Has leadership lost its luster? If you pause to think about the last two years alone, you begin to see the burden that has been placed on employees, managers, and their leaders. Business leaders were among the last to leave the office and work from home, and certainly among the first to return to the office. Meanwhile, leaders have been asked to develop a new array of skills to manage remote workforces. Oh, and they are mandated to do it all with an emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate approach. It’s no surprise, then, that Global Workforce of the Future, a survey done by LHH and The Adecco Group, has found evidence that the leadership track may no longer be held in high esteem by talent looking to advance their careers. Survey respondents were asked to select the elements that, in their estimation, would describe “a successful working life.” At the top of the list was work-life balance (39%), being generally happy at work (32%), having job security (30%) and having some measure of control over where and when they work (30%). Well down the list, only eight percent of respondents identified “being part of a leadership team” as a net contributor to a successful working life, and just nine per cent identified “having a positive influence on others’ careers.” This cynicism about joining the leadership track seems to be most pronounced among younger workers: only eight percent of both Gen Z and Millennial workers showed any interest in ultimately becoming part of upper management. Why do so few workers see a future for themselves in leadership? A lack of support to systemic, structural issues – seem to be playing a role.
Are we less interested in leading because there are fewer leadership opportunities?
Over the past several decades, there has been a movement in business to reduce or even eliminate middle management jobs to “flatten” an organization’s structure and promote more agile, cooperative decision making. Although the total elimination of middle management is not widely practiced, many organizations have reduced the number of leaders on this rung of the hierarchy for a variety of reasons, many of them related to flattening wage costs. From a non-leader’s perspective, however, the decline of middle management opportunities could be viewed in a number of ways, most of them negative. Fewer opportunities mean fiercer competition for those middle management roles that are still available. That alone may turn off some top talent from even applying. We know from research that women are less likely to apply to roles that don’t match 100% of their skills or experience, whereas men tend to feel comfortable applying if they hit 50% of the job requirements.
Leadership responsibilities are expanding while support is in a steady decline.
It was not so long ago that leadership development was approached as a significant moment in the careers of leaders. Programs were robust and engaging, and could last from 12 to 18 months. Today, however, the frequency and duration of leadership development has declined as companies look for ways to trim talent management costs. What was once an intensive opportunity to prepare leaders for the future has become a much more perfunctory approach. Year-long programs have been reduced to week or half day intensives. And ongoing leadership support – like coaching – continues to be rationed out for only the most senior leaders. At the same time, the responsibilities of leaders have only grown. In addition to managing teams, meeting KPIs, and exceeding customer and stakeholder demands, leaders are increasingly being asked to guide the careers of the people they lead. All while having conversations about their physical and mental well-being to anticipate and prevent burn out and flight risks. The LHH/TAG survey has shown consistently that leaders do not feel they are properly prepared to take on all these new responsibilities. The complexities of the outer world are outpacing many leaders capacity to adapt and expand to the modern challenges of today’s business environment.
Restoring leadership’s luster: a checklist
For organizations that are worried about populating the leadership pipeline, it can be a daunting task to develop a strategy to attract top talent. But it can be done.
Make sure you’re investing enough in the right type of leadership development to produce results. Few organizations would deny that good leaders make for good results. On that basis alone, organizations need to look carefully at what and how they are investing in leadership development and ask themselves some tough questions. Top of that list: is this really the right amount, and the right approach, and for the right talent, to instill new skills and mindsets in our leaders? You need to make leadership development robust enough that potential leaders see it as a viable path to learning and developing their careers.
Remember that initial training is not enough. Organizations with strong leadership cultures make investments in programs to monitor their leaders progress after the initial learning opportunities. One of the best ways of doing that is coaching and mentoring, which not only supports the individual but also creates opportunities to ensure leaders are putting into practice what they have learned.
Task your best leaders to identify and mentor future leaders. A formal mentorship program can produce multiple benefits, including the cultivation of a new generation of leaders. Through the mentoring relationship, top talent can gain valuable insight into the reality of a career in leadership. Make mentorship a core responsibility of your existing leaders, and an obligation for top talent as part of their overall career development journey.
Be prepared to “sell” your best and brightest on a career in leadership. In the past, few companies had to sell their high potentials on a career in leadership. Most of us know that leadership translates into higher pay, better offices and perks. However, with leadership losing some of its luster as a career path, organizations may need to make deliberate efforts to promote these opportunities. That may rub some organizations the wrong way, particularly those who think that selling someone on a leadership career is counter-intuitive. However, there is no getting around the fact that fewer people aspire to lead. Organizations will have to demonstrate the individual benefits to their high potentials if they want to re-stock their leadership pipeline.
