HR Binoculars

Johanna recently wrote a great blog post on the 4th Industrial Revolution. She outlined how several factors are pushing us to reframe our thinking in terms of work, careers and learning. One of the other aspects we’ve been thinking about a lot at Spotify is the recurring piece of feedback we see across the HR industry that many employees don’t know how to grow their  skills or develop their career. They struggle to identify what it will take for them to transition careers, or simply become better, faster, and more effective in their current role.

This is going to become even more important as this 4th Industrial Revolution takes hold. People are going to need to know how to develop their skill sets more rather than focus on a linear career.

So how do HR teams set them up for success?

Is Autonomy Enough?

One response, common to HR teams like ours at Spotify, is to double-down on creating an environment of ownership and autonomy, so that employees can drive their development. It remains really important to set the right learning culture and manage expectations so that employees do not mistakenly assume that managers can do all the development work for them. At Spotify, we lean on a growth mindset (we believe that Spotifiers are motivated by a desire to develop), and autonomy and competency are core to our culture. Working with the business to create career frameworks and other best practices like coaching, mentorships, training and development talks, are all very well, and we are definitely not saying we should throw these out the window; however, we need to do more to help our managers and employees.

At Spotify HR, we are striving to go beyond the common response, and we think we could put more thought and effort into both scaling and personalizing programs so that more people can benefit and it can add more to the employee experience. 

An added bonus of this is that helping each Spotifier with their career development keeps them employable, and they do not get stuck during their tenure at Spotify – without this we would not be an attractive employer. In addition, in a business that’s constantly evolving, career development on an individual level contributes to the businesses ability to stay relevant and fuels innovation. 

What Are The Challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is the nature of our role as HR. As part of an HR function, you are used to thinking in leadership terms (even if you are not a people manager). In addition, our closest partners (senior leaders in the business) are also deeply ingrained in leadership and management. This means we can easily lose sight of who our audience is – the employee. 

There are also several patterns of behaviour that we see that are far too dependent on experience over skills. There’s a major mindset shift needed in order to challenge these assumptions and become much more supportive of individuals and their careers.

Here are Spotify’s top four tips on how to make the mindset shift:

1. Don’t assume people know their own skill sets

Skills are hard to define and it’s rare (if not unprecedented) for any individual to have the full palette of skills for their current role. The majority of people know a few things about their skills and abilities (probably through feedback they’ve received in the past, or things like psychometric tests), but let’s be honest, most people haven’t fully defined their skill set, or put much conscious thought into their motivations. Encouraged by what they are acknowledged for being good at, most people have unknown blind spots in terms of their own skill sets.

In fact, when talking about development of a skill set, many people will naturally focus on an area, rather than several specific skills. For example, if a person is aiming to get better at influencing, there are several skills they could and should work on, from understanding their audience, adapting written and verbal communications, to improving their story-telling, and everything in between. The instinct is for them to focus on improving the skill of ‘influencing’, when in fact it’s a family of skills they should focus on.

All of these aspects that are common misunderstandings of skill sets matter a lot because it leads to a fundamental lack of understanding on the difference between a skill and a competency, and therefore a difficulty for any individual person to identify a development area that will help them grow into their next role, or the next stage of their personal career path.

2. Help managers to put individual growth first

Managers are supposed to help navigate and coach the employees, and whilst some do that really well, there’s an unnerving number who aren’t able to help at all. It’s a skill in itself for a leader to steer themselves away from thinking that everyone on their team wants to follow the same career path as they have. In addition, subconsciously they probably have an agenda to make sure the individual stays on the team because they want that person’s skill set. 

It’s also true that managers are often not the subject matter expert and therefore have even less knowledge about the specific skill sets required. Not to mention that it’s impossible for one manager to have a full picture of all the opportunities across the company. Therefore, if a team member only relies upon their manager to shape their career path for them, their vision of what the future could hold becomes very limited. 

