Got Skills Gaps? Partner Up

Adults are struggling to learn in today’s fast-paced world, and leaders are having a tough time finding employees who already have both the technical and soft skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. But Mika Nash said learning leaders can find ways to elevate workforce knowledge. Nash, the Academic Dean of Champlain College Online in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies, spoke with Chief Learning Officer about how to address skills gaps and how to create an online curriculum that is highly relevant, career-focused and immediately applicable.

Chief Learning Officer: How severe is the skills gap in our knowledge-focused age? Why is it so great?

Mika Nash: Because the landscape is changing so much, particularly in technical areas, there are employees coming in, prospective employees, who don’t have more advanced expertise in the technical areas. [Employers are] hiring folks with potential and putting them through training and education to get them to the place they would like them to be. But what we hear most often is perhaps even much more serious, and that is around the softer skills — critical thinking, problem solving, troubleshooting — which [are] central to an employee’s ability to be valuable, contribute and produce. A lot of organizations and institutions aren’t teaching to fill those skills gaps in an integrated way.

Chief Learning Officer: High-growth job categories tend to require higher social skills, analytic savvy and technical prowess. What’s one way today’s learning leaders can build these skills?

Nash: Create an environment in your workplace where you encourage fast failure. It’s okay to make mistakes. Fast failure is one of those ideas that’s used in business a lot where you want people to make mistakes quickly, learn from it and move on. That kind of environment creates innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and energizes people because they don’t feel paralyzed with this fear around “what if I make a mistake?” or “what if I don’t hit some kind of arbitrary standard?” Once you release people from that fear, people often work at a much higher level.

Chief Learning Officer: Adults want meaningful ways to grow their skills and advance their careers. How should corporate learning leaders partner with higher education programs to get what employees want and what the business needs?

Nash: If you’re struggling to do something — maybe you’re not hitting numbers or there’s an issue that continues to be thorny in your work environment — a wonderful way of managing that is working with someone who is an expert in the field, and those folks are at higher education institutions all over the country. Bring those folks in to help do a gap analysis around what we have, what do we need, and then to start making connections. Where can we get those skills, those competencies? Are there programs that offer these types of outcomes, certificate programs, etc.? When we start being very deliberate and mindful about our approach to support employees, and we bring higher education into the equation, there’s such an incredible benefit to employees but also to employers.

Chief Learning Officer: How can learning leaders make sure their curriculum is career-focused, highly relevant and immediately applicable in the workforce?

Nash: The best way to manage this both for learning leaders who are internal to the business place and working in higher education organizations is, have a really free flow of information and communication happening. I’m very uncomfortable with that firewall that can sometimes exist between the “pure” education and business; like, somehow, we shouldn’t be engaging with one another. The goal is to create lots of opportunities to hear what are the problems cropping up in the workplace. Make sure your curriculum is responsive and agile to be able to respond to those changes.

Chief Learning Officer: Is there a foolproof methodology CLOs can use to create rigorous online curriculum that promotes critical thinking skills and lifelong learning?

Nash: Nothing is ever foolproof, but there is an equation that makes sense. Have curriculum that is highly applied, relevant and current, and I truly mean highly applied; we’re not living in a land of theory here. Every theory, every idea should be attached to something real. If you have that and you have faculty who are, in the best of all possible worlds, practitioners in the field, asking critical questions and engaging student in ways that makes them think very deeply about the materials, you will have a curriculum that is immediately useful in the workplace. It’s not foolproof, but it is darn near perfect.


AUTHOR:  Alice Keefe is a Chief Learning Officer editorial intern.


Why it Pays to Develop Skills in ‘Irrationality’

The standard approach to employee development, management, and even selling is to break tasks down to observable components, provide the logical rationale behind completing the job according to that standard, and expect the factual evidence to be sufficiently overwhelming to convince people of the logic of the need to change. Unfortunately, that approach will be ineffective and lacking because it fails to meet a key need of the receiver of the message.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, training in an understanding of irrationality is needed.

The Situation

An executive was frustrated by the inability of her sales force to achieve quarterly targets even though the opportunities existed. In exasperation, she once again reviewed the following fact-based tools with the team:

•Account Profile Forms: Interrogatively question prospects/accounts to identify and learn needs.
•Product Knowledge: Making sure the salespeople know the differences between their offerings and those of the competition.
•Internal Resources: Forecasting tools, marketing collateral uses, inventory tracking applications, and pricing aids to ensure they leverage the advantages of the newly implemented IT department’s work.
•Reinforcement of the solution’s ROI, delivery options, and different solution alternatives.

