot of times, if you commit to a plan, then that’s cutting off options for you. Or I don’t know yet what I want to do.

Mark: But you want to think of it like a road trip, right? So if you’re driving from New York to San Francisco, you’ve got your plan. You kind of know the highways you’re going to take, but sometimes there will be detours. There could be a storm or road closure. There could be economic recessions or pandemics that throw off our career. But you could also say, Hey, you know what, let’s take it detour. There’s a really cool stop. 50 miles out of the way. That sounds fun. Let’s do it. Halfway through the trip you can say, you know what, I don’t think I want to go to San Francisco. Let’s go to LA.

Andy: Let’s go LA.

Mark: Yeah. Reroute. Okay. You can do that. So you’ve got flexibility in your plan.

Andy: Yeah. But it gets you out, it gets you going and it gets you moving in a direction. So much of what we need to do when we’re young is just getting into things and getting started with things and experiencing and just getting moving in different directions.

Mark: Now you brought up the depth versus breadth. And that’s a question I get a lot. People ask, should I be a deep expert, or should I get a lot of different skills?

Andy: Yeah. Do I go and get a PhD and totally specialize in this topic? Or am I better off trying to get a bunch of other skills?

Mark: Yeah. And this is where it can depend. If, for example, you go into to surgery, there’s sign to be said for, if you are the expert at this type of surgery, you can make a lot of money.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: You are in demand. You can command. If you are the expert on creating TikTok videos, not just the social media expert, but well, TikTok videos.

Andy: Right.

Mark: You know better than anyone, you’re very in demand, you can command a lot of money. On the other hand that’s where you are, that’s not to say you can’t benefit from having other skills.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: What I always teach people, imagine you have that great expert. Think for example of the professor in school, who is a genius, but a terrible lecturer is discombobulated and hard to listen to. Oh, I know he’s really smart, but man, I do not want to be in his class. And even though he has brilliant ideas, no one wants to hear his talks. His peers don’t want to listen to him. His peers don’t want to work with him because he is difficult. If he gets just a little bit better, then he’s so much easier to work with. And those great ideas start to get much more useful. They get out to more people. He has a bigger impact. So these fundamental skills, the ones in the book they’re going to help you, no matter what you do.

Andy: But even that surgeon, if he’s trying to grow his business, he’s going to want to understand marketing and accounting.

Mark: He’s going to want employee skills like networking.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Like in his case, maybe branding, that might not be one of the skills in the book, but that’s a skill that can help him. The example I gave let’s take negotiations for a moment.

Andy: Okay.

Mark: Consider you are 22 years old and you get a job offer right after school for $60,000.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: But instead of taking the job, you’ve learned to negotiate. You read my book or a different book or learned online, you say, okay, I want to negotiate this offer and you get them, give you 61,000, just a $1000 more that’s…

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Pretty tiny amount, we can imagine that. If you do nothing else, if you sit in this same job for the next 40 years, that one, five minute negotiation for a $1000, just got you $1000 more for 40 years.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: Reading a single book, doing a tiny negotiation, you just got $40,000 more. But of course you’re not going to be staying in that job for 40 years. You’re going to have other jobs, promotions, raises. You’re going to negotiate for much more. If you get a little bit better at negotiating, and we’re not talking about being the world’s best negotiator, we’re just talking about getting a little bit better. Suddenly you can add tens of thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands of dollars…

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: To your lifetime earnings. Now I use negotiations as an example because it’s easy to do the math.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Go $1000, 40 years. If you get little bit better at networking, little bit better at leading at communicating at any of these skills, the same thing will happen. It’s not that someone’s going to say, okay, well I was going to give you 60, but you’re a better networker, so here 61.

Andy: Right.

Mark: But by being a better networker, you’re going to get more job opportunities.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: More customers, more partners, more information.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: By being a more leader, you’re going to stand out more at work and get promoted faster. All of these skills have that same ROI. And it’s not about being world class. Do that if you can, but just getting a little bit better and you can reap amazing benefits.

Andy: There’s a really interesting idea in the book, you talk about the core role of a company and figuring out whether you are working within the core role or whether you’re working in a secondary capacity. I wonder how you think about figuring that out and what that means.