As career priorities evolve, so too must the internal initiatives to recruit and develop leaders. We’re in an age now where the trappings of a leadership career are no longer enough, on their own, to prompt people to seek leadership roles. How will your organization advance its leadership capabilities and stock its pipeline?
A common theme that I have heard from international companies in Vietnam is where to focus effort in preparing ‘High Potentials’ (HiPo’s) for a newly promoted role. As an Executive Coach, I have supported these HiPo leaders over the past years, and I have seen three common focus areas emerge.
Re-Balancing Operational vs Strategic Focus
As we are promoted through successive roles during our careers, there is a shift in balance between being operationally and strategically focused. As a junior employee, 100% of our time is focused on operational-execution tasks; and through successive promotions of middle, senior and C-suite roles we see an ever-increasing focus to being more strategic, long-term, big-picture focus.
I have found that very few HiPo’s have reflected on this requirement to consciously re-balance focus at each promotion step, and a consistent barrier they communicate is how to find time in the work-day for more strategic focus. In this case, I work with the HiPo to find the correct balance by mapping current and forecasted workload, then identifying opportunities to create more time in their work-day.
Most individuals that have been identified as HiPo’s are visible within the organisation because they are gregarious and outgoing. They tend to have a large breadth of network, are easy to work with and generally likeable. Hence why they are being fast-tracked in the organisation.
However, whilst they have extensive networks, many fail to recognize that this network needs to be assessed and reset on promotion. In particular, I have found that most HiPos’s under-appreciate the importance of both strong cross-functional relationships and the need to leverage networks at regional/global levels.
When I work with an individual I ask them to map their current network and then compare it to the network of relationships that they will need to be successful in their future role. I also ask them to critically assess the strength of the required relationships and to develop actions to further strengthen them.
Review Exposure to the Global Teams
The third and often the most difficult theme to address is increasing the exposure of the HiPo to the Global Teams. Even amongst some of the largest MNC’s, I have noticed that very few Managers, even when given exposure, actively engage with colleagues outside Vietnam. More so, I have found that there is a real unwillingness amongst Managers in Vietnam to take advantage of overseas secondments offered by their organisations.
When asked why they don’t engage with Global Teams, common responses include: “they don’t understand Vietnam”, “they are not important”, and “they just create unnecessary work.”
In this case, I work with the HiPo to understand how to leverage these Teams, the influence that Global level may have on future progression within the organisation, and the perception that others may have on the HiPo if they do not actively engage with higher-level Teams.
The above are by no means an exhaustive list of where a HiPo needs to focus, however, I have found they are common discussions that need to be had to ensure success in future roles.
If you’re finding yourself with increased levels of stress and anxiety in the past few weeks as COVID-19 has tightened its grip on our world, you’re not alone.
Recent research suggests many people experienced moderate to severe psychological impacts during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in China. This is a very normal response and one we can take some practical steps to manage effectively. It’s important that we do this for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, managing our stress levels has a significant and positive impact on our immune system. The World Health Organization has emphasized that boosting our immune system and employing adequate preventative care plays a crucial role in fighting the new Coronavirus. Taking steps to boost our ability to cope with the crisis will therefore also improve our overall well-being and the likelihood of fighting the virus.
It’s also likely that this situation will continue and possibly worsen in the weeks to come; it’s important that we put strategies in place now to deal with stress so it doesn’t overwhelm us, and we can continue to be there for our families, our friends and our colleagues.
To dive deeper into this topic, Mary-Clare Race, Chief Innovation and Product Officer from LHH recently talked to Prof. Janet Reibstein, a clinical psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Exeter. She was joined by Sharon Patterson, CHRO at LHH. Together they discussed some of the most common scenarios faced by leaders and the people they lead in the face of this unprecedented global crisis.
Reibstein said there is little doubt that we are now living in “an unprecedented time of anxiety” that is largely due to intense uncertainty. Anxiety, if it is not addressed in a direct and concerted fashion, can trigger a whole spectrum of psychological disorders, she added.
Although we cannot eliminate uncertainty or the anxiety it causes, Reibstein said everyone can take steps to manage it. One of the first steps in that process is to separate “hypothetical anxiety” from “empirical, measurable anxiety.”
Everyone faces challenges that cause anxiety, she said. With some of these challenges, we can take action to remove the root causes of the anxiety. Other challenges, however, may be beyond our individual control. In these scenarios, Reibstein said it’s important to “park” those things that you cannot change.
“You can control your tendency to dwell on the problems that spark anxiety,” she said. “And in particular with things we cannot control, the ‘unmanageables,’ we can park those things and focus on the things we can manage.”
