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Written by Debbie BrideDebbie Bride

What are conceptual skills and why are they important?

14 min read
What are conceptual skills and why are they important?
Artwork by:Pablo Cammello
Even if hiring managers don’t ask about your conceptual skills, at least in so many words, being prepared with examples is advisable. Being shortlisted for that interview could hinge on how well your conceptual skills come across in your CV and cover letter.

Can’t see the forest for the trees? Or is the whole forest all you can see? Organisations can thrive with both detail-focused workers and those who fixate on the big picture overall. Ideally, to excel in management roles, conceptual skills keep you mindful of the forest and the trees.

Metaphors come with the territory of conceptual skills because of their very nature — abstract thinking as opposed to tangible results of doing something. Delineating the difference between soft skills and technical skills, those in the conceptual realm are the reason why humans in the workplace are unlikely to be replaced altogether by automation or AI technology any time soon. Let’s take a closer look in this blog:

  • What are conceptual skills?
  • The origin story — how today’s emphasis on conceptual skills came about
  • Examples of conceptual skills that employers value
  • Why are conceptual skills important?
  • How to improve your conceptual skills
  • Conveying your conceptual skills in a job application.

What are conceptual skills?

Falling back on another familiar metaphor, conceptual skills take a “big picture” perspective of organisations and what makes them tick. Someone with conceptual skills has a complete grasp of how distinct operational elements — individual employees, teams, departments and processes — relate to one another and function to achieve a company’s overall goals.  

When you stop and think about it, our everyday language is rife with idioms related to conceptual thinking. Being a concept in itself —  involving abstract ideas — conceptual thinking may be easier to understand than to explain in so many words. Here are just a few examples:

  • Put your thinking cap on
  • Head in the clouds
  • Bird’s eye view
  • Blue-sky thinking
  • Pie in the sky idea
  • Toy with the idea
  • Light bulb moment
  • Train of thought

From a strategic or problem-solving standpoint, conceptual skills are associated with complexity and creativity. They enable people to overcome obstacles and solve multi-faceted problems, often through novel, innovative approaches. Their usefulness in problem-solving often results in practical solutions that improve operational efficiency.

Generally speaking, the higher the management level of a position, the more essential it is for job applicants to demonstrate conceptual skills to hiring managers. From customer retention in the face of market competition to revamped employee benefits, conceptually skilled managers are better equipped to deal with virtually any kind of challenge or project. 

However, conceptual skills can be valuable to employees in virtually any role, as we’ll see later on.

Understanding why…

Employees with conceptual skills can understand why something is being done, or needs to be done, not just how to do it. They can make associations between their own work and how others contribute to the goals of an organisation as a whole.

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How did the concept of conceptual skills originate?

Conceptual skills are labelled as such in a triad of leadership skills deemed essential by social and organisational psychologist Robert Katz. His 1974 paper on this subject, published in the Harvard Business Review, centred around these skill types:

  • Conceptual skills — pertaining to abstract concepts and ideas
  • Human skills — interpersonal skills involving communication and collaboration
  • Technical skills — task-oriented requirements to get the job done (hard skills)

Nearly 50 years after setting the stage for further research and developments in the field of skills-based leadership, Katz’s ideas are still relevant today.

Examples of interrelated conceptual skills

“Conceptual skills” is actually an umbrella category of interrelated abilities that recruiters filling management positions are keenly interested in. “Interrelated” is the operative word here, because none of these skills on its own necessarily constitutes a conceptual skill. So think of them in combination as a conceptual skills package. 

Here are some common examples:

  • Analytical
  • Critical thinking
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Creative thinking
  • Communication
  • Interpersonal
  • Strategic planning
  • Leadership
  • Management

On a somewhat deeper and narrower level, other types of conceptual skills include:

  • Abstract thinking
  • Cognitive
  • Logical thinking
  • Contextualising
  • Action planning
  • Innovation
  • Motivational
  • Organisational
  • Presenting
  • Data mining

Why are conceptual skills important? 

Employees who aspire to a middle-management position or more senior role should periodically take stock of their ability to ponder abstract concepts, visualise ideas, create models, predict trends and solve problems — always with a view to improvement. When desirable job opportunities arise, these skill sets will be of vital importance to hiring managers.

