What skills are most important for success?

April 1, 2007
Do you think people are successful in their career because of their people skills, professional skills, or luck? What soft skills do you think are important?
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Do you think people are successful in their career because of their people skills, professional skills, or luck? What soft skills do you think are important?

Professional and people skills are both important. We must have professional skills because we have to be really good at what we do to cope in a competitive world. We need people skills because we need people to help us do the work. We need people to be able to exchange ideas and to clarify our thinking, for emotional support, and for shared learning to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. Not only is this true for engineers, but it is also why successful lawyers and doctors don’t usually practice alone.

In addition to people skills, business knowledge can be tremendously beneficial. In engineering, more companies are practicing concurrent engineering, in which people from R&D, business development, and marketing work as a team to develop new products. In this type of environment, an engineer who knows something about marketing and business can function more effectively and gain recognition faster. The same is true with doctors and lawyers; those who view their practices as businesses typically do better than those who don’t.

An important point is that technical excellence and soft skills are not mutually exclusive. Our mental capacity is far grater than just being able to develop one interest. In discussions with many technical leaders in the laser industry, I find that most of them are savvy and have great people philosophy, management skills, and business instincts. It is clearly possible to acquire soft skills without diminishing one’s ability to become a great technologist.

Luck could be a factor in success, but I believe successful people create their own luck. They constantly strive to put themselves in a position to encounter opportunities. They also learn to acquire the skills needed to pursue whatever they choose to do.

People say “no risk, no gain.” How can I overcome the fear of loss of income to start a business?

People are afraid to take on risk because of fear of what may befall them. Risks usually loom larger than reality when one does not understand how terrible the consequences might be. If you can quantify the risk and you find you are prepared to handle the consequence of the worst-case scenario, then you can realistically move forward without fear.

The risks are primarily whether the business can succeed and whether you have enough money to live on until you get funded. So you want to do a really good job in building the business case, and feel out a few potential investors with your business plan to see whether you are likely to get funded and how long it will take to complete the transaction. If you believe you can get funded in six months, and you have saved a year of living expenses, then the decision to quit your current job is easy because you are covered.

How did you decide on a career path and what would you have done differently along the way?

When I started, I had no role model and, as a lone foreign student, I didn’t know what the possibilities were. Fortunately I worked part-time as a technician for graduate students doing microwave and laser research, and came to believe that getting a Ph.D. was the thing to do. After earning my Ph.D. I landed a good corporate research job and within two years joined Newport, then a start-up company. I worked there for 18 years, learning the businessand you know the rest of the story. Fortunately, I had a lot of mentors along the way. In hindsight I wish I had worked for a mature, well-managed company to start with, or had the wisdom or luxury to get an MBAwhat I’ve learned from the “school of hard knocks” could have come in a neat package, cutting off maybe ten years of learning and allowing me to go further.

About the Author

Milton Chang

MILTON CHANG of Incubic Management was president of Newport and New Focus. He is currently director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion; a trustee of Caltech; a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies; and serves on advisory boards and mentors entrepreneurs. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. Direct your business, management, and career questions to him at [email protected], and check out his book Toward Entrepreneurship at www.miltonchang.com.

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