Commentary: “Zero talent skills” are hard, but practice makes them easier

Several years ago I had a short but interesting conversation at my group commander’s change-of-command and retirement ceremony. As with all ceremonies, this one took an entire team of Airmen to plan and execute the events. After the ceremony, one of the colonel’s brothers, whom I’d met earlier and spoken to a few times during the preceding days approached me.

He was a businessman who’d had little interaction with the military during his life. He complimented everyone for the impressive events and then asked me, “Where did you find such high-quality young men and women?”

“Well, those are just the Airmen from our group, it’s what they do,” I replied.

The visitor went on to ask, “No really, where do you find them? I wish I could attract employees with half the talent yours have.”

He went on to talk about how they were polite to everyone, well dressed, neat looking, knew their tasks for the ceremony and executed them well and were just impressive young men and women all the way around.

I replied, “Oh, we teach them those skills early at basic training. We set expectations and they meet them. They’re all like that, not just the few you met.”

The visitor was genuinely surprised at my answer.

I’ve thought about this interaction many times in the years since, and each time it reinforces something for me. All of our Airmen, whether officer, enlisted or civilian, have skills we often take for granted because they are almost second nature but really are unique and sought after by industry.

Recently I’ve seen those same skills pop up on social media under lists like “Business Skills That Take Zero Talent.” These lists suggest skills like go to the meeting prepared, wear appropriate clothes to the event, be respectful, arrive on time, work hard, improve yourself, be a productive team member and do extra – to name a few. Every time I see one of those lists I think, yeah those are good life skills and the Air Force teaches them to each Airman who walks through the door.

I recently saw another social media headline saying those lists are actually a myth and the skills listed really do take talent. It made me reconsider my previous thoughts. Those really are pretty easy things to do; I’m not sure they take much talent, and it seems like anyone could do them if they wanted. Then I realized a few things.

First, not every Airman actually has those skills. Most do, but a few are disciplined or even discharged each year because they can’t do those things requiring “zero talent.” I thought about how leaders, managers and the Air Force in general spends quite a bit of time reminding Airmen of all sorts to use those skills requiring “zero talent.”

As I thought about it more, I understood those skills require hard work and dedication to do every time. The Airmen involved in the group commander’s change of command and retirement ceremonies had a lot of respect for the colonel. They wanted to do a good job for their outgoing commander, and they also wanted to be good hosts for his visiting family.

They also would have done the right thing and held a proper ceremony even for an unpopular commander in order to uphold Air Force traditions. It dawned on me sometimes Airmen aren’t as interested in the task at hand or they are tired or distracted and those “zero talent” skills suffer because of it. I understood I’m also one of those Airmen who doesn’t always display those “zero talent” skills, and I bet you may be, too.

So, I occasionally remind myself I’m expected to prepare for the meeting even if I’m tired and don’t want to. I need to wear the correct clothes to the meeting, have a neat appearance and be respectful to everyone. Even though it takes “zero talent,” those skills can be hard, but practice makes them easier and become second nature. I remind myself to do them regularly because in many ways those “zero talent” skills are in short supply in the business world.

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