Learning & Development, Talent

Skilled Talent and Leadership Development—How Learning Must Evolve

The debate over the cost/value proposition of a higher education isn’t new. As tuition and student debt have skyrocketed in recent years, students and parents question the worth of a pricey bachelor’s degree.


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It’s commonly believed that there is an oversupply of college graduates and a shortage of technical or trade workers. Meanwhile, college grads spend more time and money on their educations, their goal being employability, but they arrive on the job with mountains of debt and sometimes without the soft skills they need to succeed.

 A Society of Human Resource Management study indicates the most commonly reported skills shortages are less about hard business skills and more about critical thinking/problem solving, professionalism/work ethic, leadership, written communications, and collaboration.

Yet most colleges don’t seek these types of attributes as part of their admissions process. Some universities have made strides in teaching soft skills, making a big place smaller by encouraging group interaction, developing team- and project-based work, and assigning individual contributor and leadership roles that mirror outside organizations. But these interactions often lack facilitation and consistency, and if they are offered at the graduate-school level, it may be too late.

The result? Hiring organizations face the challenges of having a group of employees with inconsistent college experiences and narrow skill sets. Companies need to change how they hire, develop, and retain employees with these differences in mind, assessing the talent they have, doing some level setting, and then developing people at the pace they need. This involves an integrated approach to learning, development, and mentoring that works together to help people succeed.

Is Today’s Learning Hitting the Mark?

U.S. companies spent nearly $90 billion on employee training in 2018. Much of that investment was dedicated to technical skills and/or mandatory compliance matters. But this addresses only the “what” of the job and not the “how.” The dearth of soft skills, combined with the fluidity and pace of change, requires new approaches to learning and development.

Although they may have undergone significant training, the strongest individual contributors often get promoted to leadership positions without the skills needed to lead a team. Emerging leaders should be confident, self-assured, and skilled at both collaboration and negotiation, and they should have honed their presentation, communication, and conflict-resolution skills. In short, they should be able to influence and motivate others.

Early assessment and early feedback are among the keys to developing successful young leaders. For example, big consulting firms, where team-based work is common, typically provide weekly feedback to early-career employees. This feedback mechanism helps people assess the way they deploy both their hard and their soft skills, as well as how to make adjustments along the way.

In addition, we work with several more enlightened employers that allow young professionals to pursue in-placement early, even after only 6 months or a year, if they find their current role isn’t the best fit. The ability to post for a new role within the company—one that might make better use of their strengths—can be a game-changer for a career.

And in a tight talent market, it behooves the organization to keep the talent in a new role instead of losing them to a competitor. In this way, the first priority becomes loyalty to the organization rather than to any one leader.

Cross-functional interaction, formal or informal, can also be valuable in facilitating comprehensive feedback and learning. Instead of relying solely on the immediate supervisor’s input (which is limited by nature to only one area of the company), the individual is exposed to a wider array of perspectives and interactions, in addition to greater visibility with leadership—all of which helps shape his or her growth and development.

The Role of Mentoring

Mentoring programs also play a key role in development; in fact, the career benefits associated with mentoring are proven in an American Psychological Association study, which found that, compared with nonmentored employees, mentored employees:

  • Receive higher compensation
  • Receive a greater number of promotions
  • Feel more satisfied with their careers
  • Feel more committed to their careers
  • Are more likely to believe that they will advance in their careers

Mentoring works most effectively when it is complemented by structured leadership development programs to groom an individual for upward mobility. Having a mentor as an additional source of feedback and input—especially someone who understands the company and its culture—can be a critical factor to success. External mentors are also valuable because they bring fresh, outside perspectives to issues that commonly surface in other companies.

Meanwhile, leadership development programs are evolving to address the soft skills gap. At BPI group, much of our daily development work pertains to skills that help leaders become better coaches, navigate conflict, communicate more effectively, and build stronger teams.

The full-employment economy won’t last forever. The balance of power will eventually shift from the employee back to the employer. When that time comes, developed employees with well-rounded skill sets will have the upper hand.

Raheela Gill Anwar is Chief Client Service and Market Strategy Leader for BPI group. She has more than 25 years of experience in executive career transition and financial services, with expertise in mergers and acquisitions, executive compensation, and building and leading diverse teams. She can be reached at ranwar@bpi-group.us.