Is Your Executive Team Stifling Your Upskilling Efforts? 

Employees stay engaged when they are given the chance to learn and grow within their roles.

Written by Gary Eimerman
Published on Mar. 23, 2022
Is Your Executive Team Stifling Your Upskilling Efforts? 
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For organizations embarking on a journey to upskill their tech workforce, securing executive buy-in for learning and upskilling efforts is crucial. Research shows that leaders and executives have immense influence on the culture of their organization, including setting priorities and championing initiatives across their teams. 

By the same token, business leaders also have the capacity to be a roadblock for progress — especially when it comes to carving out time for team members to learn and develop skills. For technology skills development, Pluralsight’s 2021 State of Upskilling Report showed there was often a disconnect between how satisfied C-suite executives were with their upskilling programs versus their employees. Executives expressed far more satisfaction (83.5 percent) with their current upskilling programs than their employees did (61 percent). 

During my own time in the C-suite, I’ve found that being a vocal and dedicated champion of upskilling and career development is essential to foster a culture of learning among teams. Leaders need to evaluate the ways in which they are either hindering or enabling their tech teams to reach their full potential through their commitment to helping their people enhance their skills and grow as professionals. Your actions and incentives will speak louder than words.

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Without Executive Buy-in, Upskilling Efforts Flounder

Executives who incentivize and enable a culture of lifelong learning within their organizations will see the benefits through higher employee engagement. Research from Gallup shows that organizations with higher rates of engagement enjoy 17 percent higher productivity and 21 percent higher profitability than organizations that do not invest in team engagement. Employee engagement is also a good indicator of a healthy work culture. 

How Leaders Can Drive Upskilling Efforts Within Their Orgs

In many ways, executives are the tip of the spear when it comes to driving cultural change within their organization. Although they may have less boots-on-the-ground engagement with upskilling initiatives, executives are the ones who look at big-picture impacts, set goals and establish desired outcomes for the entire organization. 

Because of this, organizations need to consider having dedicated executive sponsors for their upskilling initiatives. Executive sponsors should take on the role of identifying an organization’s upskilling goals, affirming upskilling initiatives as a strategic priority and communicating how reaching these goals translates into outcomes and rewards. Skills development is like any other investment: It takes time to develop and shows compounding impact over the long run.

Accenture is a great example of an organization that has championed skill development efforts through executive sponsorship. Accenture’s global head of talent has helped more than 600,000 employees deepen their commitment to tech skills, creating a world-class tech team. They’ve done this in a few ways: First, they implemented a program called the “technology quotient.” This is an upskilling path that builds tech fluency across the organization and keeps team members up to date on emerging technologies and trends. 

Additionally, Accenture has invested in online learning solutions to help build their tech team’s proficiency and expertise across all technology roles. This encourages everyone to stay engaged and continuously learn to support their organization’s agile efforts. Through dedicated executive sponsorship, Accenture has set their technology workforce up for success.

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Top-Down Leadership Leads to Institutionalized Skills Development

There is no more effective way to develop a culture of learning within your organization than by adjusting your practices and processes to allow for daily or regular learning. 

As best selling author James Clear writes, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” For leaders, this concept should resonate; it’s not enough to simply aspire to have a culture of learning within your organization, you need to build it into your systems and processes.

Creating dedicated time and space for skills development is a good first step to overhauling your processes and making daily learning institutionalized and is much easier to create at the executive level than the individual. Within the teams I lead at Pluralsight, we set aside two hours every other week as protected time for skills development. No meetings are allowed to be scheduled over that time period. 

The goal with this block of time is to create a safe environment to enable individuals to spend time investing in themselves, not to force anyone to develop skills or complete training assessments. In fact, employees could go over emails for two hours and we would be none the wiser. What we are saying with this action is that these two hours are a sacred time, and we are signaling that within our organizational culture, learning is a priority. It’s better to motivate by sharing the success stories than making it a forced experience, which is less effective for learning and satisfaction. 

Another organization that has exemplified institutional skill development efforts is Acxiom, a data connectivity platform for marketers. Acxiom’s executive sponsors identified the need to upskill their technology team in the cloud in order to better serve its customers. To do this, Acxiom implemented Level-Up, a program that gave employees dedicated time throughout each quarter to build their skills. Within Level-Up, Acxiom held hackathons that gave developers dedicated space to build code rapidly. More than 70 percent of the code generated during these hackathons was put into production use. 

Acxiom’s example shows that when leaders champion institutionalized programs that allow time for learning and skill development, tangible outcomes boost an organization's bottom line. Executives need to recognize the potential of advocating for process change tied to skill development. 

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Leaders Shouldn’t Take Skill Development Efforts for Granted

One of the key takeaways I want to leave you with is that upskilling efforts by your teams should be celebrated — not ignored, frowned upon or taken for granted. Every leader of every tech organization on the planet can see that skills gaps are real and growing. And if time and resources are not dedicated to closing those skills gaps, they will not be closed. This is especially true during the era of the Great Resignation.

Upskilling often leads to greater employee engagement which, in turn, leads to retention. Employees stay engaged when they are given the chance to learn and grow within their roles. In fact, more than half of technologists surveyed in the State of Upskilling Report value opportunities to grow professionally more than how much they make. 

Additionally, research from Gartner suggests that lack of career development and learning opportunities drives employee attrition. The best employees will always be interested in how they can learn and grow within their roles. By putting skills development on the back burner, leaders are also putting their talent pool at risk.

Skill-building initiatives shouldn’t just be celebrated at the executive level, they should be incentivized. For organizations using the Pluralsight platform, for example, I would recommend putting on a skills blitz, an event where you emphasize learning and skill measurement. During the event (normally a day or two) our organization puts on competitions where you see who in the company can produce the most Skill IQ scores in a single day or engage with the most content during a time period depending on your goals as a company. 

Awarding both folks who engaged the most as well as raffles for anyone who participated serve as great motivational tools. You would be surprised at how effective using prizes in the form of swag and gifts to reward participation can be. Gamifying the upskilling process can help kick off your L&D program and, if structured correctly, start building new habits to show your employees how much skill building matters to your organization.


The Takeaway

It’s incredibly important that leaders, especially those in the C-suite, show their teams how dedicated they are to their professional development and learning. A work environment that cherishes upskilling opportunities — with leadership that champions continuous learning — will edge out the competition by being more agile, adaptable and innovative.

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