Companies can introduce a meritocracy based on the building and validating of skills. A meritocracy is “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement”[i], and attractive to modern companies because it incentivizes a workforce to produce based on their skills. It levels the playing field. Workers from different socioeconomic backgrounds take the same skills assessment or go through the same experiences, and the results indicate their level of expertise. One way a company can support a meritocracy is by having its workers share presentations and validations of skill sets throughout the organization – perhaps with personal websites or LinkedIn profiles.
Sharing skill sets creates transparency, an important characteristic of a meritocracy. Leader credentials are visible to everyone, so they better have experience and talent in their skill set (or there may be a revolt). And this is largely already in practice with leaders utilizing LinkedIn; skill sets are presented as a list and endorsed by a professional network. However, what is less in practice is reviewing skill sets of coworkers; but in a meritocracy, this can be helpful for a few reasons:
- Provides an example. Learn how a ‘star’ in the company built his or her skills.
- Shows incremental ‘merit bars’. Learn steps to improve status, such as taking courses, training, etc.
- Explains differences. Learn why a colleague has a different role in the company.
- Gives context. Understand coworkers better by reviewing a good presentation of a skill set – with demonstrations and explanations. (Participate in peer-to-peer recognition.)
Tying merit extrinsically to the building and validating of skills is common sense. For example, as you build a skill, once you pass an assessment you get a bump in salary. If you are at a later stage, you validate a skill by getting a certification (such as CPA) and this gets you a promotion.
In his book Achieve Brand Integrity, Gregg Lederman discusses his employee centric approach to company branding: a leader defines what the company should be (after a thorough investigation), and rallies his or her employees behind it[ii]. One thing Gregg hammers on throughout the book is the importance of getting employees to become intrinsically motivated to perform and behave according to predefined expectations. Gregg dedicates a chapter where he talks about the importance of ‘recognition’ and ‘reward’ for good behaviors and experiences (sounds like meritocracy). He says:
A peer-to-peer recognition program is the best investment you can make in your people. (pg. 193)
My support for meritocracy in a company is based on using it to motivate workers to reach their potential and remove a non-merit driven hierarchy. So I believe it is a tool for inspiration. However, I think an over-reliance on testing and assessments may have negative consequences and there are other factors in building a workforce. There is something to be said about working hard, showing empathy, and adhering to ethics – being a genuine good person. I think ‘likeability’ goes a long way in earning a spot on the team. Meritocracy should be an infinite game where players elevate each other to make a better move; there is no declared winner or loser.
[ii] Gregg Lederman. Achieve Brand Integrity. B&W Press, (Rochester, 2007).
Original Image © Depositphoto/ suravid #9868662
There is a benefit in presenting your skill set to not only recruiters and potential employers, but also an ‘internal network’ – co-workers and supervisors – and an ‘external network’ – partners and clients. As I talk about presenting a skill set, I want to clarify that there are many ways to present a skill. (Feel free to read more about them on the website: www.skillsbasedapproach.com.) I strongly advocate utilizing skill sets because they represent your functional capabilities to everyone in your target audience. Skills are universally defined (for the most part) and portable across platforms and their competencies are measurable.
It is advantageous to have your skill set accessible to your co-workers – what you ‘bring to the table’. The biggest benefit comes when you work on a team, where everyone knows the skill set of each member. Moreover, the level of expertise and validations of the skills are also known. This greatly improves the team’s productivity in three ways. First, there is quick familiarity. Team members spend a few hours reviewing each other’s skill set so they have some idea of what each other’s contribution should be. Otherwise, without reviewing skill sets, it often takes weeks for teams to really get to know each other’s functional value. Second, it is an accurate portrayal. Skill assessments and validations that accompany the presentation of a skill set properly portray skill competencies. Unfortunately, the way teams function today is often ‘trial and error’. Third, it can help teams become more horizontal. An awareness of each other’s skill sets removes communication barriers, so members feel on more equal status. There may be less need to have a ‘formal leadership’ or direction.
When I was in business school, I remember Gallup provided our MBA class with their ‘Strengths Finder’ service – a survey, report, and seminar. You take an hour-long test and receive a report with a ranked list of your top 36 strengths, and in the seminar, a Gallup presenter discussed the results. My class was enthralled by the whole experience. There were two big takeaways: no matter how well you know someone, it is almost impossible to identify all their strengths without an assessment; and by knowing your teammate’s strengths, you know how he or she makes the most impact. In addition, you may learn a teammate’s weaknesses which can be constructive with team dynamics. I suggest taking the Gallup Strengths test and sharing the results with your team.
