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Are Skills Enough?

Authored by: Managing Partner Roger Pearman

There is no doubt that various sets of skills are essential to every position in an enterprise.  Every task requires numerous skills to be successfully completed.  When organizations go looking for talent, they eagerly seek to find those with the skills needed to perform a given job.  And if skills were enough, the rate of attrition and dismissal across all organizations would be quite low.

Skills are not enough.

I recently surveyed 35 CHROs and Talent Acquisition directors with the simple question: “Of the executives, managers, and individual contributors let go in your organization over the last three years, identify the skill deficits that were the problem.  And, if skill deficits were not the problem, what generated such a mismatch that the individual had to be dismissed?” 

The results:

  • None of the employees who were asked to leave had a skill problem
  • 27% had a self-management problem (impatient, inconsistent motivation, arrogance)
  • 39% had relationship problems (failure to tolerate differences, destructive conflict responses, non-team oriented)
  • 16% were not good citizens of the enterprise (violate business ethics, failure to follow internal rules, misapply resources)
  • 18% either could not learn new responsibilities or failed to adjust to change

So, what is going on?  

We want all contributors in an enterprise to continue to learn an array of skills to add to their skill portfolio. This kind of horizontal development—widening capabilities to do more things and provide more services—is essential for individuals to be able to adjust to new tasks.  And as important as these are, there are various roles and practices which are more complex, involve shifts in mindsets and perspectives, and require more complex thinking.  This is vertical development.  

We need both horizontal and vertical capabilities for individuals and organizations to be successful and sustainable.

The World Economic Forum and Elements for Success

Recently, the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggested that there is a collection of abilities and skills (cognitive, social, and physical), attitudes and values (self-regulatory, societal), and knowledge and information (expertise/disciplinary) essential to every position.  In their list of twenty-two “elements” the discipline-specific skills were just one aspect of what the WEF believes are essential for work in the future. There is no doubt that some skills are needed for problem solving, negotiating, and collaborating, but to be successful at these, an individual needs empathy, growth mindset, initiative, critical thinking, and other elements beyond skills.

To differentiate these elements:

  • Skill is generally defined as the ability to use one’s knowledge readily and effectively in execution of performance. Skills are the practical tools that an individual uses to accomplish tasks.  
  • A mindset is a mental attitude or inclination.  
  • An aptitude is usually thought of as a talent or capacity to learn or do complex things.
  • An attribute is a quality, character or characteristic ascribed to someone or something (e.g. honesty, integrity, impulsiveness, stubbornness).   

We need specific sets of the positive aspects of all of these to be successful at work. 

Why does this matter?

First, if everything is driven by skills, everyone will be short-changed. Currently there is a huge vested interest in getting everyone aligned on skills to include skills matched to specific jobs, at the exclusion of other elements. This is driven by the ease of digital integration of datasets and dashboard AI-related career decision tracking.  Adding more skills is like adding more apps to your phone or your computer—they give you practical ways to do things.  If allowed to go unchecked, the focus on skill development at the expense of other key aspects of developmental growth will deliver a heavy price for sustainability.

Second, with decades of research and a cascade of practice-based evidence behind us, we know that there are key roles and behavioral practices that are essential for individuals to have and develop so they can effectively manage and lead groups of people in an enterprise.  There is unambiguous evidence that managing uncertainty and ambiguity in organization life is a highly prized attribute. Communication requires more than an ability to write or speak; the message must be framed for the audience, the best channel selected, and persuasive language must be well articulated to motivate and inspire. The list of the requirements for effectiveness and success in any enterprise includes 30 such elements for individual contributors, managers, or executives. And, as we know, the requirements are different for each group or level.

The interdependent nature of knowledge, skills, and attributes (KSAs) reveals that those organizations with a competitive advantage understand that the whole person shows up for work, and that what gets reinforced molds the culture. To ignore this reality is to ensure limitations to careers and organizational sustainability.

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