Mark: Let’s define what this is for those who haven’t yet read the book.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: There is something that drives what a company does.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: For example, if you’re a wall street firm, it is all about trading. It’s making money in the markets. That’s what it is about. Those are the people who bring in the revenue.

Andy: Right.

Mark: You need other people, for example, you need people who are on the marketing team or the accounting team to add up the numbers and make sure your client’s accounts are all correct.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: That’s important, but they’re not driving the revenue. They are seen as cost centers. Now, even you can say, well, the marketing team drives revenue because they bring in new customers and that’s part of how we make money.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: But still, it is the finance people. They are king. They’re the ones driving the company.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: And so, every company has one, possibly two things that’s really what they’re about. If you look at Nike, for example, Nike’s often held up as a marketing company. They are a brand. We might think of them as shoes or clothing.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: And sure, they have operations. That’s an important piece but…

Andy: Right.

Mark: First and foremost, they are a brand and they want to make sure…

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: That brand is strong. And so it’s the marketing people who tend to be the king at a company like Nike. So when you join a company like Nike, if you are in accounting or you’re in operations, manufacturing, that’s fine. But recognize this is a marketing driven company. And if you’re a marketer, you’ll probably have more opportunities for growth, more chances to be seen as a future leader of the company.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark: It’s not saying they’re certainly going to need a CFO at the company, and maybe I signed from accounting, but marketers are driving the ship. And every company has that.

Andy: Is it a goal to find whatever your interest is or your skills are to find a company that their core function matches that. So you’re working within the main driver of that company?

Mark: Not necessarily. And obviously if we did that…

Andy: Okay.

Mark: Nike would never have any accountants and that would be hard for them, but it’s important to recognize it. In my own career, so in my primary career, as a chief technology officer…

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: I work for enterprise software companies. I work for companies where the software is really what’s driving it. As opposed to, for example, let’s take an e-commerce company. Imagine e-commerce company that sells children’s toys. Okay, you’re running an e-commerce website.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: And sure. There’s some data analytics figuring out how to bear a target, but it’s really making sure the marketing team is bringing in new parents and kids and that we have the right selection of toys and that we do good retargeting and the technology, isn’t the essence of the company. They need it. You can’t do e-commerce without it, but you’re probably not the person driving the company as opposed to a company like SAP, they’re an enterprise software company. That’s what they do. They build software.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Their big thing is getting engineers to create software that makes them money. So that’s more of a technical type of company.

Andy: Another aspect of effective working is working with the other people in your team. And specifically with your boss.

Mark: This is something we don’t even emphasize in school. We never even bring it up.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Now you might have heard an expression like learning to manage your manager.

Andy: Ah, right.

Mark: Consider that in school, your job is to get the right answer. Quite literally, they will hand you a piece of paper and there’s a blank spot and you need to put the right answer in the right spot. How do you get graded?

Andy: Yeah. Right.

Mark: And it’s very easy. In fact, when you do homework or take a test, what’s the right answer? I’ll give you a hint. It was probably talked about by the professor in the last couple of weeks.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: You know, it was found in the book or the lectures. It’s very easy. Take the knowledge over and then remember it and stick it over there when asked. But that’s not how the real world works. Your boss doesn’t say…

Andy: Ah.

Mark: Here you go. I’m going to give you a piece of paper and you have to do this calculation. And then suddenly figure out how to come up with the answer and stick in this one slot for me. Your boss says, we need this done. I don’t know how, but your job is to figure out how. And that means you have to talk to other people. You have to ask the right questions before you can get the right answers.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: And that’s not something we usually teach.

Andy: So how do we learn that?

Mark: Well, that’s a skill we learn like all these other skills. Now here’s the key thing about the skills in the book.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: If you think about how we’ve learned in the past, in high school, in college, the teacher would stand up and give us information in what I would call knowledge transfer. Here is the quadratic formula. Here are the dates you need to remember for world war II. Say, okay, and you write them down and you’ll know on the test where to put those.

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: Unfortunately, there is no formula for leadership. There’s no three steps to magically always communicate. There’s no universal question to always ask that suddenly helps you understand the problem. These are subtle complex skills. And the best way to learn them is through peer learning and doing. So think of it like sports. I can sit there and explain how basketball works to you, but is not going to make you a good basketball player.

