Make Your Case for Communication Upskilling

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Companies say they desperately want employees who can communicate effectively — leaders tell me that all the time in workshops — but how many of them really mean it? It’s hard to find a job posting that doesn’t mention the communication skill set as a key requirement. And yet, when faced with the skills that candidates actually have and those that they’re weak in, hiring managers find themselves making trade-offs, particularly to meet pressing technical needs: This guy can code like there’s no tomorrow, but his communication is a challenge. Let’s get him in here fast. We’ll coach him up. It can wait.

The thing is, communication skills can’t wait. Executives in “people functions” like human resources and learning and development (L&D) understand that communication and persuasion skills are critical in all areas of business — even software development and accounting. Those who design, manage, implement, and track employee development programs already know the business benefits of being adept at influencing colleagues and others in an organization.

So how do you also show the deep skeptics in your organization — for instance, data scientists who view the word persuasion with disdain, as a euphemism for manipulation — that a serious investment in communication skills is worth making?

You do it by making a solid case for the return on that investment. And you can take your cues from those folks in L&D. They’ve thought long and hard about ways to measure the ROI of their training programs and the best ways to communicate the benefits of those talents.

A Measurement-Based Case for Better Soft Skills

At a recent event for my company’s customers, our executive vice president of customers led a panel discussion on the ways that large technical brands are building soft skills and what the ROI has been for them. Two L&D executives shared what they’ve discovered about conveying that value in their organizations: Catherine (Cat) Lang, who heads up product training and certification for customers and partners at ServiceNow, a digital workflow company based in Santa Clara, Calif.; and Noelle Anderson, the director of enablement at Snap, the parent company for visual messaging app Snapchat. Here are five key insights from their conversation.

Collect examples of the ROI you’ve seen from previous training.

One way to start is to think back to previous learning efforts in your organization and see what dots you can connect for stakeholders. For instance, did an in-house workshop on presenting data precede a big win for your organization — like landing a lucrative project or winning a major client? Make that correlation explicit and point to others like it. You might already have more of an ROI track record for some of your soft skills training than you realize.

Help identify the value of future training.

When you’re considering or developing future training, look for more direct ways to measure upskilling outcomes. At Snap, for instance, the enablement team has developed a pitch-coaching program in which salespeople, account managers, and creative strategists work together to develop pitches for existing clients. Participants receive lots of coaching and developmental feedback from seasoned communicators while formulating, framing, and practicing their pitches — a big incentive to sign up for the program. They also create real, measurable value by workshopping real pitch content.

The payoff — whether it’s a renewed contract or the sale of a new product or service — is quantifiable. “What we’ve done on the back end,” Anderson said, “is work with our CRM teams to create a check box in Salesforce to denote whether or not each presentation was part of our pitch program.” From there, the team can filter to see which pitches brought in revenue.

Although Anderson’s group at Snap reports to the sales team rather than to corporate L&D, they collaborate with L&D as a “sister team” to identify and build soft skills needed on the sales side. That’s an approach that can pay dividends in both directions: Teams throughout organizations can report back to L&D with evidence of ROI in their areas, which supports further investment in companywide learning programs. For its part, the learning organization can share broader insights on what types of development drive employee satisfaction and retention. And L&D can hone its skill-building programs in light of where teams are seeing the greatest impact on day-to-day performance and sales.

Recognize qualitative impact — including better employee retention.

Even with something like a pitch program in place, it’s tough to tally up the costs of soft skills training in cold, hard dollars — especially when the training is conducted internally by HR staff members or informally by managers and colleagues. The benefits can be tricky to gauge, too, since much of the value in upskilling is indirect.

For instance, consider one of the pitch program’s key benefits for employees: greater visibility with senior leadership. That pays off for both individuals and the organization, but not in a way that shows up immediately on the balance sheet. Anderson said that batches of pitches are developed and presented in rounds, and by the third round, the two groups with the best pitches get to present their ideas to the executive team for more feedback before sharing anything with clients.

