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Have conversations about career skills, not job role

Career skills

There was an article on Harvard Business Review yesterday called “How To Support Employees’ Learning Goals While Also Getting Stuff Done Day-To-Day.” I was immediately drawn to it because that title is the central problem of business right now. We have all these great ideas and intentions, but they die in the flood because day-to-day responsibilities overwhelm them. In other words: daily deliverables murdered strategy.

There’s an interesting part of this article about career skills. I need to set it up first, though.

To understand: it’s a very different world these days in terms of career skills and career training. First off, tech is eating the world — quite literally in the Amazon-Whole Foods deal. Second off, your boss should be helping you develop career goals, but probably isn’t because of loyalty issues and/or his/her pursuit of self-advancement. It’s all very “VUCA” out there.

Now, to all this uncertainty, I need you to add this wrinkle. Many job and career discussions happen at the job role level. “Tony is doing well, but he’s not ready to be a senior developer level 2 just yet…” We love ourselves some titles and job roles. This makes sense at an organizational level for our brains, but job role is a total farce at most companies. How many times have you started a job and realized within three days that 2-3 other people do the exact same thing with one small difference? That’s happened to me in 4-5 jobs. No joke.

This happens because we often hire in rushed ways to make sure we “fill the seat.” Understandable, but not helping anyone — and definitely not helping to develop career skills.

OK, now we can get back to that.

Career skills vs. job role

From that article linked above:

If an employee wants to explore a new role in the company, don’t even consider whether you think they would be “a good fit.” Instead, break down the skills necessary to do the role. For example, tell the employee: “You would need to develop expertise with Tableau,” or Excel, or giving presentations. As employees embark on learning paths, offer them honest feedback and suggestions on to how to improve.

By having these conversations at the skill level rather than the role level, you’ll alter the complexion of the work environment. People will feel freer to tell you that they’d like to learn new skills. And you’ll be able to offer positive, encouraging steps forward.

Ding ding ding.

Problem with job role discussions and “good fit” ideas: they inherently will get political.

A focus on career skills: “OK, does this person have the skill set to do this new role?”

Seems less subjective, no?

The elephant in this room

We have legitimate research on managerial skills and leadership skills, but … we don’t take those into account when we advance people into those roles. My man Jason E. at Lighthouse says it best: becoming a manager is more than just a promotion. It’s an entirely new job/role. That requires a focus on training once it occurs, but the decision to make someone a boss needs to be more about the career skills they have already (maybe even soft skills!) and less about the specific job role.

To me, this whole focus on job role is an extension of our general over-focus on process. It’s almost as if companies feel like this:

  • “We have this job description, even though it hasn’t been updated across the last four people who have held it.”
  • “That, clearly, is the defined job role.”
  • “We will make decisions based off that job role, regardless of the skill set or development of internal and external candidates.”

It’s almost as if having the job role/description — even if it’s entirely meaningless — is enough to make everyone involved feel better/ignore the career skills side. This is especially true in advancing people to management. Remember: job role discussions get political, and most managerial promotions are political. What happens when politics defeats logic? Turnover soars.

“The skills gap”

A general lack of understanding of career skills relative to role allows middle managers to bellow about “the skills gap” being why their teams aren’t producing. News flash: their teams aren’t producing because they aren’t good managers.

Oh, and just in general about careers… 

Even though automation might be coming for us all, we need to get better about framing up people’s careers. Easy example: performance reviews are absolutely meaningless. Almost no one would disagree with that. Why not turn them into “career conversations?” Semantic thought leader bullshit? Maybe. But if executed right, much better than a box-checking performance review.

Same: networking. The way we teach networking throughout a career is totally flawed. Let’s simplify it and not over-think it.

A career is really important in the first world. It sets your economic level, it shapes your self-worth, it introduces you to friends (and lovers!), etc. But I feel sometimes like in the digital age, we’ve thrown so much less-than-vetted advice at people that no one knows what exactly the fuck to do anymore. We’ve moved towards job role (political box-checking based on a description written hastily 7 years ago) and away from actually thinking about career skills. Doesn’t seem good. Let’s level set.

Any other thoughts on career skills in the broader ecosystem of developing yourself and advancing?

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. If jobs were actually about putting people with hard skills into roles that matched their abilities and less about this vague “fit” bullshit (you nailed it: it’s totally about politics and, I’d add, the personal preferences of the person doing the hiring), I’d actually be doing something that made sense given my background and interests.

    While I’ve managed to carve something of a unique niche for myself in my current organization, it makes very little sense that a guy with an academic and professional background in writing and audio production should be working as an accountant (I took one math course in college, and it was only because I was required to).

    I think back on my first year out of college and a couple of hiring managers telling me I “didn’t have enough experience” to be an editorial ASSISTANT or a radio production ASSISTANT (things I had, you know, about 4 years of academic experience in and managed to make a little money off of) without actually taking the time to tell me why an extra year or two doing those things would have mattered (which is partly why I think # of years on a job is a bullshit metric and useless in job postings); meanwhile, I’ve been offered jobs over the years in technology recruiting, construction, and accounting without really having any experience in any of them.

    Part of level setting in this domain, I think, is going to involve reminding people that their ideas are full of shit (great that you mentioned that so much “thought leadership” here is so non-vetted, but taken to heart by too many), that it’s OK to be somewhat full of shit (everyone is to a degree), and that as long as you’re aware that you have a full-of-shit-streak we’ll all get where we want to go, eventually.

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