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Skilling up to move up

  • Date: Tue, Jul 9, 2019

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This article was originally published in the Irish Times on July 3

The Peter Principle refers to the tendency in many traditional organisational hierarchies where every competent employee will continue to rise through the ranks, but at some point will be promoted into a position for which they are incompetent.

Most modern organisations have taken action to avoid falling victim to the Peter Principle and promotion is at least partly based on a matrix heavily weighted towards skills and competencies. People are no longer judged on how good they are in their current role, but on how well they might perform in the next one.

For ambitious people, this means constantly upgrading skills and acquiring new ones as they progress through their careers.

Among those skills is strategy development and implementation.

“Developing and executing strategy is key for executives today,” says Helen Brophy, director of executive development, UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. “As people move higher in organisations, they are expected to make a strategic contribution. Regardless of their area of technical expertise, they need to be able to step out and take a strategic overview of the whole organisation.”

The pace of change in business generally is driving this, she notes. “Strategy used to be something developed three to five years out. Now it is much more fluid. It has to be flexible and adaptable. How do you adapt to uncontrollable factors like Brexit? How do you make a business agile? Eighty per cent of people coming in our doors are mid- to senior-level executives and our most popular programmes are the ones that deal with strategy. Our Diploma in Strategy Development and Innovation runs constantly and is our number one programme in terms of popularity.”

Corporate governance skills are also increasing in demand. “What has really come into focus in the last number of years since the financial crash and the various scandals we have had is the whole area of corporate governance and risk management,” says Brophy. “People joining boards and senior management teams need to be upskilled and ensure they have sufficient knowledge to perform their duties and meet their responsibilities.”

The Diploma in Corporate Governance led by Prof Niamh Brennan is always fully subscribed, she points out. “We also get a lot of organisations who want us to work in-house with them on customised corporate governance programmes. This is a very positive development for business generally.”

New skills requirements
The impact of technological change, globalisation and a range of other factors is generating new skills requirements for both organisations and their employees, according to Skillnet executive director Dave Flynn. And these skills can be broken down into three broad categories.

“The first includes cross-sectoral skills like sales and marketing, data analytics, cybersecurity that almost every business needs,” he says. “The second covers those uniquely human skills which can’t be replaced by technologies like AI or automation. Organisations will always have a need for leadership, problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking and so on. And thirdly, there are the sector-specific skills like chemical engineers in the pharma industry or chefs for hospitality.”

Demand for those human skills is on the rise. “We have seen that really bubbling up in the last few years,” Flynn says. “Leadership is a core skill required by all companies and a lot of our Skillnet networks have been running various types of management development interventions in recent years.”

“Demand for leaders and good leadership in business is only increasing,” says Brophy. “We offer a suite of programmes for leadership development at all levels of an organisation. The Smurfit Senior Leadership Programme was developed in response to demand from industry and we also offer a three-day Leading for High Impact and Results programme. The objective is to help people develop their leadership capabilities and their capacity to lead teams and organisations.”

The Skillnet Ireland networks are also addressing cross-sectoral skills needs. “One of the networks launched a national cybersecurity initiative and brought other networks into that,” says Flynn “This means all the companies involved can avail of the training. This is very welcome as cybersecurity is one of those cross-sectoral skills that covers every business from large multinationals to small corner shops.”

Companies needn’t wait for a programme to be offered, however. “Through the Skillnet Ireland networks, groups of companies can come together, identify their needs and then develop and devise training programmes to address them. And if groups of companies identify a need for a new formal qualification or training programme, there is significant support of up to 80 per cent of the cost of developing it available from Skillnet Ireland.”

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