Overcome your inhibitions to get ahead in the rat race

You’re hard working and highly skilled. What else do you need? Confidence, says Steve Irish

To get ahead at work, or to land a dream job somewhere else, there will be a list of skills you need. At this stage, you have a pretty good idea whether you have most of them. If you don’t have a head for figures, angling for a move into investment banking probably isn’t for you. Other skills you can still learn: someone with a decent competency for languages can pick up a modern European language in around six to 10 months, which could be the crucial factor in getting a promotion if your firm deals with international clients. But what if you have the skills and the main problem is… well… you?

Personality – and your ability to show the best sides of it on demand – is crucial to getting ahead at work. Richard Branson recently said one of his most important considerations when hiring is whether the candidate suits the working culture. But many of us with the relevant skills for work struggle to compete against more domineering – often less qualified – candidates. There is hope yet, though. While changing your personality may take many years of therapy and introspection, learning to show the best sides of it is a little more achievable in the short term. Here are some quick-fix tips to employment-based self-improvement.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a staggering 74 per cent of Americans suffer from some degree of glossophobia – the fear of public speaking. If your palms start to sweat at the very thought of presenting in front of a room full of your peers, it might be time to do something about it. There are a number of respected companies that offer training, from beginner level to advanced coaching techniques for specific presentations. City Academy offers a range of options, covering basic techniques to control your breathing, pointers on good body language and planning strategies to make your life easier on the day.

Price for a full day course: £275; city-academy.com

Whether you want to get ahead at your current work or spread the word about how good you are to other firms in the field, you’re going to need some networking skills. To some people, this comes naturally. For others it can seem like a constant uphill struggle that requires Herculean levels of energy and concentration. There are ways to make it easier, though. Don’t just turn up to an event where you will be expected to network without planning some conversational gambits. Work out what you are trying to sell (yourself, your ideas, a certain point of view) and what others are likely be willing to buy. Try not to think of it as work – if you know your brief, it’s just a conversation with someone you don’t know. And most importantly, work out who you need to speak to; there’s no point making a network of contacts who will never do you any good.

Getting an interview is useless if you break down into a gibbering idiot as soon as the interviewer asks what your name is. The key is to work out what you’re going to be asked before you get there. Unless you’re applying for a job at Google, you’re unlikely to be quizzed on how you would fit a giraffe into a pencil case, but if you’re going for a job in finance, you are likely to be asked some technical questions. If you have a hope of getting the job, you should have learned the answers as a student – but you will still need to swat up on them. If you want to work in derivatives, remind yourself of the difference between an option’s delta and its gamma. And, of course, get the basics right – you should have prepared an answer to questions like “where do you see yourself in five year’s time?”, “why should we hire you” and “tell us about yourself.”

This sounds obvious, but unless you are phenomenally good at your job, if you never speak to the boss and your colleagues don’t invite you to play squash, you will be passed over for promotions. You don’t have to act like a clown but the ability to get on with people around you is a vital skill, and one you can work on. Join in work activities – if there is a cycling club, sign up. If the boss has an interest in ornithology, casually drop into conversation that you saw a black-bellied dipper in your bird feeder over the weekend. It’s not weird to prepare snippets of conversation if you know you will be alone with someone important – it is weird to clam up. Having a hobby you can talk about is far better than telling people how you got drunk at the weekend, unless you’re an oenologist, in which case it’s probably OK.