To present your skill set to co-workers, you should keep your skill set current in your LinkedIn profile and utilize a personal website. I suggest a personal website because it gives you more flexibility to share your skill set in different ways.
There is a lot of talk about the best way to conduct ‘performance reviews’ or ‘performance coaching’ or ‘mentoring’. Whatever the case, it should be a conversation based on your skill set and in the context of a Skill-Based Approach. Present your skill set to supervisors and talk about the fifteen to twenty skills on your personal website and/or LinkedIn profile (and soft skills that may not be included).
- Talk about your short and long terms objectives since you started working. How are the objectives materializing? Are you satisfied in your current position?
- Discuss your progress in building the skills over the prior period. What projects did you work on? How are your soft skills with coworkers and clients? How did you perform on assessments?
- Collaborate on a short-term plan for the upcoming year. Base it on the development of a skill set. What company resources do you need to build skills (i.e. training or online courses)?
- Brainstorm on the validation of skills in the long-term. Are you going to need accreditation to move up in the company?
Presenting your skill set to your external network – clients and partners – can be useful in your current position. Clients love to be reassured. Perhaps your company sold them on a product or service, but now it is time to sell them on you as you deliver on your company’s promise. Sharing your skill set with competencies goes a long way in convincing them you can do the work. Partners are an extension of your team. So there are the same team benefits mentioned above. However, the difference when you work with partners is that you are usually the ambassador for your company – so include soft skills as part of your skill set.
I often talk about planning and building a skill set throughout a career as if it is a straight linear path. However, many professionals face one or more obstacles that change their ‘career path’. Perhaps it is a ‘bump’ like having to take a fifth year in college to earn a degree. Perhaps it is a ‘detour’ like having to take a job in another profession because you cannot get employed. Perhaps it is a ‘stop sign’ due to a life-changing experience –an accident, ailment, or mental illness. The simple fact is most obstacles are unforeseen and impact our ability to make career progress.
A bump … I started a fulltime MBA program but did not finish it; though, I learned a lot in a year. I doubt I will ever finish the degree. Nevertheless, to move forward, I learned to develop websites – something I have been doing for the past seven years. When I came up with the concept of a mainstream personal website service, I leveraged my skills in management from my one and half degrees (bachelors and 1 year towards a MBA) to build the business. It is possible to respond to setbacks, and sometimes with little disruption.
A detour … Sometimes there are more serious obstacles that force you to rethink your career path. I had a friend who had a childhood dream of being a doctor, so he studied premed for his bachelors. He took the MCAT, but did not score high enough to get into medical school – a difficult feat, only 9 percent of applicants are accepted. It was disappointing for him, but to move forward, he applied his knowledge of medicine to build a career in selling pharmaceuticals to doctors. Career maturity involves properly assessing your skills and taking realistic, yet necessary steps forward.
A stop sign… I had the fortune of reading, One Door Closes: Overcoming Adversity by Following Your Dreams by Tom Ingrassia, an extraordinarily inspirational book. The book is a collection of stories told by everyday people who are confronted with a seemingly overwhelming obstacle and overcome it with courage and perseverance. Some of these obstacles include getting cancer, being paralyzed from a car accident, and experiencing the loss of loved ones. Rather than ask for sympathy (which is reasonable), these people inspire with wise words of wisdom:
Follow your passion and you CAN do anything you want (pg. 34)… If you can think, you can do it (pg. 47)… Expect the worse, hope the best (pg. 67).[i]
Major obstacles often force you to stop thinking about your career and concentrate on overcoming them. When you are ready, reassess your skill competencies and create a new career plan. Whether you reconstruct parts of a previous one or create an entirely new one, you put your best foot forward as you rebuild your career.
There are a few reasons why you should use the Skills-Based Approach methodology as you move through an obstacle. First, skills are readily apparent. You simply come up with a list of skills you have an expertise in at any point in your career. Second, skill competencies are easy to assess. What if you did not finish a degree or credential but you still learned something? What if you have a degree but have not applied what you had learned in years? What if you go through a major change and must reacquaint your bearings? Third, skills can be learned many different ways. Perhaps you have a degree in website design but took a job in another field to pay the bills, so now you decide to take a MOOC to learn about the most recent programming trends in HTML5.