Andy: Right.

Mark: Knowing the rules might be important, but you have to do it. Now that means you might run drills, passing, dribbling, throwing. It means you might do scrimmage games and practice with other people. It means you might do some reflection.

Mark: You’re going to videotape yourself and look what worked, what didn’t or videotape on other team and see what they’re doing. How do we do that? And that’s how we get better in sports. We want to replicate that with these skills. So now here’s the thing. We can’t easily scrimmage. I can’t say, Hey, I’m going to lead this afternoon. I might screw it up. And then a few hours later, I say, all right, I totally blew that. Do over. Pretend I wasn’t a horrible leader for the last afternoon.

Andy: Right.

Mark: Doesn’t work that way. So the way we can create this is through peer learning groups. And I recommend companies do this. If you are a parent, you can do this with your kids by getting some of their other friends together, work with other parents on this. What you want to do is start by having get some content.

Andy: Okay.

Mark: Now the content, yes, it could be for my book, and you can read these 10 pages next time, those 10 pages.

Andy: Ah.

Mark: But if you don’t want to use my book, you can use a different book, you can use an article, a video, you can use a great podcast like this one. They listen to one of your podcast episodes, and then you come together and you talked about it, because if you and I both read an article about leadership, you are going to get something out of it that I won’t.

Andy: Totally.

Mark: And in that discussion, I’m going to get your perspective. You’ll get mine. We will understand it better, and then we can talk about, Hey, I have this leadership challenge I’m facing. I’m trying to think, what should I do? And you’re going to chime in and say, well, Mark, here’s what I might try. This is our chance to almost scrimmage to practice. It’s your chance to think about a real world situation. Even if it’s not real for you, we could even watch the tape because someone else she chimes in and says, I had similar suit situation. So here’s what I did. And this worked, but this didn’t. And so we can learn from that. So it’s in these discussions or you can use case studies or specific examples you want to talk through. That’s how we learn by doing this regularly. And that’s how we pick up these skills.

Andy: I love this story that you have out in the book. You said, this is the best candidate you ever hired as a 19 year old HR intern. During the interview, she answered the questions pretty well. Then she said, “I looked at your job requirements for a software developer. Here’s a list of 20 candidates I found on LinkedIn, who I would target for this role. And here’s a sample outreach letter. I would send them.”

Mark: She was amazing because what she did, she answered the questions in the interview. I don’t mean the questions we asked her. There’s an implied question, which is, can you do this job?

Andy: Yeah.

Mark: That’s the ultimate question everyone’s asking. And I can’t just say, Hey, can you do this job? And you say, oh yeah, of course I can like, well, I guess that’s good enough. We have to figure out, tell me about other things you’ve done. Show me that you can do it. Convince me. Make me believe. And when she did that, we could ask her what she’d done in the past and why she thinks she can do it.

Andy: Totally.

Mark: She actually did it. Now. You can’t always, if you are a software architect, you can’t say, oh, so last night I came up with the architecture for your whole system. You don’t know all the details and that’s big.

Andy: Right.

Mark: But she took some steps to show, I will prove to you, I can do this. And that was fantastic. All of us can show something in some way, showing that we can do it.

Andy: Yeah. She didn’t actually go hire somebody for you, but she just did enough of a sample task that it was clear. And it also tells you so much about how much, how she’s a problem solver and she’s a self-starter and she’s going to be able to solve issues and come up with solutions. And that’s communicates so much in a few minutes of showing you what you did.

Mark: Exactly. So for anyone out there interviewing, take that little extra step, take that initiative. Say I came prepared. I did this extra work to go a little further than what you were expecting. And that is an incredible signal during the interview process.


About Mark Herschberg

Mark Herschberg is the author of The Career Toolkit.

As a student at MIT, Mark received a B.S. in physics, a B.S. in electrical engineering & computer science, and a M.Eng. in electrical engineering & computer science, focusing on cryptography. He worked as an engineer and a chief technical officer. At Harvard Business School, Mark created a program used to teach finance at other universities. He works regularly with non-profits, including Techie Youth and Plant A Million Corals. He is also a regular speaker and university instructor.

Mark lives in New York City.

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