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TD Magazine

A Skills-First State of Mind

Thursday, June 1, 2023

A skills-first approach to talent creates a dynamic workforce.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with originating the idea that the only constant is change. While the world has changed dramatically since he was pondering paradoxes back in 500 BC, it has also changed considerably in the most recent decade, even in just the past few years. As the world and its industries evolve and progress, so must people's individual education and skills.


That's why L&D professionals talk so much about skills. Jobs themselves are changing even when people aren't changing jobs. For example, employees in construction now use cutting-edge computer software, and personnel in the financial sector work with novel products such as cryptocurrency. On top of that, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new tools and strategies for virtual communication and project collaboration.

Since 2015, skill sets for jobs have changed by around 25 percent, according to LinkedIn. That number is expected to double by 2027. To stay relevant, workers—and organizations—must be constantly developing new skills.

The benefits and challenges of a skills-first shift

Companies have traditionally focused on pedigree-based talent strategies—measuring candidates largely by degrees and certificates, years of experience, and the specific job titles on their resumes.

However, pivoting to a skills-based strategy to find new talent and grow existing talent can open more opportunities for companies and their employees as well as society at large. In a labor market that prioritizes skills, businesses can adapt to change more quickly, and people gain more agency over their careers.

Of course, building out new company-wide strategies and programs is easier said than done. LinkedIn, where I am the director of career development, has found that skills-first organizations have three practices in common.

They understand the skills they have and need as an organization. Every role at a company requires a set of skills, and every person has a unique set of them. Once an employer knows which skills it needs both today and in the future, it can then create a plan to find and develop its workforce with those skills.

They embrace skills-first hiring and development practices. Skills-first hiring practices place skills at the forefront of recruitment, where employers are focused on the skills needed for open roles and evaluate candidates based on a broader set of skill signals beyond traditional pedigree.

They foster employees to grow their careers within the company. Staff should feel empowered to advance in their careers at an organization through programs and initiatives such as internal career paths and opportunities to build and apply skills that align with their career goals and business needs.

While a massive paradigm shift is under way in the US workforce, putting all three pillars into practice takes time and requires substantial investment. When it comes to progress on large-scale upskilling and reskilling initiatives, LinkedIn's 2023 Workplace Learning Report reveals that 40 percent of companies are still in the early stages, selling their programs to stakeholders and forming their teams. Another 54 percent are at the midstage, developing and activating programs. Only 2 percent have completed a program, while 4 percent haven't started at all.

Employees are feeling that sluggish rollout: Only 26 percent of learners said their company challenged them to build a new skill during the past six months.

A framework for forward progress

While the pace can feel discouraging, it doesn't mean companies should stop building these large-scale learning experiences. Consider layering on lighter-weight cultural shifts that open more paths for more people. To accelerate skill building, organizations need to concentrate on career-focused learning at the individual level.

By opening career paths and encouraging that kind of growth, employers can empower individuals to consistently develop new skills. Doing so can in turn create the momentum of ongoing transformation and innovation that a meaningful skill-building program needs to thrive.

What does that look like? Here is a basic framework from which to build.

Identify the challenges. First, leverage data to identify challenges. The data can come from a variety of sources, including employee surveys, exit interviews, or the company's retention data. Use the information to identify the mindsets or organizational barriers that are keeping your company from opening career paths in a meaningful way.

At LinkedIn, we found that the old ways of defining and celebrating career development—with a focus on role changes and promotions—risked causing cultural issues such as siloed teams that hoard talent and stifle internal mobility as well as employee dissatisfaction and disengagement, especially if they aren't moving up.

We also recognized that managers want to build effective career-coaching skills but aren't sure how to best support their direct reports, while employees are unaware of growth opportunities within their function or in other departments across the organization—or which skills are required to be qualified for those roles.

Define the company's new philosophy. Once an employer has identified the problem, it can use that as a baseline from which to build its new philosophy. Identifying the problem and the organizational baseline, and then comparing that to a new and improved philosophy can help organizations better identify the gaps that need filling.

For example, if the perception at a company is that career growth can only come from promotions and role changes, the organization's new philosophy could be that it needs to redefine career progress in a way that embraces both big and small moments in an employee's journey. Learning a new skill, taking on a new role, joining a cross-functional team or project, working with a coach or mentor, and growing personal networks should merit recognition from colleagues and managers. Employees need to see that their investment in developing new skills and interests yields fruit.

Individuals at all levels of an organization must embrace the philosophy in tandem with leadership, managers, and employees celebrating it.

Set the strategy. With a strong philosophical foundation in place, employers can start prioritizing strategic programs or learning experiences that ensure employees have access to transformational moments both small, such as taking on a stretch opportunity, and large, such as getting promoted. Intentionally craft learning experiences that keep talent engaged, help them grow their skills, and set them up for those transformational moments.

Doing so will require activating a new mindset across individual employees and people managers and weaving the work into business priorities. One way to do that is by celebrating the changes you want to see. For example, through internal channels such as company events or newsletters, employers should highlight employees who have transformed their careers and spotlight successful managers who have invested in their employees.

LinkedIn's skills-first journey

From 2021 to 2022, there was a notable uptick in the volume of skills-first conversations between LinkedIn members, the company reports. Those same conversations are taking place at LinkedIn as it builds and cultivates a skills-first talent strategy of its own. Right now, we are focusing on these areas.

Empowering employees. We empower employees to be the designers of their careers by helping them understand that every person's career path is unique and there are many directions one can travel internally based on skills, goals, interests, and experiences. Likewise, we increase employees' understanding of skills that are transferable and versatile across different teams and departments.