Solutions and suggestions that Reibstein and Patterson recommended during the webinar included:
1. Support leaders with coaching. Patterson said that shortly after LHH implemented a work from home policy, they offered EZRA, LHH’s virtual coaching application, to their senior leadership team. This allows senior leaders to contact a coach virtually to get advice on new or unforeseen challenges. “As HR people, we are always thinking about what we can do to help other people,” Patterson said. “But sometimes, we lose touch with how to help ourselves. Coaching turned out to be a huge benefit to the senior leadership team, giving them an additional layer of support to hone specific skills needed in this difficult time.”
2. Take time away from the crisis. Reibstein said that one of the most important pieces of advice she gives to her patients during virtual counselling sessions is to carve out 15 minutes at the end of the day where you are isolated from computers, televisions, social media and the news. “This is a time when we can focus our thinking on what is going on around us. It’s a time when we can separate out the things we can manage and those things that are unmanageable. Once you’ve done that, you can go find a good source of information, shut out everything else, and find a solution to something that is manageable.”
3. Buddy up. Reibstein noted that “virtual happy hours”—where friends or colleagues gather via video call to get together and connect—can be a great way to stay in contact and relieve anxiety. Similarly, Patterson said she has been trying to establish virtual links between employees facing the same kinds of challenges. This could be someone who is trying to work at home and care for a very young child; or someone who may be isolated at home in a country where they don’t speak the language. “I started to make these little groups of people who are sharing the same experience but in different parts of the world,” Patterson said. “The feedback has been very positive. Just putting people with similar needs in touch with each other is a huge help.”
4. Turn your camera on. Both Patterson and Reibstein said it is essential for leaders to do whatever they can to get full participation from their teams in virtual or video conferencing. And that one of the key things you can do is require that everyone involved turn on their computer cameras so that leaders can not only hear, but also see how someone is reacting. “Sometimes people will hide behind an audio call and that makes it very difficult for leaders to tell how their employees are doing with working at home.” Reibstein agreed, noting that it’s essential that leaders develop the ability to “read the cues” from their employees to gauge their performance in a work-at-home environment. “We need to become better at reading audio and visual cues during these calls. We will be better at relating to our people if we can improve our ability to read these cues.”
This is a stressful time, but it is also an opportunity to change the way leaders relate to their teams. In another recent podcast featuring Keith Ferrazzi, a best-selling author and consultant, he talked about the current pandemic crisis opening a door to “recontracting” with employees. This involves working with teams to reflect on past performance, current challenges and how the team can move forward together.
The challenges we face as the pandemic stretches into the spring will no doubt produce seismic changes in the relationships between employers and their employees. Making an effort to help those employees manage their anxiety and stress will not only make things like virtual work more productive and enjoyable, it may help forge an entirely new and more positive relationship with the people you work with.
Is the gap between employee expectations and the reality of their experience at work holding your company back?
According to Patrick Cournoyer, Chief Evangelist at Peakon, a people analytics and employee engagement firm, a lack of alignment between employee expectations on well-being and what they are experiencing may impact business success.
“There is a huge expectation gap between what employees are feeling and what organizations believe they are providing,” said Cournoyer. “In the future, the organizations that close that gap are going to be more successful.”
Peakon comes to its conclusions about employee expectations and well-being through its latest Heartbeat report, insights from which are built on more than 90 million survey responses from employees all around the world. Cournoyer said Peakon developed the Heartbeat report to help businesses understand concerns about ever-changing employee expectations.
Traditionally, low employee engagement was thought to be a byproduct of weak or toxic leadership, a lack of transparency or accountability at the organizational level, and high employee turnover. And while those factors are all still in play, Cournoyer said employers need to dig a little deeper into their relationships with employees to understand the “why” of low engagement.
Cournoyer said engagement is primarily driven by what employees today expect to get from their jobs and—more importantly—from their employers. This is particularly important at a time when so many people have faced disruption in their working lives from health, social, economic and political issues.
According to the Employee Expectations report, employees now expect their employers to help address environmental concerns, forcing companies to make shifts in how they operate.
Expectations surged 128% for Gen Z (b. 1995-2015) employees. Millennials (b. 1981-1994), Gen X (b. 1965-1980) and Baby Boomers (b. 1945-1964) followed with increases of 62%, 56% and 59% increases, respectively. “Employees expect their employers to not only share their values but also show willingness to take action on them,” said Cournoyer.
