Over the decades, a recurring debate in the business world has been related to the specialist vs generalist dilemma – with the first often winning over the second – to establish whether a successful professional should focus on a specialism or aim at developing a wider range of competencies. This certainly does not apply to entrepreneurs, whose key peculiarities, especially in the early days of setting up a business, include having at least a basic understanding of a variety of different skill sets. Due to the limited availability of financial, human and time resources, we need to take care of all aspects of running our business from marketing to finance and sales, as well as make a considerable number of daily decisions on a variety of different aspects. When the business starts growing, it becomes increasingly important for entrepreneurs to identify suitable collaborators and start delegating certain tasks so that we can focus on more strategic work and leverage the specific skill sets of others. However, even though delegation is a key aspect in the successful growth of a business, it is important to remember that it’s extremely difficult to delegate well unless we know what we are delegating and what should be realistically expected from the person who takes on that particular responsibility.
In other words, entrepreneurs should ideally possess at least basic notions and understanding of a wide range of key skills necessary to run a business in today’s complex and uncertain environment. Considering the type of competencies that an entrepreneur requires, it seems appropriate to put forward the concept of comb-shaped knowledge where the horizontal stroke represents an overarching foundation composed of a variety of experiences and perspectives (breadth of knowledge) that glue together the vertical strokes indicating multiple areas of specific knowledge (depth of knowledge). This combination of breadth and depth of knowledge generates a higher level of skills transferability and a deeper understanding of complex situations and issues.
It is safe to say that acquiring this type of knowledge is more easily said than done. It requires a considerable amount of time and energy as well as the right mindset, and it is often not easily achievable by someone who operates under the constraints that we have as entrepreneurs. However, it could prove key in developing a competitive advantage and the dynamicity required to work in our post-modern business environment, where only very few individuals and organisations follow a linear development path.
Be deliberate in assessing your skills!
A simple but very efficient starting point to assess your skills and identify any requirements for further development is to create a competency grid to capture key insights on the skills that you currently have, the areas where some improvement is needed and the emerging competencies that may be increasingly important for your growth as a leader. To be done effectively, this process should take into account a variety of different aspects that may vary depending on your background, your organisation and the sector you operate in. However, there are a few key points on which it is worth for everyone to reflect on:
How do we gather the relevant insights for our competency grid?
Self-reflection is definitely a great starting point to evaluate your skills in a timely and purposeful way, based on your current requirements and/or those related to a specific stage of your business. It’s useful to think about the lessons learnt from a project or an activity and identify things that went particularly well and others that might need to improve as well as how these factors are related to a specific skill set.
It may also be helpful to benchmark yourself against other entrepreneurs who might have a similar business to yours, operate in the same sector as you do, follow a particularly interesting development path or simply have an inspirational profile. Even though we all have a unique growth path, it can be both motivating and insightful to look at someone who successfully achieved what we aspire to.
Considering that it is usually difficult to make an inclusive and completely objective self-evaluation, it is also important to gather feedback from those around you who might have different perceptions and useful and impartial insights on your skills.
How often should I assess my skills?
Now more than ever, skill assessment should be an ongoing process that enables us to review our competencies often and accurately so that we can adapt to the changing requirements of our business and respond to new needs in our sector and the wider business environment.
Which skills should I assess?
As entrepreneurs, we need to consider a range of skills that should ideally be as comprehensive as possible so that we have the tool kit necessary to face the daily challenges that may emerge across different parts of our businesses. A useful method could be to breakdown different skill sets based on:
. the context:
. personal development (for example, improving your negotiation skills);
. requirements related to the specific stage in your company’s lifecycle (for example, acquiring competencies to support an internationalisation process: linguistic or intercultural skills, market-specific information and so on);
. sector-specific knowledge (for example, gaining a new certification needed to operate in your field);
. wider socio-economic environment (for example, acquiring knowledge on NFTs or cryptocurrency).
. technical know-how: knowledge about a product, piece of machinery, sector and so on;
. soft skills: relationship-building skills, conflict management, team management their relevance, urgency and importance;
. short vs long-term requirements;
. traditional vs emerging skill sets.