[i] Tom Ingrassia. One Door Closes Overcoming Adversity by Following Your Dreams. (MotivAct Publishing, 2013).
I wonder how a Skills-Based Approach should affect the way employers pay employees; planning, building and validating of skills have a strong correlation with an employee’s job performance. Should employers consider a skill-based pay system versus the traditional job pay system?
Here is a good definition of a skills-based pay system (“SBP”):
Skills-based structures link pay to the depth or breadth of the skills, abilities, and knowledge a person acquires that is relevant to the work. Structures based on skill, pay individuals for all the skills for which they have been certified regardless of whether the work they are doing requires all or just a few of those particular skills.
Skills-based pay systems were first introduced by manufacturing companies to improve efficiency in a production line. According to the authors of The Skill-Based Pay Design Manual, advantages of these early pay systems include:
- Flexibility to complete other tasks.
- Improved problem solving.
- Improved horizontal communication.
- Improved vertical communication.
- Motivation to build skills and knowledge.
- Management invests in the growth of their employees.
- Improved job satisfaction.
Of course, there are differences between manufacturer and service based companies regarding building and paying for skills (for the bulk of their workers).
Skills required for a production line are more related to knowledge of operating machinery, and most workers are expected to have the capability to effectively learn the skills – like learning how to drive a car. The idea is to build breadth in a skill set where workers are interchangeable to complete various tasks.
With services, professionals specialize in a cluster of skills and perform a particular function. The idea is to build depth in a skill set where workers develop a deeper expertise with their skills.
The optimal balance of breadth versus depth in a professional’s skill set is something that is being debated by educators and employers as they try to address issues such as the skills gap and job preparedness of college graduates. (Let’s table this debate for a later blog.)
In an article Skills Based Pay Structures Versus Job Based Pay Structures, Rory C. Trotter suggests two criteria companies should consider before committing to a skills based pay system. Are they hiring employees based on their potential? Do they plan to groom a new hire to play a bigger role?
(With a depth-oriented SBP) the goals are building critical specialized skills, attracting talent and retaining employees over the long period needed to build specialized skills… (With a breadth-oriented SBP) the goals are to reward an appropriate balance between employee flexibility through skill breadth, skill depth, and self-management skills.
To conclude, I think a skills-based pay system works in our Information Age and a skills-based approach lays out a blueprint:
- Planning stage. Employers define required and recommended skills for employees, and publish how passing a skill assessment increases wages (on an intranet or employee handbook).
- Building stage. Employers provide training, guidance, and funding to build skills.
- Presenting stage. Employers provide a platform where employees can present their skills, which is advantageous for clients, co-workers, management, etc.
- Validating stage. Employers promote employees in validating their skills – certifications, references, and assessments – by funding the process and increasing wages upon completion.
Learn more about a Skills-Based Approach: http://www.skillsbasedapproach.com
 Joseph H. Boyett and Jimmie T. Boyett (2004). The Skills-Based Pay Design Manual. New York: ASJA Press.
 Rory C. Trotter. ” Skills Based Pay Structures Versus Job Based Pay Structures.” http://rorytrotter.com/2013/04/10/skill-based-pay-structures-versus-job-based-pay-structures
 Gerald E. Ledford, Jr. and Herbert G. Heneman III (2011). “Skills-Based Pay”. Society for Human Resource Management.
A Skills-Based Approach is centered on the development of a skill set throughout a career. It is a progression of four stages: planning, building, presenting, and validating. In the book, I walk you through the stages by describing their intended objectives and specific ways to achieve them. There is a lot of attention given to career planning because it is one big advantage in adopting a skills-based approach. Proper career planning increases the likelihood of finding career happiness and fulfillment.
An underlying premise is building transferable skills that can be used across disciplines and subjects, so professionals have a foundation to build their career on. They can adapt to changes in career requirements due to globalization and the rapid adoption of new technologies. Furthermore, the demand for emerging transferable skills can be tracked so professionals build them to increase their future marketability.