All generations show increasing concern about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with the Silent Generation (b. 1928-1945) experiencing the highest increase at 31%, more than double the increase seen in Gen Z (+15%), Gen X (+14%) or Boomer (+13%) and a greater increase than seen in Millennials (+22%). Cournoyer advises, “Employees expect their employers to make tangible efforts to build diverse, inclusive cultures that come from a place of honesty, rather than to tick a box or bolster the bottom line.”
Employee concerns about flexible and remote working increased 18% globally. A recent LinkedIn survey of 1,590 business professionals confirms a large majority of workers want flexibility. When asked to choose to return to the office, continue to #WFH or go to a flexible, blended model, only 5% of respondents want to return to the office full-time. A whopping 73% want a flexible, blended approach. “Businesses will need to be cognizant of the tools they need to help each employee flourish while balancing the demands of their role and their lives—and give them the autonomy to do so,” advised Cournoyer.
Well-being is a top priority
Employee expectations are most acute around the issue of well-being. Overall employee concern on the issue of well-being increased by 17% across all demographics; among Gen Z respondents, the increase was 28%.
Cournoyer said the employer brand may be determined in large part by how genuinely they care about their employees’ mental and physical health. With burnout estimated to cost the global economy up to $323.4 billion each year, this is particularly important at a time when there are very clear and present dangers that have the potential to reduce overall well-being, he added. Leaders are evolving
In some organizations, it will be a challenge for leaders to build an awareness around mental and physical well-being. Many leaders today are single-mindedly focused on the technical aspects of their jobs, or solely concerned with getting projects done on time and on budget, regardless of the toll it takes on the people they are leading.
Cournoyer said it is critical for organizations to look deep within their leadership ranks for people who understand the importance of supporting employee well-being. For those who do not find it is a top-of-mind concern, coaching and development may be needed to cultivate skills that support employee well-being.
“We have to take action as organizations and pivot on employee needs and expectations, especially around well-being,” said Cournoyer. “We need immediate action. It’s not enough to put in a program today and then just sit back. Well-being is about continuous support.”
The report findings also speak to the need for leaders to be patient with employees who are working from home. It emphasizes the importance of training leaders in soft skills like empathy, compassion and clarity around work expectations, he added. Cournoyer said, “Be sure you are considering the full spectrum of well-being and external factors that may impact the employee and contribute to stress.”
Even before the pandemic prompted many employers to vacate their offices, there was significant interest from respondents in more flexible arrangements like working from home, he said. Now that employees are getting a measure of what they have always craved, however, other concerns have arisen.
“Employees are concerned about how their organizations view their productivity when they work from home,” Cournoyer said. “They lack some confidence and worry that they won’t be viewed as productive if they can’t provide an immediate response to an email. This is an issue of trust and it’s a major source of concern right now.”
It will be essential for leaders to redefine new metrics for both employers and employees to assess the pace of work and productivity in a virtual setting.
“Leaders need to focus more on output and less on the small and misleading signals they might be getting,” he added. “It’s a new experience for everyone and employees lack confidence about how their employers perceive productivity in a remote setting.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. It’s clear that leaders need to step up and act quickly to find new ways of doing business. There is much we don’t know about what happens next; but what we do know is that outdated leadership approaches won’t work in this new world.
There is no escaping the painful truth that going into this pandemic, leadership was not where it should be. We’re still stuck in outmoded mindsets, re-enforced by outdated development models. Our leaders are not resilient enough, not creative enough and not inspiring enough. The consequences of bad leadership are starkly evident.
A 2016 Gallup survey found that 82 percent of managers are ineffective at leading people. This pairs well with another often-cited Gallup survey that found half of all people who voluntarily left a job did so to get away from a bad manager.
Leaders are not unaware of their shortcomings. A 2019 Gartner survey of 2,800 business leaders found that only half believe they are “well-equipped to lead their organization into the future.”
The arrival of the pandemic is now shining a harsh light on leadership shortfalls and where leaders need to improve.
Increasingly, research in leadership development believes that crises like the COVID-19 pandemic make it much easier to identify bad leaders. In normal times, when there are less urgent threats to navigate, poor leaders can sneak by under the radar. However, when times get tough, most organizations expect leaders to step up and provide a level of effort above and beyond what they were doing before. If they cannot do that, then organizations must re-evaluate the way they are developing their leaders.
Let’s look at the outdated theories and approaches to leadership and how they need to evolve to address current and future challenges.
Emerging Non-Traditional Mindsets
Change ready: Previously, we tried to develop leaders who were ready for change and gave them best practices in how to deal with it. This approach is exemplified by the multitude of models outlining change as a linear process to be managed through.
