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Skill or will gap? The truth about people development

The great Muhammad Ali once said:

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Will gap

Whilst I know little about the rules of boxing – or any other sport for that matter – this quote has always resonated with me over the years. Like many people, I have made my way through life making more mistakes than I care to remember, but can honestly say I have learned from them. There have been many times when I have genuinely struggled to master tasks, solve problems, and work through not-so-complex strategies; or simply failed to finish something I had started with all too good intentions.

I definitely wouldn’t define myself as a quitter, but I have learned when to stop, take stock and reflect why I sometimes struggle to make a success of something that had been clearly important to me. Then one day I thought ‘is it important enough for me to really want to master or complete it?’ This got me thinking about whether I could do it, or had the motivation or will to do it.

As a training professional, I often hear learners tell me they can’t do something. My response is nearly always, “you just can’t do it yet… If you really want to do it, you will learn how and practice until you are competent enough to complete the task.”

There is much talk around growth mindset and the enormous potential those individuals who have learned to harness this thinking can achieve. But sometimes, although undeniably linked to mindset, is it a little simpler than that? Does the learner want to learn? Do they want to master the task? Are they sufficiently motivated to do so?  Do they have the will?

Skill vs will

So, what’s the difference between will and skill? Now, I admit I get increasingly frustrated with folk who don’t try, or simply walk away without putting in an ounce of effort. Sometimes it’s easier to fail – I get that, but how does that motivate the learner to want to improve their skills and enjoy the rewards this brings?  If there is no consequence to failure, then why make the effort to avoid it? What if the simple act of accomplishing something just isn’t important enough? I have thought long and hard, and for me at least, skill can be defined as my experience of the task, my previous training or learning, my knowledge and ability, and perhaps my natural talents. Will however, is my desire to achieve, my incentives to complete the task, or my confidence in my abilities and feelings about the task – in other words, my attitude.

Put really simply – how competent am I? (Skill) versus how motivated am I to do it? (Will). How much a person relies on his or her skills to complete the task, versus how much does that person really want to complete the task.

The problem with other people’s attitudes is that you can’t really see it or accurately measure it. You can only perceive it, and that becomes very subjective. When I’m working with colleagues on their personal development, it’s easy to make all sorts of assumptions about their desire to learn. Then I was introduced to the Will versus Skill matrix and this changed my thinking. The Skill vs. Will matrix is a tool suggested by Max Landsberg, and can be used to determine the most appropriate management approach for members of staff, based on two metrics: their level of skill and their level of will.

As a training professional whose purpose is to support someone in their quest for personal development, it is important I understand where the individual stands on motivation, and what it takes to get the results they desire. It becomes increasingly complex when I am working with a diverse set of goals for a colleague, because often, their level of skill and will is likely to differ from one task to another.

Bespoke approach to training

The matrix has helped me adapt my teaching style according to the individual. I have found it a useful way of checking that my chosen training interaction is matched to a learner’s readiness to learn. In my role, coaching most often takes place when there is a situation, issue or task that the coachee needs help with. The skill/will matrix requires me to assess the learner’s current level of skill for that task, and more importantly, their level of will to learn how to do it.

The matrix works by plotting the level of the learner’s skill against their will, (either high or low), in order to determine the appropriate style of coaching or teaching I need to provide. The following examples are my response to the levels exhibited:

Low skill – low will (this is the hard work scenario, however, I relish a challenge!)

Approach: Supervise and excite

Low skills and low willingness to succeed is a worst case scenario for the trainer or manager. Either way, the role of the coach is crucial and will require both taking charge and inspiring. Supervision, setting strict guidelines, control and decision-making are all required, and this is often very time-consuming.  However, a subsequent change in attitude or will of the learner is a most satisfying outcome.

High skill – low will (this situation can be annoying and frustrating)

Approach: Coach

Coaching is mostly a motivational activity here: the person demonstrates the skills, and a coach must now instill confidence and enthusiasm to complete the task. Decision-making is still very much the coach’s responsibility, however, the way they communicate here is key. The coachee should have the will and motivation to take charge of the task.

Low skill – high will (I enjoy this situation – you see amazing results, often very quickly)

Approach: Support

I experience this scenario with our new recruits who are really keen to make a great first impression. The coaching style should be focused on directing the coachee’s activities and supporting them in their decision making.

High skill – high will (the dream)

Approach: Delegate

The perfect learner, my advocate, my facilitator, my hero and I would hope, the easiest to manage. I give this individual creative space and often support them in teaching others based on their experience (mainly because they want to).  They often see training as an opportunity to develop others as well as themselves, exhibit a desire for personal growth and want to develop a strong personal brand.  For that reason, I am keen to follow them on their journey to success, set them challenging goals and aspire to maintain a high level of motivation.

I could go on about this stuff forever, but I hope this is enough to encourage some to think differently about what to do with those ‘difficult’ employees who don’t have the right level of will or motivation to learn and develop. I’m not sure if that proposition is a reality for me. Perhaps much of the responsibility to encourage the will to create the skill sits with me and my abilities to provide a flexible coaching and support mechanism appropriate to the needs of the individual?