There’s a big risk that feedback from managers is biased towards the way they want work to be done, rather focussing on the output and the skills needed. And of course, managers with deadlines are much more likely to prioritise the skills needed at the present time. It’s understandable that they have a hard time to approach skills and careers development with each individual team member in mind, and particularly hard for them to help an individual prioritize the development of a skillset that’s targeted towards adding value in the long term. For a less-experienced manager it’s natural for them to feel an internal conflict around this. They probably know that helping people develop their skills for the long-term is better for both the person and the business, but they are also doing their job if they focus on the current roadmap and deliveries they are committed to. It’s a tug-of-war, and it’s pretty damaging to career development if the ‘here and now’ always wins this battle.

3. Realize the limitations of frameworks

Career frameworks, or ladders, usually cement beliefs that the only way is up, rather than looking at lateral growth and development. They are generic, and more applicable to the masses rather than being personalized. There’s no failsafe for situations where a team member’s skills fit outside of the frame they are currently placed within, meaning that the employee is totally on their own to discover and map out those skills.

To support the current frameworks and desired behaviors in the company there are usually development talk tools, which are great. But because we want a tool that works for everyone they tend to be too generic in terms of skill sets, making the experience for each individual vague. The tool itself can become a blocker against  focussing on the important skill set for each person. 

4. Adjust your talent sourcing to look for skill sets  

Traditionally, when recruiting, HR encourages managers to identify the job they need to get done and then articulate the skill set required for that specific role. But quite frankly, we often fall short as most job ads focus wholeheartedly on similar experience in a similar role (and usually at a similar company), and don’t actually focus on the skill set. It’s a similar case when you are sourcing talent for an initiative or project that’s not a full time role. People will lean on their network, and therefore the search becomes focussed on candidates who gained visibility in a previous similar role, rather than on their skill sets.

Looking for experience is not a bad thing, but we should be encouraging candidates to explore (and recruiters and hiring managers to listen out for) how they can apply their current skill sets to a new role and develop further.

Does Having a Distributed Workforce Help or Hinder?

The last year under the Covid-19 restrictions has accelerated remote working. More companies give their employees the choice to work remotely, because they’ve now seen that productivity doesn’t drop, and that distributed working can work.

Where companies have got this right, each individual’s output matters more than how they go about tasks. This reduces our natural biases towards working more with people we identify with, or work in the same way we do. So there’s already a shift towards skills playing a more central role, which is fantastic. However, without some conscious effort, it does not solve for people’s development. In a virtual setting there’s a greater risk that the company feels even more distant and complex for employees. With a remote workforce, the networking and knowledge sharing opportunities that previously took place by having lunch or a coffee with someone from another department, are missing. Or certainly not easily replicated.  

Focus on the Beehive

At Spotify we’ve put a lot of thought into how we can make career growth a meaningful part of the employee experience, and we know that although we have our foundations in the right place, we need to challenge some of our assumptions and focus more on the people, rather than the framework. We think one way we could do that is by creating a kind of talent marketplace that we view as a beehive that employees can fly in and out of. Here they would be able to go about building their own part of the hive, but also contribute to something bigger than themselves. We aim for Spotifiers to put more time and energy on being part of the beehive rather than staring up at a ladder that they’re not even sure they want to climb anyway. A beehive focus will help them to build their own personalized career support network, within the bigger picture.

We need to further tweak our growth mindset approach and expand our career growth tools if we will make strides forward in this fourth industrial revolution. We do need to reframe the way we think about careers and investing in learning. A good start is for us in HR to talk about skills, rather than simply focussing on whether a candidate has done the same or a similar role before. 

We must look beyond experience, injecting more visionary behaviour throughout the process, whereby the candidate is comfortable to project how they might develop, and the hiring managers and recruiters can imagine how a current skill set can add more value in the future. 

There’s no magic solution and it’s a marathon and not a sprint. But at Spotify, we want to further help our employees drive their development, we want to help managers to focus on output and be better acquainted with skills requirements than experience requirements, and essentially we want to add value to the business through democratizing careers. Therefore, we’re warming ourselves up and soon we’ll start running. Will you join?

My HR playlist

Some articles and podcasts that fuelled thinking through the different angles of of a fresh approach:

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