Conceptual skills enable managers and leaders to:

  • Avoid tunnel vision, while being receptive to the ideas and opinions of others.
  • Be thoroughly familiar with the functions and relations between different employee groups, and optimise their interactions.
  • Encourage and motivate others by providing specific feedback about the value of their contributions and how the employer benefits.
  • Anticipate macro-level changes and opportunities affecting an organisation as a whole, while determining how best to mitigate the impact on units and individuals at the micro-level.
  • Hold fast to a company’s overall mission and vision, while taking into account the sometimes disparate interests and goals of separate divisions, departments and teams within.
  • Proactively create and implement step-by-step action plans aimed at improved performance of the business and everyone involved in its operations.
  • Make day-to-day decisions relating to task or project delegation, resource management, team building, communication, and more.

Meanwhile, conceptual skills can be advantageous to employees at all operational levels, even if it’s not a job requirement. Understanding how the work you do fits into the bigger scheme of things is good for morale and promotes a more creative mindset. You’re better equipped than your peers who work in a vacuum to brainstorm solutions when needed. 

Room for improvement

For many, the ability to think conceptually may be innate, or developed over time in situations where it has proved useful. That’s not to say everyone else is incapable of learning and practising conceptual skills that could serve them well in any job role. Here are some suggestions:

  • Simply pay attention to the way others in your midst deal with challenges or approach assignments. Don’t shy away from asking questions and asking for clarification on details you need.
  • Seize and take charge of any opportunity to lead a team or project, even if it’s outside the workplace. Model the behaviours you’d like others to display.
  • In the same vein, look for problems that need solving and come up with ways to handle them that may not be obvious. If no such scenarios arise in your job role, then look for an everyday-life problem that could use a solution.
  • If you have a tendency to plunge right in when a new task or project is thrown your way, try holding back and pause momentarily to think through your best approach. Grab a notepad and scribble out a mind map of different possibilities. The “right one” will likely seem clearer for an apparent reason.
  • Always evaluate the outcome of your conceptualised action plans by reflecting on what went well.

How job applicants can demonstrate conceptual skills 

An advisable starting point for job seekers wanting to impress recruiters with their conceptual skills is to create a master list of all the ones you can think of. Brainstorm the beginnings of this list, then keep it handy to update whenever a new conceptual skill comes to mind.

Naturally, you’ll only have a chance to showcase some of your conceptual skills when each job prospect arises. Space limitations in your CV and cover letter will require you to be selective. Let relevance be your guide, as it always should be, when custom-tailoring your approach to each specific job application and employer. The same goes for time-limited opportunities to talk about your conceptual skills during an interview. 

Expert tip

Conceptual skills questions “in disguise”

Interview candidates should always anticipate being asked at least one question about conceptual skills, even if that’s not obvious from the wording. Be prepared for something along these lines:

“Tell us about a challenging situation you have faced, and how you determined the best course of action to deal with it.”

or

“Can you describe an ability that has served you well in a difficult situation — perhaps involving a conflict in the workplace?”

Conceptual skills also lend themselves to your carefully prepared answer when asked, What are your greatest strengths?”

In your job application documents, it’s imperative that you show — don’t merely tell — how your conceptual attributes have made you a rising star by providing success story examples. Powerful action verbs are your friend in this regard.

By no means is your CV skills section the only place to highlight your grasp of conceptual thinking, in static list format. This can’t be overstated, for the same reason your CV should talk about outcome-focused achievements, rather than generic job duties.

Find ways to weave accomplished results into your cover letter, as well as the summary and employment history sections of your CV.

Examples:

  • Cover letter statement

By attaining a 27% reduction in time spent on administrative tasks, I improved team efficiency and made more time available for building relationships with client families. 

  • CV summary statement

Collaborated with senior leadership across all departments, in two mid-sized organisations, to design and implement progressive HR strategies.

  • CV employment history statement

Conceived and oversaw a major IT system change throughout the company, within a 12-month deadline.

Expert tip

Through overuse, conceptual skill descriptors such as “outside the box,” “innovative” and “visionary” have become meaningless clichés that will not impress recruiters.

Even if you come up with more original skill-descriptive language, dynamic examples of those skills in action are much more likely to wow hiring managers. In that case, you might have the chance to elaborate or give additional examples during a job interview!

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Key Takeaways

  1. Conceptual skills enable you to think in abstract terms and take a high-level perspective that promotes problem solving.
  2. Conceptual skills encompass a vast number of soft skills that aren’t necessarily conceptual on their own, but take on that aspect in combination.
  3. All employees can benefit from conceptual skills, but they are considered vital for leaders and managers, increasingly so at higher levels.
  4. Giving examples of relevant conceptual skills in action, in your CV, cover letter and interview responses, is the most effective way to impress hiring managers.
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