In particular, this last point refers to the importance of exploring skill sets that may not be directly or immediately useful but are seen as key for the future of an organisation (like the use of AI). Based on personal experience, I’d recommend identifying at least one skill set that pushes you outside your comfort zone because we never know what could be a source of inspiration or useful knowledge to encourage creativity and innovation and help us develop a competitive advantage.
What are the key advantages of using a competence grid?
A competency grid is an easy way to create an overview of your skills and related levels of competency against the current needs of your role and your business. In particular, it helps:
. develop awareness about your strength and limitations;
. identify gaps and areas for improvement;
. prioritise specific activities depending on their importance and the resources available.
Setting development objectives: plan for strategic adaptability
Once you have created your competency grid, it is important to act on it and work on the priorities that you have identified. In my opinion, it is essential to find the right balance between the need to structure your skills development plan and the importance of keeping a certain level of flexibility and adaptability to the rapidly-changing surrounding environment. Your development does not happen in isolation, so it needs to be constantly reviewed in light of changing priorities, variations in the resources available (time, money, support available) and alignment between personal and organisational needs.
A structured approach is an effective way to build an action plan and hold yourself accountable for its implementation. However, do not let the plan stop you from shifting your focus, should the circumstances require it. In addition, it’d be particularly useful to identify short- and long-term skills development goals, taking into account the different nature of the competencies that you may need to acquire and the time you have available.
There is no doubt that this may seem a very daunting task, requiring a considerable time investment that, as entrepreneurs, we simply don’t have. Or at least we feel we don’t have because we get bogged down on too many day-to-day tasks that prevent us from focusing on strategic learning and skills development.
This exposes us to the risk of getting into a repetitive series of routine tasks that lead us to the false assumption that the only option to save precious time is to stop learning. However, as the Buffett formula highlights, it is important to get smarter and go to bed knowing a little more than the day before. Many successful business leaders like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates set aside time to read, learn and reflect every day. And in the words of one of my early-career mentors, ‘…if Buffett and Gates can find the time, you can too!’.
Is the hard work really worth it?
As a big advocate of life-long learning, my answer is a resounding yes. And let me give you a few of the many reasons why it is. Continuing to assess our skills and identifying areas for further development help us:
. acquire the skills to connect the dots and combine old and new knowledge to be innovative;
. build the confidence necessary to face any challenge and seize any opportunity;
. be able to lead successfully in a non-linear organisational context;
. develop a competitive advantage to stand out among the competition;
. stay current in our post-pandemic, post-modern VUCA environment;
. be a role model and represent excellence within your field.
Learn how to learn
There is no doubt that to keep working on your skills you need to put in the effort but there are ways to make the process efficient and, even more importantly, enjoyable. These are a few factors to consider:
Learning styles. One aspect that is often overlooked is that we all have different preferences when it comes to how we learn. Finding the right way of acquiring knowledge can have a positive impact on your time management.
Range of learning tools. We live in an age when there is a wide range of opportunities to learn new skills, not just the traditional, formal programmes. This makes it easy to learn little and often, instead of having to commit considerable amounts of time, effort and financial resources.
Focus on priorities. Ultimately, it is about your specific needs and those of your business so tailor your skills acquisition plan so that you focus on what is truly important and can add value to your work.
Develop the right mindset. Regardless of how much we keep learning, we should not be expected to have all the answers and all the solutions needed to face the ever-changing working environment. So, the most important skill to acquire is learning how to learn and developing a mindset that enables us to make timely, informed decisions with the often limited information and competencies we have. In addition to specific skill sets, the key benefit of embracing continuous skills assessment and learning is that it widens our minds and provides us with new perspectives and points of view and helps us process high volumes of information quickly and effectively so that we can navigate times of uncertainty and instability.
In conclusion, if I had to identify the key points that I would like you to take away from this article, I’d recommend that you:
. Make skill assessment and development an intentional action point.
. Plan strategically but stay highly adaptable.
. Don’t acquire skills for the sake of it, learn how to learn.
. Leave your comfort zone and widen your growth zone!