Understanding and Overcoming The Skill Wall

Dec 21, 2021 Understanding and Overcoming the Skill Wall blog post from ProCFO Partners

Who’s the better employee – the deeply committed, personally invested person who lacks some raw skills, or the highly skilled person who can sometimes be tough to manage? Should you hire for skill, or for “fit”? What does any of that even mean? In this article we’ll try to make sense of the skill wall, including insights and perspective on when to explore hard skills versus passion, and why having a vision of success for the role before even exploring options is critical.

What is the Skill Wall?

Workers are not always able to keep up with the skill requirements for new jobs, evolving roles or additional responsibilities. The “skill wall” is formed when employees are not trained for new skill sets or simply lack the skills or qualifications to do what’s required.

Skills gaps can be overcome with training and development, which will provide employees with opportunities to gain new capabilities and knowledge. They can also be overcome, to some extent, with passion and talent. This is possible when you find a person who has the potential to learn new skills such that the investment of time, money, energy, resources, patience, understanding and mentorship are “worth it” for them to become high performers.

Training and development alone will not be enough to overcome the skill wall because if people don’t have passion, natural talent, or an innate curiosity to improve, they’ll likely lose their motivation after being trained.

In order to understand the skill wall better, we have to first evaluate what role we want each person in our workforce to play: do we want them as generalists or specialists? Next, we must assess how much training and development they need in order to reach their potential. When assessed against their passion, personality, energy and other subjective factors, the path for breakthrough becomes more clear.

Should You Hire For Skills, Development, Experience or Passion? The answer is Yes.

The most crucial question to explore in context of the skill wall is: Does this person fit. “Fit” is subjective, but is a factor of your company’s culture, your expectations of the person and role, how others intersect with this role and more. If “fit” isn’t there, nothing else will succeed, no matter how talented or hungry a person is.

After fit, it’s important to remember that no situation suits all people, roles or companies. Other key questions to ask relative to the skill wall include:

  • What does your company really need? Managing tasks vs creating opportunities are two different skill sets, for instance.
  • At what level of maturity or readiness is your company? A small business making it’s second or third hire might not be in a position to hire a high caliber, experienced and salaried sales exec.
  • Does your company have a culture of development? Is mentorship, apprenticeship, structured training or  milestone-minded job onboarding part of the experience for new or emerging talent at your company? Or are people expected to make an immediate impact, take ownership or just figure things out? 

Many companies haven’t asked these questions of themselves or don’t know the answers. There can be a mindset that new talent should be contributing right away, or should quickly find their stride. Yet, if the company doesn’t have an infrastructure to contribute to an environment for success, these expectations are bound to go unmet to the frustration of everybody. The skill wall is often thought of as a talent-side problem. The responsibility to overcome it is in fact shared with managers, executives and the company at large.

Measuring For Success

One way companies can be proactive in overcoming the skill wall is to set milestones and definitions for success before making that key hire or promotion. Ahead of time, define:

  • What should this person be capable of in their first 30 days? After 60 days? 90 days?
  • Is this an existing role with a proven “template” for success? Is it an existing role that needs new vision or capabilities to succeed? Or is it an entirely new role that this person will in many ways be responsible for defining? Can you then itemize, in some way, the success factors for this role? This helps you better align with what skills are necessary versus if passion, experience or leadership potential is more essential.
  • Are the skills necessary for success satisfying your company’s present reality, or are you future-minded with this hire or promotion?
  • How will you know this person or this role is succeeding or not?

Skills for Now or Skills for Next: It’s Up To Leaders

Most business owners are excellent at delivering a product or a service, but often the business side of things is something they pick up along the way. Cultivating talent is often not a strength. Leaders might know that at revenues of $500,000 or $5 Million, they need to have certain things done, so they hire people who can do certain things. They don’t necessarily know what will be required at revenues of $15 or $20 Million, how job functions could change or what support those roles will require. If they don’t know, how can they communicate their expectations for the person they’re relying on to deliver it for them? 

This can mean key employees who are passionate, loyal, and want to help the business succeed don’t necessarily know what else they should be doing. They’re not being given guidance on what success looks like.

This doesn’t just apply to new or emerging roles or talent. Often companies make a hire when they’re small. Responsibilities, expectations and skills required are those of a small company. As a company grows, those requirements will evolve and likely grow more sophisticated or complicated. A common scenario as a company grows is to make existing talent managers of new talent. For instance, a sales person is hired when the company is small, and over time that person becomes sales manager of additional new people. There can be an expectation among both the company and the original hire that this sort of role evolution will occur. Yet, just because a person is capable in sales doesn’t mean they’re strong managers. These are totally different skill sets. This connects to the value of creating measurement for success in a role – leaders and position holders can have a roadmap ahead of them to guide expectations.

Overcoming The Skill Wall

Skills and experience are not enough to get ahead and succeed at work, but neither is raw passion or excitement. All are required for employees to break through the skill wall and find fulfillment in their jobs. This requires understanding. Employees must understand themselves and their skills in context of what’s required of them at work, and the company must understand what defines success in a role. When this understanding is mutually aligned, the skill wall becomes easier to overcome.


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