Sensing her desperation at working so hard without results, I asked if I could share an insight developed over 25-plus years of training. Even in her impatience to progress, she relaxed a bit as she listened to my story:

The Story

I began in sales training believing it was incumbent upon salespeople to uncover needs, diagnose the issues, and then prescribe a solution that would link product or services to those needs. For years, I refined my skills in honing the ability to zero in on the proper questions to ask, the “bridge to a close,” and the sales process methods to gain agreement, etc.

I conduced two-day workshops where I introduced forms, profiles, processes, etc., all designed to reinforce “best-in-class” skills. All the while, I believed the answer to sales success lay in the application of the skills being trained. Skill in rapport was something that was “hired in” as it was not easily trained. Either someone “had it, or not.” Sure, we trained people on how to do the steps mechanically (shake hands, make eye contact, look for pictures or trophies in the buyer’s office to comment on, etc.), but it was less important than the critical success factors (CSFs).

Over that time, I got quite good at creating exercises, job aids, reference materials, case studies, etc., designed to enhance the competencies of the sales forces I trained to follow the path of “Fact-based selling/Consultative Approaches/Solution-based techniques/etc.”

Truth be told, the results of that effort rarely led to a change in performance across the majority of salespeople trained.

It was not until I applied research from experts outside business or sales (attorneys, therapists, and others) who exposed me to a different insight on what compels people to act, how to align with others, ways of building trust, develop relationships, etc., that I understood that what we have lost in our sales approach is the understanding of the importance of the non-logical, emotional, and non-rational components of decision-making.

Building Relationships Starts With Trust

While there is a need for the skills covered in the traditional way salespeople are taught to sell, there also needs to be awareness of how to appeal to the emotional decision-making requirements the buyer has to have met. For example, one of the key challenges for a seller is to build a relationship with his or her prospect. But to do that, one needs to develop trust. Trust does not happen solely by the sharing of data or facts. No one forms a relationship with a data sheet, spreadsheet, or even ROI calculations.

Building trust requires the six Cs:

1. Competency: Seen as capable and knowledgeable.
2. Commitment: Demonstrate investment in the solution and not just see the prospect as a quota-attainment target.
3. Communication/Clarity: Information-sharing, responses to questions, removing doubts, etc.
4. Caring: Before assessing or caring what the seller knows, the customer wants to know the person cares.
5. Collaboration: For sales efforts to succeed, there is a need to align with customers, share resources, mutually choose options, and exemplify a willingness to work together.
6. Character: Behaving ethically, morally, and transparently.

When logic, data, quantitative input, and facts are offered, we tend to want to challenge, argue, and dispute them. However, when we are told a “story,” we relax, listen for how it mirrors our own reality, are willing to share experiences, and the conversation becomes a dialogue of equals—and not a salesperson trying to sell something to a resistant buyer.

Putting It Into Action

Rather than the standard factual/rational/logical sales presentations, the executive was told to include the following few things:

1.Competency: Rather than go on and on about how great they are in their selling decks (all self-reported), I told her to share an example of how they had solved a problem for a client or customer. The example will convey the competency far better than beating of the chest and claiming one’s superiority.

2.Commitment: Share a story of how the company went above and beyond the expected. It is far more accessible for the prospect than simply stating, “We are with you from sale to implementation.”

3.Communication/Clarity: Share a time when, by virtue of your communicating clearly, you avoided a catastrophe that was bound to happen.

4.Caring: Offer up that example of when you personally opened the office on the weekend of your daughter’s wedding because you knew the client needed access to files.

5.Collaboration: Recount that time your firm worked side by side with the client to staple pages and punch holes in their sheets to be stuffed into binders.

6.Character: Avoiding gossip or not taking potshots at competitors will be noted in your favor.

The irrational success the executive’s team experienced prompted her company to make a logical choice and promote her.

About the Author:

David Zahn, president of ZAHN Consulting, LLC, is an author, consultant, professor, and connoisseur of Buffalo Chicken Wings. He can be reached at

Reprinted from the Training Magazine Network

Pin It on Pinterest