Compliance officer Tosin Umukoro talks about her recent (and past) experiences with upskilling and argues that upskilling isn’t only for when you’ve already lost your job.
Over the past few years, as we’ve come out of the global pandemic, I’ve heard countless stories of companies having to restructure and redefine roles and, unfortunately, individuals losing their jobs. It’s often in these times, when faced with the need to find new roles and opportunities, that we tend to then think about our skills and what we can offer prospective employers.
Although I certainly understand and truly empathize with that predicament, quite early on in my career, as someone who genuinely enjoyed my years in education, the value of acquiring knowledge and grasping new concepts also became very quickly apparent as I embarked on my corporate career.
Now, after almost 20 years in the corporate world, and seeing many changes in both organizations and people’s personal circumstances, I am even more passionate than ever and routinely encourage colleagues at all stages in their careers to spend regular time reflecting on achievements and accomplishments and seeking opportunities for continual development and growth.
The power of self-reflection
I recently completed a leadership program at one of the top business schools in the U.S. thanks to a sponsorship from my employer. I’ve attended several valuable leadership programs throughout the course of my career, but this one stood out to me due partially to my recent status change.
The program coincided with a recent promotion, my first role change in several years. This new role had me seated at a table with senior leaders who had great expectations of the function I was now overseeing, as the previous few years had seen the organization’s compliance program undergo significant development, including structural changes, and a shift to become more principles-based.
The promotion also involved a transition from being a peer to the leader of a group of tenured and accomplished compliance professionals. Leadership changes always require adjustment for teams. The investment of effort a new leader must make to establish new relationships, build trust to enable them to drive results through the team is significant. The team also goes through an almost instantaneous shift to adjust to the new leader’s style and ensure good early impressions. And when the new leader was previously a peer, this has the potential to add further complexity, and at the very least will impact the team dynamic. This, therefore, requires the right balance of clarity and empathy to have any chance of success.
For these reasons and others, I was keen to soak up as much knowledge, advice and tips and tricks on how to navigate whatever that lay ahead at this leadership program. The lectures delivered by individuals who are clearly experts in their fields were extremely engaging and covered topics that ranged from values-based leadership, marketing strategies and economics to the power of networks and ethnography (a new personal favorite of mine).
At three months long, the program was short and intense, and was run virtually until the last module, which was conducted on at the university campus. This was a great opportunity for me to focus and absorb the inspirational content.
One of the consistent themes delivered by all lecturers is that a successful leader is a reflective one. Many lecturers spoke about the value in taking the time to think — and think about everything! Sounds simple, but how many of us really do this? How many of us start our days, weeks or even months thinking about what is important to achieve and how we invest our time? And how many of us end our days, weeks or months by reflecting about how it went?
One of the most profound statements I heard from lecturer Harry Kraemer, former chairman and CEO of Baxter International, was that every night, he would spend 10 to 15 minutes reflecting on his day. As the head of a multinational and multibillion-dollar enterprise, you can imagine the demands!
If he could find the time and, more importantly, saw the value in doing this, shouldn’t I be able to? I certainly took heed, and it’s a practice that I am adopting, not just for my career but for all aspects of life. I see this as a strategy to ensure, as much as is within my control, (because we know we can’t control everything!) my life goes in the direction I desire. Since then, I share similar advice with colleagues and friends alike.
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Recognize your value but also see opportunities to grow
My post-program reflection led me down many paths over the following few months. One such path was looking back over my career to identify other times when I was faced with opportunities to grow and how I had responded to those.
As we advance in our careers, particularly as we become recognized as an expert in a particular field, it’s easy to become comfortable. I think about the contrast between moving into compliance, where at first I dreaded being asked a question that, most certainly because I was in the process of re-skilling), I didn’t know the answer to after several years in the role, dread turning into opportunity.
That came from understating that either through knowledge I’d acquired or via the number of resources I now had access to, including the expertise of colleagues in the compliance community, we would be able to figure out an answer to most, if not all questions that came my way.
Knowing where to get help is truly an important lesson, and I’d go as far to call it a skill all its own. The longer I spent in compliance, the more I was faced with new and unusual topics, especially in a highly regulated sector like medtech, where we periodically have to face new laws or regulations. Over the years, I learned not only to enjoy delivering the answer or solution to business colleagues but also the journey of seeking it. On the other side of the journey is growth, whether in knowledge, your network or simply confidence — all very worthwhile.