Skill sets are being used by many professional web services, such as on LinkedIn and Monster Jobs platforms. Both have built search engines where recruiters can search on skill sets to find candidates. It makes sense to summarize your rational or functional value with a skill set.
The book also provides tabular examples of people in different professions and career stages practicing a skills-based approach. (These tables are downloadable as templates from the website). I believe it is easy to apply a skills-based approach as you plan and develop your career.
Finally, the book shares the results of a survey I conducted in December 2012 to understand three questions. Are recruiters searching for candidates based on their skill set? What should be key drivers in career planning based on skills? What are effective ways to build and validate skills?
I frequently Tweet about the news related to the fundamentals of a skills-based approach: creating an effective career plan, building skills in a cost-efficient and effective way, presenting a skill set on changing platforms, and validating skills with new technologies.
So I cover the buzz with new learning channels (MOOCs), online badges (Mozilla), and online personal branding. I also discuss advancements in the use of skill sets: their portability across platforms, making them searchable, and a universally accepted list of skill definitions.
Popular career advice you might hear from your parents or a career counselor is to follow your dreams or something you are passionate about. Self-reflect and identify subject matter that drives you. The passion theory suggests planning your career around a passion, an inner motivation or desire to do something. Problem is many of us never find a passionate career pursuit.
One major flaw with the “passion theory” is that you must have some prior experience and exude confidence in something you are passionate about – you must be exposed to something before you can become passionate about it. Good parenting and teaching expose our children to as many subjects and hobbies as possible to broaden their perspective. This is why high schools teach students an array of different subjects beyond the fundamental skills of math, reading, and writing and colleges require taking “core classes” to meet their degree requirements. Being exposed to actual business situations helps too; internships are becoming increasingly more popular for this reason. An exposure to something new can be circumstantial and hard to pin down. Furthermore, most of us do not find something we are truly passionate about early in our lives so we take on the best opportunity that presents itself. The premise of the book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, suggests finding the skills you excel in and use “deliberate practice” (or an intense, committed effort) to develop these skills as “career capital” – something that adds value for everyone; your passion, something that adds value to you, should not be the deciding factor in choosing a career.
In the first chapter, Cal Newport talks about the story behind Steve Jobs who is clearly one of the most visionary thinkers of recent times. Steve never planned out his career and did not have this lifelong passion for technology. He did not go to college for anything related to computers, nor did he develop his ideas in his early formative years right after college. His interest in computers was spurred by meeting a technical wizard Steve Wozniak, and then everything seemed to snowball for Steve. He played a leadership role in delivering many innovative technology products to consumers, such as Apple Macintosh, Pixar, IPod, IPhone, and ITunes. However, his genius in information technology and understanding consumer preferences probably would not have materialized if he had not met Steve Wozniak, and took on the business arm of their partnership.
I can think of two cases in my personal life as examples.
I have two nieces who are soccer players; they were exposed to soccer because everyone in my immediate family played soccer, so my brother naturally taught them soccer at an early age. They have been playing on the same team together for years, and have developed a love for the game and camaraderie of a team. And they have developed their skills, so they are good players. However, what if they could have been great tennis players or dancers, it is almost impossible to tell because they have never been exposed to these hobbies. Becoming passionate about something means you must have been exposed to it and show some self-efficacy, so you have a desire to build an expertise with it. I spoke to my brother about his thoughts about exposing his children to as much as possible to help them find a passion and he had an interesting response. He suggested exposure to too many hobbies and subjects might be overwhelming to them and make it too difficult to identify precisely what they are passionate about. This leads to another fault with the passion theory: you can be passionate about a lot of things so how do you narrow down which one to follow as a career pursuit.
My brother is absolutely brilliant and could shine in whatever career he chooses. He went to Columbia University and majored in astrophysics because he was inspired to be an astronaut, though it was too selective – only 50 astronaut positions open up each year, and many of the positions are offered to pilots rather than astrophysicists – so he moved onto something else. He remained at Columbia and earned a masters in mining engineering, and worked with some excellent minds in the field for a couple of years. However, he really wanted to influence policy making, so he went to Georgetown University where he received his JD in law. He currently teaches law and conducts research, two things he will probably do for the rest of his life; he loves what he is doing now. Connecting the dots in a logical progression of “following his passion” does not seem to make sense in his case; rather, it seems he evaluates his current situation each step of the way and uses education as a way to expose himself to new opportunities.