Why competence will always beat charisma at work

Incompetent? It’ll trip you up at some point

In an age when soft skills are all that matter, Elena Shalneva still prefers ability and rigour.

A headhunter calls about a job. It’s in Amsterdam, starts next month, requires fluent Dutch and pays about half of what I used to earn when I last worked in an office. The job is fairly basic, but has the potential, with time and commitment, “to become my own”.
The fact is, I’m not looking for a job. I do not speak Dutch and don’t want to leave London. If I ever decided to go back to the office, I would quite like for the job to be “my own” straight away, as I have worked in the industry for almost 20 years. Why – in between plucking my CV from an old database and dialling my number – did the headhunter not bother checking this? After all, on its website, his firm claims it uses “highly rigorous search techniques” and possesses a “world-class capability for sourcing talent.”
An acquaintance, a chief executive of a design agency which had just won a contract with a renowned online fashion retailer, was telling me about his new client. He spoke with aplomb, trying to show off how intimately he knew the company, until I realised that he was confusing his client with another major online retailer – but one in the groceries business. How did he get the contract and will he ever be found out?
The other day I checked the careers website of my old business school. I found some excellent research on the modern-day job market. Most of what I read, however, were gems such as “during your job search, keep motivated by deciding what rewards you can promise yourself for completing your scheduled tasks.” Presumably, the authors meant that you could have a piece of chocolate after sending, say, 10 emails to potential recruiters. This is the kind of language you expect to see in second-tier women’s magazines, but which top MBA students would never take seriously.
A lot is said about the importance of soft skills, emotional intelligence and charm. But in my view, it is technical competence that gets the job done. The headhunter urging me to relocate to Amsterdam was perfectly charming, but his telephone pitch left me wondering if his firm would survive another six months. And it’s quite possible that the writers of my business school’s careers website have a high emotional intelligence, but the site that they produced is nonetheless inadequate.
I once worked with a young graduate. He did not have many friends in the office: instead, he sat quietly at his desk and produced work of outstanding quality. Another colleague was charming and gregarious, but two clients sacked him for incompetence in as many months because he used to get his ideas from Google. If both a winning personality and skills are combined in the same person, he or she will go very far. One such example is a good friend of mine, a partner in a magic circle law firm, who spends most of his spare time reading and writing about the law. After a 20-year career, he still wants to be a better lawyer. He is both at the height of his profession and one of the most popular people I know, including at his firm. But if I had to choose between an introvert who does excellent work and a charmer with little ability, I would choose good work every time.
Years ago, I applied for a job at a revered fund management firm. I managed to get through the interviews, presumably on charm, and was hired, only to be sacked six months later for lack of competence: my facts did not match and numbers did not add up. I have since been convinced that, while soft skills may get you through the door, knowledge and rigour make you good at your job.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.

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