Why Skills Might Squash the Job Description

This is an edited excerpt from Work-Life Bloom: How to Nurture a Team That Flourishes by Dan Pontefract (Figure 1 Publishing, 2023)

Many people feel that their life ambitions are misaligned with the career development and talent management models they encounter at work.

While career progression conversations and the managing of talent will never go away for leaders, you must consider something else. What if team members no longer seek to climb the proverbial career ladder? What if they’re looking for something more in their life than ascension to the corner office? Could it be a portfolio of some sort? Succession planning and merit promotions will continue to be necessary for you, but what happens when upward mobility is no longer central to a team member’s life satisfaction quotient? What might they be interested in instead?

In a word: skills.

Some team members won’t necessarily want to move up; they may, however, want to grow. They long for experiences. They seek juicy new lateral roles or special assignments and yearn to learn, connect, and develop. They also crave new contacts and interactions that will help them become more well-rounded and affiliated human beings. These points are at the root of the skills life-factor.

Importantly, such team members will want to use their new skills not only at work but also in life. As a leader, you should, therefore, avoid focusing solely on workplace vertical ambition and instead consider something I call horizontal ignition. This will require you to adopt a horizontal skills-building mindset. If you don’t, you may discover that your team members find their way to a different organization and at that point, you may be finally forced into changing your mindset. But it will be too late.

An organization’s reliance on a jobs-only talent model—and by association its entrenched job description and job family ideology—is an additional inhibitor to the successful implementation of the skills life-factor.

Not everyone wants to stay in a job family, waiting for a promotion based on merit, tenure, or both. If an organization solely uses the construct of job families—which denotes classification of job roles for a cluster of functions, for example, a job family of marketing or engineering roles upward—it prohibits people who want to develop themselves outside of the job family from ever believing they might be suitable working in an entirely different function. Embracing horizontal ignition is one way to evolve your Work-Life Bloom leadership game.

3 leadership tasks

Thus, specific to the skills life-factor—and to help your people bloom—you have a threefold leadership task ahead of you related to horizontal ignition:

  1. Expand your team members’ capabilities laterally across the organization.
  2. Invest in your team member’s portfolio of skills.
  3. Mature your thinking to adopt a skills-based ethos.

The global healthcare giant Novartis is all in when it comes to adopting a skills-based ethos. The firm employs over 110,000 employees and earns annual revenues in excess of USD51 billion. Every year it touches the lives of 770 million patients worldwide. When I sat down with Simon Brown, the chief learning officer at Novartis, he pointed out that the company’s shift to a skills-based operating system was crucial to properly aligning roles, people, and content to skills.

“Everything hangs together through a common skills ontology and technology that provides a common language and framework to understand skills across the company. If we’re looking at what we need to deliver against a certain business need or requirement in one area, we can assess what skills we have to fill the role gaps, or we can even serve short-term gig assignments,”  he told me.

Brown pointed out that the Novartis skills operating system not only facilitates the company’s internal business operations but is being used for external purposes too. “We use our skills approach as people volunteer their time for NGOs and charities,” he said. “We find that rather than people simply volunteering their time, for example, painting, we can properly match them to an organization that could take advantage of their core skills, such as someone having strategy planning as a core skill.”

He admitted Novartis will not realize the full benefits for a while as it’s a multi-year strategy, but it is clear that the company’s skills operating system has become a cornerstone of its overarching talent, culture, and workforce strategy. It’s horizontal ignition in action.

You cannot continue tailoring your talent management strategy to preserve “bench strength,” the forced development of people simply to ensure you can fill the next open job. This myopic approach is the very reason many employees leave organizations. Moreover, if you fixate solely on career development paths for your team members—code for tenure or time-based promotion tracks—it will exacerbate the exodus of employees seeking development that does not necessitate job promotion. This is no way to support a blooming state. It’s not even a balanced state.

A significant number of employees are not making their place of work central to their existence. It’s an essential part of their life, sure, but not the focal point. What they seek from their employer is an investment in their human potential. As a result, employees have begun to call the shots on what will make them stay. And it is most definitely not H.R.’s antiquated job descriptions or job family practices.

It has become abundantly clear that skills and the organization’s talent marketplace strategy are becoming critical components of the future of work. Not only do they uncover the skills that people already have, but they’re also able to match those skills to emerging bodies of work while simultaneously stretching the capacity of the workforce.

To combat anyone who still believes that skill development is only for those who wish to climb the corporate ladder—there are three tactics I urge you to consider. Each has the potential to help individuals feel positive about their skills life factors, which could, in turn, help them bloom.

The three factors are as follows:

  • Lateral hopping: Establishing the conditions that permit people to develop their skills through various assignments and opportunities.
  • Portfolio investing: Bettering a team member’s skills through stretch and non-core subject matter areas.
  • Skills-based ethos: Developing a mindset that considers skills and attributes rather than simply job descriptions and opens the way for gig-like appointments.