Monday Mornings with Madison

The Most Underestimated, Undervalued and Needed Skill in Business – Part 1

Good Writing

What skill is the least venerated, most underrated and yet most essential skill in business today?  Is it the ability to speak clearly and connect with people?  No, although it is a vital skill and most people think the best leaders are those who can deliver a rousing, engaging speech.  Is it excellent resource management?  No, even though managers who can get the most productivity out of their team generally get the best bonuses.   Is it the ability to crunch numbers and data in order to maximize profitability?  No, but the number-crunchers definitely have the most power and control within most organizations.  Is it the ability to persuade and sell?  No, even though salespeople are treated like royalty at most companies.  Actually, the skill that is probably the most valuable for managers, leaders and business people at all levels in all industries is the ability to write well.

As a writer, it may sound a bit boastful to say that good writing is the most underestimated, undervalued, and sorely needed skill in business today.  Personal experience aside, while the ability to write well may seem like a mundane skill (after all it is not taught as its own subject in grade school or at most colleges), it is one of the most crucial skills any exec, manager or leader can bring to the table, regardless of industry or occupation.  From engineers to educators and from real estate brokers to investment bankers, practically anyone in business today needs to be able to write well…. to deliver written information in a crisp, clear and concise manner.  Says who?…. Well, just about everyone.

What Employers Are Saying About Writing

There is a growing consensus that, even though it isn’t a specific subject taught in school such as math or science and it isn’t a cutting-edge skill such as computer programming or coding, writing is the most undervalued-yet-needed skill that cuts across all industries and professions.  In fact, employers as diverse as Andreessen Horowitz (top venture capital firm), T. Rowe Price (investment management house), Amazon (mega online retailer) and Intel (semiconductor manufacturer) all rank effective writing as the most underrated skill that they need their employees to have.  Surprising?

Ben Horowitz, founding partner of Andreessen Horowitz, said “In engineering, written communication is superior to verbal communication because it is more consistent across an entire product team, it is more lasting, and it raises accountability.”  Horowitz added that “Written communication creates lasting consistency across an entire team because a piece of writing is leverage-able collateral from which everyone, from marketing to sales to QA to engineering, can work and consult.”  (Andreessen Horowitz is currently a $4 billion venture capital firm that invests heavily in tech companies and was ranked the number one venture capital firm in the U.S. by Investor Rank in 2011.)   To Horowitz, there is a huge distinction between written and verbal communication.  He sees writing as the key skill that separates the wheat from the chaff in management.  “Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility. And so, good managers write while bad product managers voice their opinions verbally.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also values the ability to write well.  Bezos sees it as a way to clarify ideas and thinking.  In fact, before any major meetings at Amazon, employees are required to sit in silence for a half hour and read a written, detailed memo on the topic at hand.  No discussion can begin until everyone has read the memo.  Bezos’ thought is that “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively-structured memo and not have clear thinking.  Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking.”

However, Bezos thinks writing serves another, more-important purpose than just clarity.  Bezos wants every employee at Amazon thinking about customers in everything they do.  Thus, every six-page memo requires the writer to focus on the company’s obsession with “the customer.”  Every issue, problem, discussion and solution is couched in terms of how it affects “the customer.”  The author of the memo must answer basic questions such as “How does this benefit the customer?” and “How does this enable innovation on behalf of the customer?”   It must also address what’s in it for the company.  By forcing every manager to solidify thoughts into written words, ideas are forced to hit the company’s customer-centric bulls-eye.  Having to put every proposal in writing in those terms ensures that there is not only clarity but focus on what matters most.

Andy Grove, former CEO and Chairman of Intel, also found writing to be a valuable business skill during his tenure.  Grove most valued the writing process itself.  He saw the greatest benefit in the self-disciplinary aspect of writing.  According to Grove, “The main point is to force yourself to be more precise than you might be verbally, creating an archive of data that can help validate ad hoc inputs and reflect with precision on your thought and approach.”  Fond of saying “The devil is in the details,” Grove saw writing as a way to vet one’s thinking in detail and catch anything that might have been missed or overlooked in the thought process.  He saw writing as benefiting the writer and forcing the writer to be clear and precise.  (Under Grove’s leadership, Intel became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of microprocessors, the 7th largest company in the world valued at $197 billion and employing 65,000 workers.)

Gary Cosnett, head of global equity communications at T. Rowe Price, also values writing as a key business skill.  With offices in multiple time zones and time-sensitive investment decisions involved, the leadership at T. Rowe Price knows clear communication is critical.  At T. Rowe Price, newly-hired analysts and portfolio managers are taught (on the job) to organize their writing and make it clear and persuasive. It is so important that managers actually spend time teaching their employees the skill of clear writing.  T. Rowe Price hires graduates from the most selective business schools, along with some lateral hires from other firms.  Even for such an elite group, writing is often a challenge so they actually screen for writing ability.

In fact, part of Cosnett’s job is to read writing samples from prospective hires, often second year MBA candidates. According to Cosnett, “We ask for writing samples even prior to the interview process.  These are people who did the very best at the best schools, probably since preschool, but they really have not developed their writing skills to the degree that they need to succeed in this organization.”  Cosnett said that after doing his job for such a long time, he has developed a sixth sense about which candidates’ writing can be fixed and which candidates’ writing is so weak as to make them unworthy of being hired.

Kyle Wiens, founder and CEO of iFixit.com, the world’s largest online producer of repair manuals, and Dozuki, which helps companies write their own technical documents like work instructions and step-by-step user manuals, is also a huge advocate of good writing.  In fact, he went so far as to write a post, published in Harvard Business Review’s blog, titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.”  In this compelling (and very well-written) post, Wiens states point blank that those who cannot write well cannot work for his companies.

As Wiens put it, “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”  As he puts it, he’s a stickler for grammar and hires, in part, on a person’s ability to know when to use its or it’s and when to use to, too, or two.  But he’s not just a grammar geek.  Wiens sees writing in a bigger context.

According to Wiens, “I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.  In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code. You see, at its core, code is prose…. Programming should be easily understood by real human beings — not just computers.  And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil’s in the details…. I hire people who care about those details. Applicants who don’t think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren’t important. And I guarantee that even if other companies aren’t issuing grammar tests, they pay attention to sloppy mistakes on resumes.  After all, sloppy is as sloppy does.”

On this issue, Wiens is right.  In a  recent study of 100 LinkedIn profiles, professionals who made no grammatical errors on their LI profile were promoted six to nine times within a 10-year period.  On the other hand, professionals who made a significant number of grammatical errors on their profiles received only one to four promotions within the same 10-year period.  So even in this digital age of abbreviated texts and character-limited tweets, each person’s ability to write well matters.

It is not just these very successful leaders that value good writing.  Most major employers not only agree that writing is one of the most important skills but also that it is the skill which the majority of employees need to improve.  In fact, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates conducted a survey of 318 major companies to identify the skill employers think employees most need to improve.  Of those, 80% said colleges should focus more on teaching written and oral communication skills.   Apparently, the writing deficiency seems to start even earlier than college.  The Department of Education’s report titled “Nation’s Report Card:  Writing 2011” indicated that just 24% of eighth and 12th graders were proficient in writing.

Next week, we’ll look at what businesses can do to help improve written communication within the workplace.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.” Mark Twain


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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