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The Secrets of Skill Development

Skill development - at least with an underlying sense of intent - often takes a back seat to all of the day-to-day activities that consume time and energy. And while you should have a steady focus on skill development throughout your career, it’s especially important to work on your skills when you’re in the early days of your professional life, when you step into a bigger or different role, when you make (or want to make) a career change, and when you go to work for a new company. Each of these situations presents new challenges and forces you onto a new – and usually steeper – learning curve.

Types of skills

Psychologists have been publishing research on how people develop skills and on the different types of skills since at least the 1960s. They use a litany of different classification schemes to describe skills, some of which are easier to follow than others. From the lay perspective, they generally boil down to:

  • Hard skills, such as accounting or carpentry, which are task-related. These are also called technical or cognitive skills or competencies.
  • Soft skills, such as influence, motivation and emotional intelligence, which are behavioral. These are also called social or interpersonal skills. Character traits and attitudes, such as work ethic and integrity, are sometimes lumped in with soft skills, though they are somewhat different.

Some skills are domain-specific and others are domain-general or transferrable. For example, carpentry skills won’t make you a good accountant (and vice versa) but being a good motivator is likely to help you whether you’re a carpenter or an accountant. Soft skills are inherently more readily transferable. At PathWise, we’ve outlined a subset of them that we see as the 10 Essentials, traits like authenticity, conviction, and resilience.

The linkage between skill development and the job search process

While a formal focus on skill development goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages concept of guilds (professions) and apprenticeships, being able to describe your skills is of particular importance in this current era of keyword-focused Applicant Tracking Systems that are often used by employers to perform automated resume screening. If you don’t have the right skill-related keywords in your resume, you’re going to get screened out. ATSs expand employers’ ability to review candidates, but they have also had several unfortunate consequences:

  1. They inadvertently end up screening out solid candidates who don’t include the right skill-related keywords into their resume or CV. Don’t let this be you- make sure you appropriately incorporate your key skills into your resume.
  2. Candidates feel compelled to pack their resumes or CVs with long lists of keywords, leading to their invariably providing an over-stated representation of themselves and eroding their credibility as candidates. Again, don’t let this be you. Focus on your biggest strengths and the ones that align more significantly with the job(s) you’re seeking.
  3. A growing for-profit education industry has developed around issuing skill-related licenses or certifications. While some of these programs are reputable and well-developed, a good many of them aren’t, and employers are smart enough to see right through that. If you’re considering investing in a skill-building program or other form of continuing education, do your homework before signing up and investing your time and money.

Employers’ broader focus on capturing your skills

Employers are also increasingly focused on characterizing their employees’ skills in a more systematic fashion. Let’s face it: most companies have only a minimal (and likely skewed) understanding of their employees’ skills. Their HR departments are familiar only with employees’ education, the broad strokes of their work for prior employers, the different roles they have held in the company itself, and their performance in those roles (which is usually documented only through the lens of their managers – hence the inevitable bias). By capturing their skills in a more comprehensive fashion, companies can more readily identify candidates for open roles. They also remove some of the bias that invariably exists in evaluating current performance and suitability for other roles.

HR technology providers, such as Cornerstone, Coursera, Degreed, LinkedIn, and Udemy have jumped into this space. This has spawned a related race to come up with the best skills taxonomy that provide listings of skills and their relevance to different job types. (If you want to dive down the rabbit hole on skills taxonomies, check out this podcast from leading HR consultant Josh Bersin. He has even coined the term “Skillstech” to describe players in this space.)

How this focus can benefit your skill development

For you, one benefit of all this HR tech development is that it’s much easier to identify what HR professionals see as the key skills for different types of roles. These skill-job libraries provide you with a blueprint of sorts for where to focus your skill development work.

It’s also easier than ever for you to take advantage of the many options for learning that have blossomed over the past decade, including those offered by your current employer, which often go under-utilized, much to your HR colleagues’ dismay. Again, though, do your homework up-front, particularly when considering an external program, so that you invest your time and money wisely. Bear in mind as well that education is only one of the means by which you develop your skills, and it pales in comparison to what you learn experientially.

Different sources of skill development

When you get to the point of actually developing your skills, it’s helpful to bear in mind a framework known as the 4Es:

  • Experience, which includes day-to-day practice and on-the-job training. This is “learning by doing.”
  • Exposure, which includes what you learn from managers, co-workers, mentors or your external network
  • Education, which includes whatever level of schooling you completed prior to joining the work force as well as training and other programs you complete once you’re in the work force
  • Environment, which includes the tools, systems, and infrastructure that support you in a job. It also includes the culture and processes that facilitate or hinder learning.

Your lifelong learning plan, or skill development plan, should include all four of these elements.

The process of skill development

How you learn a new skill usually follows a step-wise process first described by various psychologists about 50 years ago and summarized nicely by Wikipedia:

  1. Unconscious incompetence, during which you don’t understand or know how to do something and don’t necessarily recognize the deficit. You may even deny the usefulness of the skill. It’s important here for you to recognize your incompetence (apologies if that sounds harsh), and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time you spend in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence. In this stage, you don’t understand or know how to do something, however, you recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence, during which you understand or know how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence, by which time you have had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. You may also be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

As a simple example, consider learning to shoot a basketball free throw. At first, you do whatever you think works best to get the ball into (or at least near) the hoop. You don’t yet have a grasp on what you’re doing well and not well. That’s unconscious incompetence. As you continue to practice, you start to become aware of your flaws but you’re not fully sure how to fix them. That’s conscious incompetence. You then ask a good free throw shooter or a coach to help you to improve your shot. You get some good tips and further practice, but it still requires a lot of thought each time you step up to the free-throw line. It may also require you to unlearn some of the bad habits you developed in your early attempts at learning to shoot free throws. That’s conscious competence. As you continue to practice, your muscle memory builds and the process becomes more natural.  That’s unconscious competence, and if you’re really, really lucky, it turns you into Steph Curry, the NBA’s career free throw percentage leader at over 90.7%.

While this sports-related example is easy to explain, this same process occurs in other types of skill development as well. Hence it’s important for you to surround yourself with people (managers, more experienced peers, mentors) who will help you make the transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.

Creating a skill development plan

If you’re committed to developing your skills, you need an actual plan, one that factors in the sills you need:

  • Now for success in your current role or at the moment
  • Soon for growth in your role or readiness for the next role
  • Long-term to meet your career objectives

Focus on the skills themselves (the “what” and the “why”) and the way in which you are going to learn them (the “how”). Give yourself some deadlines (the “when”). As a few examples, you might set skill-related goals to:

  • Build finance experience by taking on a part-time assignment this quarter within the company’s Finance function [an experience-oriented goal]
  • Sign up for the company’s user experience (UX) training program to help me develop a deeper understanding of UX principles in my product design work [an education-oriented goal]
  • Get a job with XYZ company to have the opportunity to work in the environment of the unquestioned leader in our industry [an environment-oriented goal]
  • Ask XYZ individual to mentor me this year so that I can get exposure to her leadership style [an exposure-oriented goal]

Commit the time to developing this plan. Review it with your manager or HR partner, a mentor, or other trusted colleague. Refine it accordingly. View it like any other goal that requires a specific plan and timeline for building the skills on which you choose to focus. Continue to review this plan over time, as your work situation, longer-term aspirations, and company and market environment all evolve. Make skill development an ongoing focus, in line with the notion of being a lifelong learner. The continued focus will accelerate your progress in your early years and will invariably benefit you throughout your career.

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