In the midst of economic turbulence, it might seem like soft skills training would be a tough sell. However, at accounting firm J.H. Cohn, these capabilities are viewed as the organization’s competitive advantage.
Companies are realizing that one way to differentiate themselves from others in the marketplace is to build a team of well-rounded employees with both hard technical skills and soft enabling skills. They know that with the same technical training material available to most businesses in an industry, a team with strong enabling skills is a competitive advantage. They also realize that enabling skills help increase productivity internally and enhance employee and customer satisfaction.
J.H. Cohn, an accounting and consulting firm that operates in the northeastern United States, believes that strengthening enabling skills is a critical performance and career development tool. The company’s learning department offers long-term learning paths and resource materials for technical knowledge, such as audit work process.
Yet, the organization also has placed a strong emphasis on the interpersonal skills that support technical performance. Technical expertise remains the core of its learning initiatives, but supplementing these courses with enabling-skills development gives its employees the tools to become better equipped and, as a result, more valuable to the firm and its clients.
Enabling-Skills Development in Practice
As with technical skills, J.H. Cohn’s approach to enabling-skills development is multifaceted and includes job assignments, coaching and formal training.
The most critical enabling skills the company focuses on include both oral and written communication, relationship building, team performance and leading and managing people. The organization believes a strong approach should include courses that are in-depth and go beyond the standard “101” versions of these skills. For example, instead of “how to write,” communication courses concentrate on helping employees develop the skills they need to articulate thoughts convincingly, both verbally and on paper.
Relationship development is relevant to both internal interactions among colleagues and external contact with clients. When it comes to business development, courses should focus on developing the role of a trusted adviser. A teamwork program establishes how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, how to share knowledge and how to offer positive and constructive feedback to team members.
Approaches also vary by employee level. For example, the learning track for managers emphasizes topics such as how to encourage people to grow and how to set goals and provide feedback, whereas the learning track for staff professionals emphasizes the communication skills described above.
In addition to formal training, J.H. Cohn uses action learning to help move development out of the classroom. The company’s partner academy — which offers managerial and career development training to high-potential, manager-level employees — is one area in which action learning assignments are employed. The up-and-coming professionals participating in the program are presented with a real-world issue facing the firm. They are asked to work together to develop solutions, which encourages teamwork and strategic thinking, as well as the development of technical knowledge on the assigned topic. The project lasts three months, and built-in mechanisms debrief participants on what they have learned about working as a team and the ways they have addressed the issue at hand.
In addition, employees get an opportunity to strengthen their enabling skills by serving as instructors for internal training programs. Managers and senior managers present courses on technical topics. Through these experiences, they hone both presentation and discussion skills, as well as their technical expertise.
Walk Before You Run
When enabling-skills development at J.H. Cohn was initially introduced, the firm’s learning department committed to taking the time to pinpoint the needs of the organization. It took a “roll up, roll down” approach by asking for feedback from more than one-third of the company’s employees.
All senior partners were asked, “What are the most critical enabling skills that our staff needs to perform day-to-day to help differentiate the firm?” The learning team also held focus groups with managers and staff to gain their perspectives. For some time, there was ongoing dialogue about how best to address identified needs.
Based on the feedback from this assessment, the learning function prioritized developing people, handling tough conversations, relationship development, managing people and oral and written communication. In addition, it clarified the specific ways it needed to align its approach with the firm’s strategic plan. For instance, relationship building is a key strategic driver at the firm; thus, this skill set became one of the highest priorities for development.
Before creating the program, the learning team benchmarked against the development offerings of other firms, both within and outside of the accounting industry. This phase also included a vigorous and in-depth search for leading providers of these programs.
Once the enabling-skills path was launched, the company developed the program gradually by piloting courses and offering them as electives at first. Now fine-tuned, some of these courses are required. Today, about 25 percent of the department’s course selections address enabling skills. In employee surveys, when asked about training effectiveness, satisfaction has increased. People have commented that they feel better equipped to do their jobs. In fact, when asked about the extent to which the programs are applicable on the job, ratings of enabling-skills courses are equal or higher than technical courses.
For companies considering implementing or extending a program that offers enabling skills, as well as technical skills development, consider these guidelines:
• Get support from senior management. Buy-in from senior management is instrumental to any successful program; yet, it’s important to recognize that you may be introducing a significant culture change. Build in time to introduce the concept gradually.
• Assess needs. Understand which enabling skills are most needed by your workforce and in your industry. Meet with employees and conduct surveys to determine the skill gaps. You may not need to concentrate on all of the top enabling skills.
• Establish goals. Have long-term and short-term objectives in place to help keep the program on track.
• Develop gradually. Start by offering a few courses as a test run. It will be easier to improve and grow the program.
• Evaluate progress. At minimum, have a strong feedback system in place to identify what is working and what needs to improve. Since enabling skills may be seen as less critical than technical skills, clearly identify the desired results and how they will be measured. J.H. Cohn has Level 1 and Level 2 evaluation in place. In addition, the company conducts follow-up interviews and focus groups to gather specific results and learn how its people have used enabling skills, internally and externally.
• Evaluate progress at a higher level. Once the program is established, consider selectively implementing Level 3 (behavior change) evaluation. Level 3 allows for a more in-depth look at the success of an enabling-skills program. Companies can determine, for example, whether a leadership program actually had an impact on a manager’s day-to-day activities.
Enabling-skills development will continue to increase. As more and more companies become global, the need for this type of training will become especially relevant. More businesses will adopt global enabling-skills models. For the most part, the priority on enabling skills should eventually level off as companies find the right balance. However, there likely will be a growing emphasis on blended solutions in this area and leveraging e-learning for enabling-skills training.
The Bottom Line
Making a true commitment to enabling-skills development can reap many rewards, including employee retention and competitive advantage. Companies will continue to find that the development of employees’ enabling skills is a worthwhile use of time and resources.