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You’ve read it often in the news, and probably also in your company’s various communications: businesses need to keep up with current and emerging skills trends in order to get more competitive or to remain so. But what does this mean for the people who actually make up the company?

Today’s business environment is more fluid than it ever has been, and can pivot in unexpected directions fairly rapidly – significant change can occur in months or just a few years versus decades. Where many traditional brick-and-mortar companies entered the pandemic cynical or even dismissive about the concept of virtual workplaces, online team collaboration, and flexible home and office work arrangements, they’re now reconsidering all of these things and planning for a new future of work in less than a year.

That puts leaders and employees in an uncomfortable situation of having to adapt equally rapidly, either to hire for the new skills that are being demanded, or to quickly reskill their existing workforce to stay relevant. It takes time for education and training systems to adjust, meaning that there aren’t always skilled people available in the necessary numbers at the peak of demand. And the approach of expecting to hire new skills on demand comes with the risk of losing valuable organizational knowledge and raw talent from those who are being let go from the company during the transition.

An alternative approach is the investments we’re now seeing in upskilling or reskilling the workforce to meet future business challenges. A very common skill area I’m seeing emphasized is around developing data literacy across the organization. This doesn’t mean that everyone must transition to become a data scientist, but it does recognize that so much of today’s work is highly dependent on using various types of data to inform business processes, operate safely, drive innovation, and to help open up new market opportunities.

If you’ve had your car or a major household appliance repaired in the last few years, you’ll have seen the trend toward data literacy in action: the first tool the repair technician pulls out is a computer or handheld device, hooked up to a diagnostic module. In the office environment, if it once sufficed to be able to create a spreadsheet with a few colourful pie charts or graphs, you’re probably now being asked to do much more sophisticated analysis through a business intelligence software package and tie that into a much wider company data structure. At the very least, you’re probably expected to contribute to data collection and analysis, and to understand what you’re seeing so that you can apply the insights to your work.

The talent and learning groups of any larger organization are dedicated to thinking about these ever-evolving skills trends, and equipping the business with the right people for the work through recruitment, talent development, and dedicated learning programs. But that’s not always a capability available to smaller companies, and it’s not always sufficiently agile. Everyone in the company needs to be thinking about skills, and how to make sure they’re the most relevant to the work at hand.

For the leader, this changes the nature of your typical once- or twice-a-year performance review and employee development discussion. Those discussions should now be taking place monthly, or even almost weekly. Instead of vague conversations based around ‘Where would you like to be in your career in two to five years?’ there should now be a focus on the much more pragmatic questions of what skills the employee might need to acquire for the next quarter’s work, and how their existing skills and work experiences continue to add value to the organization. Too often, position descriptions simply can’t keep pace, so it’s up to the leader to continually assess and support the employee in upskilling or reskilling. Yes, that takes time and effort, but that’s one of the essential roles of the leader.

For the employee, the dictum still applies that the only person who really manages your career is you. Even with the most supportive leader and all the possible resources of your corporate talent and learning team, ultimately it’s up to you to maintain and upgrade the skills needed to keep yourself relevant and employable. Don’t wait for someone else to do that for you – regularly review and think about your current skills, plan for where you want to go, and seek out the learning and experiences that support getting the right skills at the right time in your career.

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary, Alberta.

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