Redesigning your career path in a Skills-Driven world 

Shot of two young coworkers using a computer together at work    
Shot of two young coworkers using a computer together at work    

People everywhere are focusing on skills. Governments have entire agencies dedicated to them – and if they don’t then there is some suggestion that they should. 

Businesses are trying to make skills the “new currency of work” (you might also remember that Napoleon Dynamite felt they were critical for relationship success). As a result, many HR teams are looking to help their organization transform with more skills-based talent practices.

The reasons for this have been well explained by others, but I would break it down into four primary drivers:

  • First and foremost, innovation and technology makes work more skills centric. The pace of innovation means that our traditional view of a career, where learning happens at the start of life and work happens for the rest of it, is becoming increasingly unsustainable.
  • Next, the shelf life of any particular type of work is reducing. This is because we are getting better at building technologies that transform work to make it more productive and/or customer centric. Work is becoming less focused on repeatable transactions and more focused on solving problems and building relationships.
  • Third, taking a skills-based view of work and capabilities allows leaders to find new ways to assign work to people who are best suited for it without being constrained by traditional organizational boundaries.
  •  Last, people are starting to look for a different deal at work – where their unique combination of capabilities can be used productively. People like getting better at what they do, but also want to maximise earning potential.

A big part of this transition means that individuals will reframe how they see a career: from a chain of jobs into a fluid mix of work that leverages their skills in the most productive way. As my colleague Ravin has suggested, the future is increasingly work without jobs which means that the “deal” people sign up for at work will also change.

So how does a person start to adapt to this new way of working? Here are some ideas:

  1. Get clear on your raw material

    Who are you? What motivates and interests you? Many people make terrible career choices because they overlook the importance of enjoying the actual work and overweigh potential prestige and accoutrements of the title and position. They also get distracted looking for a passion rather than trying to understand what they have the potential to be great at.

    To make better decisions, you need data about your personality, values and motivators. Look for well-validated tools to do this or design a short survey to ask 5-10 people who know you well to share 3-6 adjectives that describe you best. Sometimes the best way to discover yourself is to understand how others see you.

  2. Do a personal skills audit

    Many people have no idea what skills they actually have or how to benchmark them. Part of the problem is that they have no taxonomy or language to describe and signal their skills. To solve this, some organizations are starting to offer tools that help you with skills discovery e.g. using AI to understand your learning and job history to predict your skill and proficiency levels. For deep technical skills, you might want to use an assessment to get an accurate gauge of your capabilities. You may have access to technologies that can help you with this – like a talent marketplace or learning technology. If you don’t, you can either see what LinkedIn has to offer or decide for yourself using an existing skills framework or taxonomy that you can find online.

    The key outcome here is to have a clear list of 20-30 skills and proficiencies, so you can start to see yourself as a bundle of capabilities that can flex and bend to multiple different types of work – and not just one job. 

  3. Decide on a strategy – how will you be unique?
    A good strategy is a plan for competing in a crowded marketplace. Identify ways to bring skills together that will help you be unique and compete. While hybrid work has become all about where we work, a better way to think about it is the hybridisation of the type of work that people do. It is combining different domains of work to create new outcomes. This could mean being an HR leader who can code, or an engineering leader who can design brand strategy – combining skillsets to see problems from an entirely different lens. This approach also helps to create an idiosyncratic value proposition for every person – allowing them to stand out, feel unique, and feel seen and valued.
  4. Invest in your skills to build skills

    No matter what you do, it will be difficult to know exactly what to learn. Focusing on critical core skills like influence, sense making and transdisciplinary thinking build the foundations for staying relevant. In our work we sometimes call these the “skills to build skills” because they are capabilities that help people work with others, think creatively and maintain focus on personal growth. They are also relatively difficult to build because they take a lot of practice to get right across many different situations.

    So how can you start to develop these critical core skills? The answer is relatively simple – pay more attention to them. Find people who demonstrate these skills, watch what they do and ask them questions about how they think. The best way to learn core skills is from effective role models.

  5. Figure out your (in)side hustle
    One of the best ways to acquire new skills and learn about new directions is to participate in projects that expose you to novel ideas, people and problems. This means finding ways to take on projects that stretch you outside of your day-to-day assignments, like internal gigs. A concept that is useful is to review a list of all your personal projects and to make judgements about which ones to really invest in, being aware of the conflicts that can sometimes happen between them. Time is the most obvious way that your projects can compete with each other, but less obvious ways include emotional energy (how difficult and draining the project is) or the support and resources needed (who or what do you rely on to succeed?). It is worth keeping in mind that skills building is often effortful and so requires some investment, which will therefore mean you will need to be careful how much you take on.
  6. Assign some value to your culture and organization specific skills 
    Every organization has a certain way of doing things that is unique. Don’t hesitate to build out capabilities that help you accelerate within your organisation while being differentiated. The process of figuring out what is unique about an organization as a community, how it operates and how to get the best from it is a skill in and of itself. Focus on learning ways to identify what makes the particular environment you are in different and what the equation is for being successful within it. But don’t let it blind you, as you will need to apply the same learning and skills to figure out how to be effective if you move to a new organization. The point is that seeing and adapting to context is a skill that needs to be nurtured and built.

If you want to be free, lean into the uncertainty 

A significant amount of psychological research has shown us that people find self-determination empowering and motivating. Taking a more skills-based view of careers will make it more difficult to plot out a future in an obvious way. However, the opportunity for greater freedom and experimentation in our work and in our lives is an idea worth leaning into. And if organizations, communities and governments can find ways to help individuals identify and respond to the right signals about skills at the right time, it is possible that it could be a win-win for everyone.
About the author(s)
Lewis Garrad

Partner, Asia Career Practice Leader

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