Sure, these interactions with executives make the pitches themselves better. But think about the other benefits: They kick-start mentoring relationships, and they open up more development and growth opportunities and more doors to advancement — all of which can enhance the employee experience, motivation, and loyalty.

Can you quantify these results? Sometimes you can’t, so you gauge value qualitatively. That can mean soliciting input from managers and team leaders on a training program’s impact on employees’ behavior, effectiveness on the job, and approach to teamwork. Considering the qualitative impact from the employee’s perspective is essential, too, because talent retention has major implications for ROI. For proof of why these intangibles matter, consider a Pew Research Center 2022 survey that found a tie between “no opportunities for advancement” and “pay was too low” as the top reasons U.S. workers cited for leaving their jobs. Or consider the findings of LinkedIn’s March 2022 “Employee Well-Being Report,” which found the No. 1 driver of work culture to be “opportunities to learn and grow.”

Lang said that at ServiceNow, her team is “looking at employee retention and satisfaction with development” and tying those “very, very closely to our employee voice surveys as well” to get a holistic view of the effects of upskilling on retention. She said she saw “quick uptake as we started piloting new soft skills programs.” People have demonstrated keen interest in this type of upskilling at Snap, too: Anderson said employees view it as evidence that the company values them because it’s “demonstrating [its] belief in an individual by investing in them and their development.” She also noted, “These are the types of skills that can help people internally get their own momentum, their own movement, and get their own thoughts put forth in a way in which folks will actually respond.”

Strategize about which kinds of jobs to focus on first.

Like any organizational change effort, upskilling a workforce requires strategic planning. To help such an initiative gain traction, it’s useful to identify where you’ll see the greatest immediate payoff and plan to concentrate there before you roll things out more broadly.

Like any organizational change effort, upskilling a workforce requires strategic planning.

Lang’s group at ServiceNow focuses first on people at the director and senior director levels because they have such a big say in how work gets done day to day and are responsible for keeping employees’ efforts aligned with organizational goals. The sooner they’re communicating those goals clearly and framing performance objectives compellingly, the sooner the company will reap the rewards of hitting those targets. Attending to people at the director and senior director levels first also creates a cascade effect, equipping them to share what they’re learning with their teams through one-on-one coaching, mentoring conversations, and even recommendations for courses or other learning content.

Snap, on the other hand, prefers to upskill front-line managers first, Anderson said. Because she oversees learning in a sales organization, where employees’ communication skills have an immediate impact on client relationships, the front line is where she sees the quickest return on investment.

Address the time crunch head-on.

Even if an organization’s stakeholders agree that, in an ideal world, they should prioritize helping employees with soft skills, time constraints can make it tough. In the perennial battle between the important and the urgent, the urgent tends to win leaders’ attention and resources. Anderson described how what she calls “the here and now” sometimes gets in the way of broader learning goals at Snap: “There have been many classes where folks are like, ‘I’m so excited. I can’t wait to go.’ And they show up, but then they have to drop out.” Work commitments and deadlines often tear people away.

In the perennial battle between the important and the urgent, the urgent tends to win leaders’ attention and resources.

One way to address that challenge culturally is by openly acknowledging it and showing how you can accommodate it in your learning schedule and course design. Create the expectation that it’s more than OK for people to engage only as they’re able. Think about dicing up the content into shorter modules or mini-workshops that busy employees can more easily digest. Set aside time in the workday for skill development. Learners need this type of support in the workplace, and the organization benefits too. If executives balk, remind them that making learning doable increases the ROI and shores up employee commitment to the organization in a tight labor market.

You might need to adjust project deadlines a bit or give people fewer tasks while they’re doing development work so they don’t feel pressure to do their “real” work after hours. Development is real work. Treat it that way as a manager — and discuss it that way with your stakeholders. It’ll be an easier sell if you’ve taken steps to help them see all of the benefits of the investment.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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