Company-wide events, such as career panels and events hosted by employee resource groups, inspire and empower staff to spend time thinking about their career goals and provide a platform to accelerate the conversation around the value of skill development and nontraditional career paths to drive internal mobility.

That mission is especially clear during Career Week, a global, cross-functional initiative. The most recent iteration in September, themed "All Career Paths Are Unique," featured topical panels and functional breakouts. A keynote session with bestselling author and top leadership speaker Julie Winkle Giulioni encouraged employees to think beyond promotions and consider other forms of career development. Of the attendees, 94 percent reported it was a valuable use of their time.


Equipping managers. People managers have a massive impact on the hiring, professional development, and retention of talent, and they set the tone for the culture within their teams. We cultivate a competitive internal talent marketplace by encouraging every manager to serve as a career advocate and help employees move and grow internally.

We have created leadership development academies for people leaders to learn how to foster transformation by developing talent through intentional growth efforts. As part of that, managers learn about the different types of mobility and how each can help build skills at an individual level. In addition, we are working on ways to amplify value and best practices for talent exporting, supporting employees as they pursue opportunities across teams.

To support growth beyond role changes and promotions, people managers receive different tools and ideas that they can offer their direct reports to help build skills and continue career growth. For example, a job-shadowing program is in development with a goal of providing employees at all levels with on-the-job learning and the opportunity to understand other roles across business functions. We plan to create a published list of employees who are willing to have a colleague shadow them, offering a best-practices guide on how to make the most of the experience and ensuring it's accessible to everyone as a career tool.

Another option in managers' toolkits is offering project-based gigs, defined as a short-term project with a clear timeline (ranging from two to six-plus months) that requires an employee to spend 10–20 percent of their time on another team. The opportunity can help bridge temporary skills gaps with cross-functional training that increases employee engagement and skill development.

Engaging the business. Encouraging and empowering cultural shifts at the individual level is essential in this work, but to really make the changes sustainable, learning programs and opportunities must be aligned with business priorities. Doing so can help ensure any skills employees and managers are building align with clear career pathways specific to your organization.

One practical way our talent development team is doing that is by working with the leadership team to create custom role guides that are up to date with the skills the business is prioritizing. The team is rolling them out based on key job families, and the guides will continue to expand. The role guides ensure there is a clear and consistent understanding of the core responsibilities and skills for each job, so employees can accurately understand and navigate any available internal opportunities.

To further encourage internal mobility at an organizational level, we leverage job descriptions and interviews with employees and managers to define what success in the role looks like. We showcase top skills for the role based on LinkedIn's Skills Graph (a dynamic map of the relationships between 39,000 skills based on user data; see sidebar). Likewise, we are building more resources to help employees understand internal mobility processes and ensuring staff can easily reference them when exploring their next play.

Skills-focused culture shift

The strategies described in this article have helped to gradually shift the culture at LinkedIn. Employees who need to be promoted to feel satisfied with their career trajectory are now open to a wider range of opportunities to grow and take on new challenges—and not necessarily in a linear direction. Managers who once discouraged staff from leaving their department are now better able to coach and advocate for their direct reports, guiding them toward internal opportunities that align with their skills and career goals. In addition, employees who were unclear about opportunities within their function or across the organization are now more aware of what is available.

By investing in those learning experiences, programs, and wider change communications, the company is shifting the culture to be skills-first and career focused, which is having a positive impact on employee satisfaction.

There is no quick fix when it comes to shifting a company's strategy toward a skills-first mindset. But by focusing on smaller, employee-driven initiatives such as career development and internal mobility, a company can begin a flywheel of constant skill building that can be meaningful to individuals and continue to grow the business.

LinkedIn's Skills Graph

A skills-first talent strategy empowers agility at all levels of an organization. For individuals, agility builds resilience and expands career opportunities. For organizations, agility equals the ability to survive and thrive no matter what the economic outlook may be. But to implement a true skills-first approach that fuels agility, employers must first have a deep understanding of the skills their people have today and the skills they need to succeed tomorrow.

That's where the LinkedIn Skills Graph, a global skills ontology, comes in. As a large professional network, LinkedIn is positioned to deeply understand how skills are changing. The Skills Graph is informed by more than 850 million member profiles, 17,000 LinkedIn Learning courses, and 14 million job posts from 148 industries and more than 200 countries. That scale, with more than 39,000 unique skills in 26 languages, results in a unique understanding of the global skills landscape.

The Skills Graph is constantly mapping how the tens of thousands of unique skills relate to each other and to people, jobs, content, and more. LinkedIn sees the Skills Graph as a necessary foundation for the shift to a skills-first talent strategy.

About the Author

Tiffany Poeppelman is the director of career development at LinkedIn, where she works to build meaningful development programs that enable learning, mobility, and upward growth across 20,000 employees globally. With more than 13 years of experience working in talent development at some of the most disruptive companies in tech, she applies emerging and classic career development approaches that empower individuals to be the designers of their own careers. Poeppelman serves on the executive board for the Society of Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professional speaker to global audiences.

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Skill assessment, understanding an individual's unique skill set, and helping to identify the most important skills for a specific role is people development. Individual development is not the future, its the present. Focusing on specific skills development, people can grow and contribute more effectively much faster than group development. Implementing skills based development is challenging, but pays dividends for the organizations implementing this strategy. Great article.
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What a powerful framework to transition from viewing career development as a ladder, to a lattice! Too often employees and employers can limit growth to promotions and upward mobility. Career planning can move in a variety of directions. By pushing skills to the forefront, TD can increase the breadth and depth of our impact. A key component to success is leadership's ability to advocate and stimulate cross-department skill development. Interested to learn more about leadership academies.
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