The Skills-Forward Revolution:   Stretching the Boundaries of Professional Flexibility

June 28, 2024
Diversity & Inclusion, Borderless Leadership - article

While many companies are still obsessed with “defining” remote and hybrid working, the most innovative workplaces have not only embraced the benefits of workplace flexibility but are already moving on to tackle the next big transformation:   a skills-forward approach. Never heard of it?  It’s time to tune in.  This is where professional flexibility might get really interesting.

The central tenet of a skills-forward approach revolves around valuing and empowering individuals to develop and showcase their specific skills and competencies, rather than being confined by traditional job titles or hierarchical structures. The approach is gaining momentum because organizations clinging to their traditional career-climbing ladders, hierarchical job titles and siloed ‘mini-power” boss structures are struggling to remain agile, adaptable, and future-ready in a competitive landscape shaped by constant change and innovation. This is particularly true in highly scientific and/or tech savvy industries – such as the digital or life sciences sectors- where complex cross-functional multi-skills-based project teams are essential to innovating new products.

While the business realities alone are compelling, it is the impact that skills-forward approaches are starting to have on traditional workplace structures that has caught my attention. It is also catching the attention of those future-ready companies and professionals with whom you will need to compete.  However, capturing the benefits of a skills-forward approach and avoiding the pitfalls that have plagued similar initiatives’ success will not be easy.  The change in structure, processes and mindsets is significant, and companies will have to deal with those who cannot make the shift away from outdated power structures and siloes.  Those who can emerge, however, will have a competitive edge. Here are a few potential benefits and obstacles of adopting a skills-forward approach.

Valuing Subject Matter Experts

Skills-forward organizations must create long-overdue frameworks for nurturing meaningful SME career paths. SMEs can then focus on contributing and furthering their expertise, which must include nurturing the knowledge-based skills of others, without risking the expertise erosion that occurs when SMEs are inundated with administrative management tasks and forced to manage teams to progress their careers. This relationship between a skills-forward approach and an SME leadership model that embraces mentorship-through-expertise is symbiotic.

Creating and valuing SME career paths speaks to the idea that employees should feel empowered to chart their own professional destinies while contributing meaningfully to the organization’s collective success in the  way they are most capable of doing.  A skills-forward organization that truly values SMEs means –  no more being ‘promoted’ into team-management incompetency and  no more career stagnation when you refuse.  For SMEs, it should end the cycle of being impactful and essential, yet marginalized and undervalued.

When done properly, creating meaningful SME career paths is a win-win for both individual development and engagement, and the needs of product and project innovation. Beware, however, of equating seniority with expertise or you risk the pitfall of “tenured experts” who have failed to keep pace. SMEs must be continuously identified on the basis of their actual relevant skills. In today’s environment, this means maintaining relevant and up-to-date expertise that is grounded in the latest technologies and approaches.  This will require SMEs at any stage of their careers to embrace continuous learning and upskilling as an essential means to supporting career progression and value. Such an approach will not necessarily correlate to tenure.

Carving Out Management Operations

Creating meaningful leadership roles in management operations is the corollary to making room for SMEs.  Operational managers lead by executing administrative tasks efficiently and meeting operational performance goals. SMEs lead by applying their expertise to furthering knowledge that enhances innovation, fosters creativity and inspires substantive engagement in the project. In contrast, management operational leaders can focus on managing workflows, overseeing task delegation, setting objectives and key results, monitoring and ensuring team productivity, handling human resource deployment to projects, implementing process improvements, conducting performance evaluations, and managing operational budgets.  Separating operational leadership from SME leadership allows individuals to specialize and prosper in their respective skills, which are needed to foster project effectiveness and success.  Both roles must be equally valued and collaborative in nature or you risk creating empty and unattractive management operations roles that lack impact and contribution.  This approach also brings human resources management into the strategic fold of project and product success.

Normalizing Career Break Re-Entry

Skills-forward organizations may finally remedy meaningful career break re-entry, an obstacle that has been especially challenging for women for generations.  A skills-forward approach emphasizes an individual’s abilities and competencies rather than focusing solely on work history or employment gaps. A skills and qualification focus can be particularly advantageous for anyone who has had career interruption for any reason, e.g., childbirth, caregiving, illness, natural disaster, political unrest, education etc.  Skills-forward organizations are also more likely to offer routine training and development programs, which can support refreshing or upgrading skills after a career break. Emphasizing skills over other factors further promotes a merit-based system for career progression, ensuring that those who re-enter the workforce after a break have equal opportunities to advance based on their skills and abilities.

Reimagining Career Assessment and Progression

The integration of a skills-based approach necessitates a fundamental reorientation in organizational processes, including recruitment, performance management, continuous training and learning, collaborative leadership, mentoring and influence, and career advancement strategies. It calls for transparent skill assessment, personalized development plans, and adaptable career progression frameworks that value and prioritize the acquisition and application of relevant skills targeted for the success of projects and products.  As organizations continue to embrace this approach, they are not only championing the potential of their workforce but are also laying a solid foundation for sustained innovation, adaptability, and excellence in a constantly evolving business landscape.  Advances in AI-driven workplace market software may be needed and highly relevant to make a skills-forward approach a reality by more efficiently matching skills-forward career opportunities with the appropriate project needs and professionals’ capabilities.


The combination of our enhanced work-life longevity and the speed at which technology advances has made the career ladder an absolute model for professional advancement and business success.  In a skills-forward organization, there is the potential to create a working environment where innovation reigns supreme and skills are the currency of success. From redefining leadership to bridging career gaps, the skills-forward revolution has the potential to reshape the way we work.  It is not just about adapting to change but thriving in it.

Rosalie Harrison, Partner, Borderless

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