Transferrable skills: it’s not WHAT to do but HOW to do it


No one is 100% functional when they start a new job. Every organisation has unique attributes that need to be learned. Every worker has skill and knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. A wise organisation takes this into account when on-boarding new hires, especially when it comes to local operational and security elements.

In my opinion, there’s a myth in the business world that new employees will be 100% ready to function on their first day, if the recruiter follows the “right” CV review process. I’ve read hundreds of forum posts over the years where hiring supervisors, HR specialists, and recruiters shared their “secret” techniques for a “perfect” CV screen. Based upon my experience, out of the approximately 350 people that I’ve hired, I haven’t encountered a new hire who could function at 100% effectiveness on their first day at a new job.

I pose that an applicant with all the technical skills required on a job posting will not be fully functional on day one. Every organisation is subtly different. Every role is performed at least slightly differently based on unique equipment, processes, and environmental factors. Experience is largely transferable, but not perfectly transferable. Demanding perfection from day one is an unrealistic and counterproductive stressor on the new hire and the team they’re joining.

I exemplified this when I first joined the U.S. Air Force Public Affairs career field in 1999. I’d never actually done PA work before; but then I’d never done Air Force work either. I spent the first 12 years of my military life as a soldier, having last served in a Psychological Operations battalion before “crossing into the blue.” [1] The unit I joined thought that PSYOPS and PA were close enough fields that I should have been able to hit the ground running. And I did … sort of.

My first task was to build out the PA office which included a list of required equipment and supplies to meet our deployment requirements. I went through the list of mandated gear and submitted purchase requests for everything: laptop, colour printer, photo paper, film, pens, 35mm camera, and digital camera. This last item proved difficult, since I wasn’t a photographer and didn’t have stats for what features we needed. The wing’s resident photojournalist’s advice was to purchase a “Single Lens Reflex” (SLR) style digital camera. I read reviews for the best digital SLRs on the market and picked the Olympus D-500L. I had no idea what sort of misery I was setting myself up for.

Fortunately, my wish list of required gear arrived quickly. I stocked the deployment chest and let my boss know that we were open for business. Later that day, I was tasked to photograph a tree-planting ceremony at a nearby elementary school. My boss opined that photos of smiling Airmen and schoolkids planting saplings would be inspirational.

It was a textbook example of a great PR opportunity: schoolchildren, teachers, and military members in uniform all planting trees together. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

The next morning, I followed a van full of our volunteers to the school, met the teacher running the project, and got permission to photograph the kids. I had everything I needed. Once the work started, I grabbed my trusty new D-500L, lined up my shot, took it … and then lost the next three gorgeous photo ops because my camera powered down.

I rationalized that I must have burned up too much battery power testing the camera the night before. I’d kept it running for quite a while to learn how the zoom worked and drained the rechargeable batteries.

I re-loaded the camera with backup batteries I’d brought along just in case, powered it up and dashed over to where the next batch of tree-planters was digging, dropped prone for a good shot, snapped … and missed because the camera took nearly three seconds from when I depressed the activation button to when it engaged.

No problem! I lined up my next shot, anticipated the timing, hit the activation button two seconds early, heard the “click” … and then the camera shut itself down. The camera’s status indicator showed that my brand-new batteries were completely drained after only two pictures and less than two minutes of operation.

So, this … Just without the “recharge” option.

Imaging Resource published a review of the D-500L (and its big brother, the D-600L) that’s still online. Somehow, I’d missed their review at the time. Under the “power” section, they warned that a user could only take a dozen photos from one full set of batteries with the D-600L. I should have purchased that one. My D-500L could take … two. Consistently just two photos with brand-new alkaline batteries. Sometimes only one if I kept the camera “on” for too long.

For the rest of the day, I dashed around the tree planting ceremony like a lone musketeer; taking one shot, ejecting a set of four spent batteries, and slamming in a new set before racing off to find my next good shot. After the tree planting ceremony was done, it took me a half hour to gather up all my spent batteries. It turned out that we’d “planted” more of those in the school yard than we had trees.

After returning to my office, I was horrified to find that I couldn’t use any of the photos I’d taken. The camera just wasn’t fast enough to capture action scenes. The image resolution wasn’t high enough to send to the printers. Too much colour and detail were lost compressing the image files. The D-500L SLR digital camera was wholly inadequate for our needs.

I got chewed out afterwards for failing to get the shots and for wasting government funds on a useless camera. That was fair. You don’t know what you don’t know. I’d met all the unit’s “requirements” for the PA role because they’d wanted someone who could write well, could use computers, and understood “this new Internet thing.” I’d met all those parameters. None of us were aware during the interview process that photojournalism was one of the position’s expectations.

The headquarters had its own team of staff photographers and had always used them to take their pictures. My new boss had never considered that the PA office and the Visual Information office didn’t deploy together and therefore required both parallel skills and equipment lists.

I’ve held tight to this mortifying memory ever since because it reminds me to check my expectations of new employees. No matter how talented they are, what they’ve accomplished in previous jobs, or what they seem capable of, they’re not going to be fully functional until after we’ve had time to acclimate them to their new role, their new gear, and their new operating environment. There are always going to be skill gaps that need addressing. It’s not a matter of personal failing or a “flawed” hiring process; it’s simply human nature.

My team applies this lesson in the Security Awareness training that we provide to new colleagues. A significant amount of our new user training involves not what to do (in the abstract sense), but how things are done here. By comparing what a new colleague learned at their former employers and in their previous roles with the similar-but-unique iterations of those same elements in our environment, we can readily identify skill gaps and areas that require localization. This approach accelerates the new hire’s assimilation and helps them become more productive faster.


[1] “Cross into the blue” was the USAF’s marketing slogan in November 2001. It was the first campaign that I had to integrate into our internal publications which is why I remember it.



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