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Lessons from the Barbie Movie on ‘Kengagement’ and Upskilling


Barbie doll wavingI have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much as I dressed in pink and headed off with the family to see Barbie last weekend. Without spoiling the plot for those of you who have yet to see it, this movie offers a surprising commentary on such things as aging, the patriarchy, development, and even the workplace. I never would have guessed that a plastic doll would inspire such interesting discussions in social media and real life.

One particularly rich LinkedIn conversation was started by Jessica Segal with a post likening Ken to real human employees who are happy doing what they do and have no ambitions to advance or move up the corporate ladder. Online comments coalesced around our agreement that such employees can be the backbone of an organization. These Steady Eddies (or in this case, Steady Kens) should not be judged, pressured, or forced up or out – when what they want to do and are really good at might be ‘beach’. (See the movie.)

But, given the nature of my work and my deep commitment to ensuring growth for all, I had to add a caveat: Yes, let’s support those who are satisfied and thriving in their roles – but let’s remember that despite no plans to do something else, these people must still be learning and growing. For too long, top talent has received a disproportionate percentage of training budgets as development and promotions have gone hand-in-hand.

But given the pace of change in today’s workplace, an absence of growth means that people are falling behind – and fast. AI. Escalating customer expectations. Changing markets. Digital transformation. These and other factors are the context for the development that everyone in an organization requires to remain relevant and to future-proof their careers – whether they’re looking to continue in their current role or aspire to others.

For instance, although Ken loves ‘beach’, the context for even that role is changing. He may need to learn about climate change and what warmer water means for the travel patterns of sharks and otters. He might need to learn about demographic and social shifts that could lead to playing pickleball alongside volleyball.

While the content might be different, the same demand for continued learning is important for most of today’s employees as well. But how can leaders inspire Steady Kens to ‘kengage’ in continuous growth? Consider these 6 ‘BARBIE’ strategies.

Be genuinely supportive of their satisfaction with where they are, doing what they do. Overtly expressing your understanding of their situation and support for allowing it to continue goes a long way to creating psychological safety and trust.

Appreciate their unique strengths, talents, and successes. It’s easy to overlook the day-to-day contributions and wins. But recognition – even a simple ‘thank you’ – goes a long way toward building self-esteem, connection, and motivation.

Regularly discuss the business – strategy, challenges, and changing needs. Rather than insulating employees from the realities of the business, let them know what’s going on. This information is essential for understanding the need to learn, change, and grow.

Build the necessary skills to meet changing needs. Offer the upskilling that people need to perform well today and be prepared to do the same tomorrow.  Leverage formal programs and courses within your organization. But remember that learning from others, coaching/mentoring, and in-role development experiences cost nothing and are completely within your control.

Investigate their interests and motivation. Understanding people on a human level offers the information you need to be able to support the kind of employee experience required to elevate the satisfaction of your steady performers. (It also enhances retention of this essential portion of your workforce.

Express active support for their ongoing growth and development. Establish the expectation with others that growth is not negotiable – it’s part of everyone’s job today. And set the expectation that you will be a partner in their development.

Organizations benefit from the consistent and predictable contributions of their Steady Kens. But ‘steady’ shouldn’t mean ‘stale’. These employees – all employees – require consistent upskilling and development to meet today’s ever-changing workplace and demands. Tapping the ‘kenergy’ of growth is the only way to ensure sustainable personal and organizational success.


Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay


  1. Great post and commentary, Julie! I have always thought that employees who do great work and go home right on time without checking email or working overtime have a lot of value to an organization and tend to get lost in the shadows…your specifics about how to keep them engaged are spot on…love it!

    • Thanks so much, Jen. I seem to recall a conversation or two about this over the years. I SO appreciate you taking the time to comment!

  2. Love that you used BARBIE as the acronym to offer some really solid advice .Staying in place doesn’t mean frozen in place. .

    • Thanks, Eileen… and very well said. Stay (and grow) rather than freeze in place!

  3. Love this! It’s always bothered me that some employees “just don’t want to do anything other than what they do today.” I’ve always disagreed with this idea. Learning is lifelong and it’s for everyone.


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