Shifting our focus from careers to skills.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I don’t mean what did you want to be as a kid. I mean right now. What role sits at the end of your path?
Personally, I have no idea. I’ve worn lots of hats over the past 20 years (figuratively and literally), but I never planned to become what I’ve become. I’m also not sure what I’ll be next. I may not have followed a PATH, but I’ve definitely developed a CAREER.
So how does a 17 year-old movie theater concessionist become a … ummm … several years older but still surprisingly youthful CLO, author, speaker and tech evangelist?
Another funny hat. 🎩
I wore yet another real/metaphorical hat when I dressed up like Willy Wonka to host Wednesday’s episode of In The Know. Lori Niles-Hofmann (senior edtech transformation strategist at NilesNolan) joined me to explore the importance of continuous upskilling in today’s workplace.
It was an awesome conversation! First of all, Lori was a great sport about the whole Wonka thing, which was not included in my original pitch for her appearance. More importantly, we dug into the limitations of traditional career paths. But don’t take our word for it. Think about your own job. How do the skill requirements of your current role compare to the same position five or ten years ago? Did your job even exist in 2013? Mine didn’t!
Career paths don’t fit in the modern workplace. Jobs are constantly changing to keep pace with market dynamics and organizational needs. Of course, there are exceptions, but it’s unrealistic for workers to plan where they want to be in 3, 5, 10 years and the exact steps required to get there. It’s even more unrealistic for HR to craft the perfect learning and development program to get them there (if they’ll even still be working for the company by that point).
My scrumdiddlyumptious discussion with Lori got me thinking about my own career and how I’ve relied on continuous upskilling to open doors and foster opportunities that otherwise would never have existed.
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A detour. 🚧
I spent the first 5 years of my career following a pretty standard path.
Staff > Supervisor > Manager > Senior Manager > Managing Director > Regional Manager > Corporate
I made it to stop #4 in the movie theater business before figuring out something was wrong. Sure, I learned plenty of things about frontline operations that I still leverage today, but I can’t help but feel that much of that time was wasted. It took too long to realize I had options besides working my hardest to climb the ladder someone else put in front of me.
Plenty of capable people have followed similar paths and built great careers. There’s nothing wrong with that path. It just wasn’t mine. It didn’t say “JD” on it. It could’ve been anyone’s path. It didn’t flex or adapt based on my strengths, experiences or interests. It was what it was. I either had to conform or take a detour. I took the offramp labeled “Walt Disney World.”
Disney changed my perspective on what a career could be. A person may end up having 10 or 15 different careers without leaving the company because it’s so big and diverse. I started off on a similar path to the one I had just abandoned, moving from frontline cast member at attractions like Star Tours and The Great Movie Ride to operations manager at locations including DisneyQuest, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. However, I wasn’t going to allow my employer to dictate my path again. I wasn’t willing to wait for them to tell me when I was ready for and worthy of professional development. I was going to take control of my path for the first time. There was only one resource that could make this possible: skills.
My skills path. 🛣️
I entered my new organization with plenty of skills from my days as a movie theater manager and HR generalist. But this was a different operation with unique procedures and brand nuances. Plus, my skills only existed on paper at that point. I had to prove I knew what I was doing. So I spent a year in full out SKILL BUILDING MODE. I worked 70+ hour weeks and cross-trained my way across the operation, learning how to perform every available role. When the time came to select new managers, I was an obvious choice because I had proven my skills.
Once I got promoted, I started looking for new ways to highlight my unique skills. I went to college for radio/TV production, so I took on side projects that required media skills. I was still grappling with my lifelong fear of public speaking, so I seized every opportunity to present in front of groups. I was accepted onto an L&D project team for which I was under-qualified at the time because of my speaking skills. I then got promoted to L&D manager because I had the skills needed to design, develop and deliver highly-themed learning programs fast and cheap.
Hmmm … fun, highly-themed, media-rich programs developed with limited resources … why does that sound familiar?
The opportunity gap. 🚨
We clearly don’t have enough people with the critical skills required to move our organizations (and communities) forward. But the skills gap isn’t the problem. It’s the outcome. Organizations have failed to prioritize learning and development for YEARS. They’ve relied on their ability to hire skills on-demand and failed to build the systems and foster the mindset needed to develop them internally. Today, we’re just starting to face the repercussions of this short-sighted talent strategy.
Companies lack critical skills. Employees are demanding development opportunities. Rigid career paths will not fix either problem. Instead, organizations must close the opportunity gap by making learning a high-priority part of everyone’s job - regardless of role, tenure, location, etc. The modern workplace must become a skill building machine, fostering career and organizational agility through personalized development.
Instead of trying to build paths for every type of job, management must define the skills needed to successfully accomplish different types of work. A data-informed, systems approach to learning will also allow L&D to spin up capability academies to focus on immediate skill needs. Check out Lowe’s “Track to the Trades” program as a great example of structured training applied to meet a specific need.
A career path is like a paper map. It’s predictable. It’s reliable. It’s in the glove compartment when you need it. But that paper map doesn’t know I-4 is down to 2 lanes on Tuesday afternoon and an accident on the 417 will add 20 minutes to your commute. A skill-based talent strategy may not be as familiar or predictable, but it fosters the agility needed to keep pace with change and open unexpected doors in the modern workplace.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go work on my AI whispering skills so I can make $335,000 per year at a job that didn’t exist until last month.
20% Off MLE! 📗
Special ATD discount through April 7. Discover how you can overcome the opportunity gap and foster a modern learning mindset within your organization by grabbing a copy of my new book - The Modern Learning Ecosystem. Use discount code MLE-323 at checkout at td.org to get 20% off through April 7, 2023.
Extra spicy! 🥵
ITK explores customer education on April 12. I’m checking an item off the bucket list on the next episode of In The Know. Ryan Dillon (Though Industries) and I will be discussing customer education strategies while eating increasingly spicy chicken wings. That’s right - we’re totally doing Hot Ones! Join us on Wednesday, April 12 at 1130am ET to see how long it takes for me to melt down live on LinkedIn.
Until next week, be well. JD