- Advertisement -

How HR can cultivate essential change skills in employees

Avatar photo
Vanessa Akhtar
Vanessa Akhtar is a Managing Director at change management and strategy execution firm Kotter. She has a doctorate in Counseling & Performance Psychology from Boston University and is the co-author of Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results Despite Uncertain and Volatile Times.

We are living in a world that is moving faster, is less predictable and is more complex and uncertain that ever before. A myriad of factors like globalization and rapidly advancing technology, with increased access to information, are contributing to this rapid-fire state of change. Many organizations are struggling to keep up in this new environment because it’s creating a fundamental need to rethink what it takes to thrive today. What we’ve learned is that organizations that are able to win in this disruptive and disrupted world have three key characteristics: an adaptable culture, change-friendly systems and structures, and employees who have change skills and capabilities.

- Advertisement -

HR leaders have a crucial role to play in achieving that third element: a workforce with change skills and capability. Historically, “soft” skills, such as adaptability, were seen as “nice to haves”; today, they are foundational and a key differentiator that will allow organizations to better respond to disruption. And leaders need to acknowledge the fact that the workforce will not develop the necessary skills by happenstance; they need to be intentionally fostered and reinforced over time.

Laying the foundation for developing change skills

The first step is for leaders to identify the critical change skills and capabilities needed to enable the organization for the future. Some of these key skills, which we have found to be industry- and role-agnostic, should include:

  • Agility and adaptability: the ability to respond, quickly, to the changing needs of the environment and shifting market (or internal) demands
  • Proactive problem-solving: the habit of looking at both the risks and opportunities that are emerging, with an eye toward mitigating emerging risks and capitalizing on emerging opportunities
  • Principles-based decision-making: recognizing the limits of rigid strategic roadmaps or workplans and embracing the notion of a core set of principles to guide real-time decision-making and necessary pivots

Once leaders have identified their list (which likely also includes skills beyond those above) it’s important to craft a multi-fold strategy for developing and embedding these skills across the workforce.

Creating a workforce ready for change

This multi-fold strategy should include three core elements:

- Advertisement -

1. Formal learning: Change skills and capabilities are not typically taught in school or in many traditional employee development programs. HR leaders need to invest in structured learning opportunities that provide a framework for change, in-classroom discussions to contextualize and practice those skills, and opportunities for meaningful self-reflection. This formal learning should then provide a common language and context for employees to practice these new skills when they’re on the job and at their desks.

2. On-the-job application: Learning cannot stop in the “classroom.” For skills to take hold and mature over time, employees need to have the chance to practice new skills in the context of their jobs. This can occur through projects they are already working on in their day jobs (e.g. consider how they may apply scenario planning to a critical strategic initiative underway, so they are more prepared for real-time pivots) or through newly formed, cross-functional teams tasked with tackling a particular challenge that will require new ways of working (i.e. not just working harder) to solve.

The key for this on-the-job learning is to ensure managers and other leaders embrace experimentation and a “fail fast” mentality—recognizing that folks are likely to stumble when first implementing new skills. Throughout this process, leaders need to acknowledge and celebrate when these new skills are demonstrated and highlight how they contributed to meaningful results.

See also: Why isn’t HR doing enough about the skills gap?

3. Hiring and recruiting: In addition to investing in the current workforce, HR leaders also need to reimagine hiring and recruiting practices to ensure that new talent is both sourced and evaluated through the lens of these “skills of the future.” If criteria for vetting new talent is aligned with old ways of working, leaders will inevitably have to retrain (or even move out) newly hired talent. A first step could include avoiding focusing the majority of a hiring interview on things like technical skills.

Rather, ensure interviews are getting the candidate to articulate examples of how they have navigated ambiguity or pivoted their approach to a particular project part way through, and the results that doing so enabled. It is imperative to embed change skills and capabilities into recruiting, interviewing and onboarding processes to more quickly scale a workforce that is ready to navigate today’s—and tomorrow’s—environment and reality.

Our landscape is unlikely to slow down or get more certain any time soon. This constant disruption is forcing employees, at all levels, to build a strong change muscle. HR leaders can help build a workforce that has deeply embraced change capabilities by first identifying the core skills needed for their organization and then embracing a strategy of both formal and on-the-job learning, supported by intentional hiring and recruiting. “Soft” skills are no longer a luxury; rather, they are a necessity that is critical for individuals and organizations to navigate the choppy waters of today.