In early 2017, new data protection requirements (namely, GDPR) presented another opportunity to upskill. Although data privacy has always been a consideration for many compliance professionals who have more stringent local privacy laws, at the time, many of us oversaw predominantly anti-bribery and anti-corruption programs. I soon learned that, due to what was at stake for non-compliance, including significant fines, banning the use of personal data and severe reputational damage, a robust privacy program was required and it would, therefore, be in our best interest to, as they say, get with the program!
Upskilling is a form of continuous learning, thereby expanding an individual’s capabilities and reducing skill gaps. It’s important to contrast this with reskilling, which sets out to train employees to adapt to a different post within the same organization. In my GDPR example, it was to meet the needs of the changing market and evolving demands of my role. For others, it may simply be to improve current skill sets, so they can advance in their jobs and or find different but related roles and opportunities.
In hindsight, GDPR should not have been a surprise. It was a replacement of the 1995 EU data privacy directive that needed updating, as the world became more connected and data became more sought-after and, therefore, valuable. Yet again, the value of reflection becomes apparent. I truly believe that more time spent reflecting, which should include scanning the literal and proverbial landscape to identify what is coming, would have helped me recognize the need to upskill in this area sooner.
Don’t fear the challenge
In her LinkedIn article, “Eliminate your doubts and fear about Upskilling,” Kanica Wadhen highlights the worry that people often feel with upskilling, including the fear of failure, disapproval and even diminishing achievements. I felt all the above when starting my journey to understanding GDPR and how to help my organization navigate it.
Being the hot topic in the compliance arena at the time, there was a lot of education available and even more opportunities to engage with privacy experts. Many organizations, such as the one I was part of, invested in in-house privacy groups that developed bespoke training programs for their compliance function.
A combination of formal lecture-style sessions, one-and-one coaching/mentoring as well as information lunch-and-learn sessions resulted in an effective way to enhance the understanding of the topic and develop in-house programs.
As I and other colleagues took the steps toward embracing this new area, I quickly realized the benefits not only to the organization but also to how I approached my work. Knowledge of the topic opened new opportunities within my current organization. It brought a new lease on life to my role, as with this additional skill, as I was able to add value to colleagues and the organization in a new capacity as we together navigated data protection requirements.
Upskilling is often thought of as being most beneficial to organizations, which can see their need for recruitment drop and employee satisfaction and retention rise, but upskilling is often more beneficial to employees. The GDPR transition is a good example of this. At the time, it was common knowledge that compliance professionals with privacy expertise would have a leg up when it came time to look for new jobs.
Take ownership for your own development
Earlier we identified the difference between reskilling and upskilling. More recently, reskilling was an effective short-term survival strategy to sustain growth during the Covid pandemic, as companies found that financing the learning of new skills enabled both performance and reliability of their workers. Although an effective tactic then, it is thought that an upskilling strategy yield’s greater longer-term returns in terms of employee related metrics and business results.
Encouraging employees to create a personal development plan is widely accepted as an effective approach to addressing the abilities each employee personally wants to enhance and the new skills they would like to learn. However, in the Harvard Business Review article, “How to Build a Successful Upskilling Program,” Erin Posnick, team lead of corporate training and development at Medicus Healthcare Solutions, recommends that organizations recruit employees who do not fit just one job or requisition but rather people who can shift when the business shifts. These employees often know how they wish to grow within the company and just need the tools to get there, the article says. Patrice Low, an HR executive, shared that at Cengage Group, a global education technology company, the philosophy is that “Careers are employee-owned, manager-supported, company-enabled,” the article goes on to say.
This is a philosophy I very much resonate with, and I was recently reminded that as a leader, my role is to create space for discussion about development with my team. But development very much starts with employee self-advocacy. The synergy between an organization’s upskilling strategy, which must be based on organizational goals or anticipated activities, and an employee-led development plan, is seen when the two align.
My introduction to GDPR was a great example of the need for enhancing my employer’s in-house expertise and development of a program that could be implemented locally and my seizing the opportunity to learn and grow.
By offering upskilling opportunities, companies can develop a more multi-faceted and well-adjusted workforce. Employees who lean into this not only receive support for their continued professional development, which in and of itself is a great engagement mechanism, they also improve their prospects of career progression within the same organization, thereby increasing their opportunity to have a positive and larger-scale impact on the organizations and colleagues via the work they do.
In my opinion, a win-win scenario.