Dear Dave: Like many managers, I lost my job at a company I had been with for about five years. I was hurt, but I bounced back and found a different type of management job at a different company. The pay is lower, and the hours are not the best. But I am happy to have found something. My goal is to make myself as valuable as possible at my new company, so I am not the first manager to be let go if things don’t go as planned. What suggestions do you have for me to do this? – N

Dear N:

Wherever we work, we are being judged by how much value we are providing to the company. I think we are also judged by how much value we can – in the future – deliver to the company in terms of skills and abilities, productivity, leadership and culture enhancement. In short, we are appraised for our current and future value to the organization.

I gather you know this and are trying to ready yourself to be in a good position if things head south again. Colleges have often found that they attract the most students when the economy is in poor shape. Even though going back to school costs money that people may not have in their pillow – or is it under their mattress? – displaced workers want to build up their skills and credibility, so they can land a [good] job in as short amount of time as possible.

Versatility is a core leadership characteristic. This means you should learn more and be able to do more than other employees or job candidates. I believe every employer wants employees who can perform excellent work in their defined roles, but they also want workers who can step into tougher roles, because they have the “right stuff.” This “right stuff” is often having the capacity to read and respond to the environment – both internal and external – and face needed change with a wide array of skills and abilities.

For example, accountants and finance workers are valuable to companies. Money management is a core need at any company. However, companies need “money people” who can communicate, solve problems, perform careful analyses, and lead and motivate other workers. For example, undergraduate business degrees and MBAs are highly respected, because the people who possess these degrees have learned quite a bit about things like people management, project management, change strategies, planning, and marketing. Simply, these graduates can do more than one thing and they can think in different ways – especially when innovation is required.

Learning more tricks

So how can you actually build up your abilities and realize how to position yourself for ongoing success? Like anything, get the facts first. Start by getting feedback from past managers, respected employees, and trusted colleagues. Find out – and this may be humbling – what you did well and what you could have done better. There are also assessments you can take that identify your strengths and weaknesses. What you are trying to uncover is what skills you have, how you used them, and what you still need to learn and be able to do. This is a “gap analysis” – the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Set up a meeting with a colleague who can provide you the brutal truth. Be open-minded and don’t be defensive. If you deny yourself the truth, you will never learn anything, nor will you know how to increase your versatility and effectiveness. Way too often, people ask others for feedback about how they are performing and they hear what they don’t want to hear. Then, they think, “Well, what the heck does that SOB know anyway?” So much for your gap analysis!

Employment market challenges have grown significantly, and hiring managers realize they can be picky about who they hire. In short, there are many job hunters and far fewer jobs. The smartest employees increase and improve their “task skills” (job requirement skills) and their “people skills” (relationship-building skills). Gone are the days when managers only had to push people to gain results. We now need – and maybe always did need – what I call, “Leader-Managers.” Not only do these folks know how to get work done, but they know how to get people to want to do it. What a fantastic ability pairing!

There is an increasing need for these versatile Leader-Managers – those that have the ability to deal with a variety of changes that they confront, and the ability to motivate workers to confront these challenges with skill and courage. Versatile Leader-Managers have more engaged employees and higher performing teams. And they are respected more by their staff, because they can “walk the talk.”

In conclusion, it is not an overstatement to say that versatility is the most important component of leading effectively today. My advice is to find what you need to know and go learn it. Those that have many [arrows in their quiver] will be more hirable, more promotable, more productive and more successful.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.