Change agile: Change is continuous and no longer defined as discrete “projects. Change is now defined as a state of constant, unrelenting transformation. Leaders need to be “change entrepreneurs” who constantly look for ways to improve themselves and their teams.
Leads through the hierarchy: In the past, we taught our leaders they should lead from the front. They learned that they needed to present themselves like a crusading knight on a horse, leading an army into battle. This leadership approach also relies heavily on chain of command, cutting off leaders at higher levels from those on the front lines. This erodes engagement and suffocates creativity.
Builds inclusion and psychological safety: The antidote to the top-down leader is the more humble “servant leader,” who sees their role as being there to serve the organisation and create the conditions where everyone can bring their full potential to the table. In this model, everyone can challenge and be challenged These leaders ensure they are getting the most from their entire teams, not just the upper levels of the leadership hierarchy.
Has all the answers: Many of us still think that leaders must always be the smartest people in the room. Some embrace this idea believing that unless leaders demonstrate their skill and knowledge, all the time, they cannot earn the confidence of the people they are leading. They ignore the fact that good ideas can and should be coming from all levels of an organisation.
Has learning mindset: Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck tells us that good leaders should not be a know-it-all, but rather should aspire to be a learn-it-all. This requires leaders to demonstrate confident uncertainty, where you admit things you don’t know and seek solutions from colleagues and the people you lead. It requires leaders to demonstrate equal measures of humility and expertise.
Internal focus: Traditionally, a lot of our leaders’ time and energy is focused internally on running operational challenges. This can cut us off from all the things happening in the outside world—from market conditions to other current events and from new innovative approaches to problem solving.
External focus: If the novel coronavirus pandemic is teaching us anything, it is that the world will look profoundly different once the pandemic has eased. Leaders need to maintain a keen external view and be up to date on market, geopolitical and social trends and events that could impact the future of the organization.
Emerging Non-Traditional Behaviors
Gives regular feedback: In the past, leaders were told to provide feedback to employees without defining what kind of feedback. This led to static and unproductive interactions between manager and employee. Difficult or awkward performance issues were usually kept on the sidelines. This approach strips value from feedback.
Embraces radical candor: In her book “Radical Candor,” Kim Scott outlines the dividends that come from balancing difficult conversations with genuine empathy. Leaders must always demonstrate that they care about their employees. But they must also confront mistakes and poor performance in a focused and purposeful way.
Favors top down communication: There was a time when leaders could fulfill all their communication responsibilities by posting a memo on the bulletin board with the hope that everybody read and understood the message. Information was shared only on a “need to know” basis and employees were reminded that they didn’t need to know everything. This creates skepticism and distrust.
Taps into the social movement: Smart leaders know that communication in organizations rarely flows through formal channels. They avoid top-down messaging and adopt a more grass-roots approach where leaders at all levels in the organization are empowered to share messages. This allows leaders to create a two-way conversation where information is exchanged in equal measure with feedback, unleashing the collective power of your team or organization.
Periodic and static performance conversations: Far too many organisations have a very two-dimensional approach to performance conversations. Many current performance management systems require one or two static conversations between leader and employee in a specified time frame. But many times, these conversations lack focus and purpose.
Regular and dynamic performance conversations: Performance is not something you only think about twice a year. Performance conversations need to be more fluid and frequent. When you share observations about how people are doing in real time the people you lead can learn and improve themselves on a regular basis.
Busyness and long work hours as a badge of honor: Particularly in a crisis, traditional leadership models embrace the idea that results need to be achieved at any cost. As a result, leaders often trade their own health and well-being for organizational goals.
The best leaders know how to thrive: Leaders want to build a culture of well-being that drives engagement and productivity and balances effective prioritization of workload with looking after their own intellectual, emotional and physical health. Leaders who tend to all of these elements are much better placed to thrive and be successful.
Unfortunately, the current state of leadership in many organizations is not what is needed to survive this crisis. Will this crisis be the turning point that forces companies to jump start more effective leadership development? We have an opportunity to objectively assess the current state of our leadership and apply new behaviors that we already know work better.
A crisis can expose weak leaders. It can also inspire us to be better leaders.
When Facebook announced in March 2020 that it was eliminating first-half performance reviews because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a lot of HR professionals nodding their heads in agreement.
It all made so much sense. After making the tough but correct decision to have its 45,000 employees worldwide work from home, Facebook quickly realized that normal performance reviews wouldn’t make any sense. Everyone’s work life had just been totally upended. Managers were still scrambling to develop protocols for keeping in touch and monitoring the progress of work. The new normal was more mystery than anything else.
In response, the company quickly retooled its review process: rather than going through the motions of a virtual review, all employees were awarded an “exceeds expectation” rating and given a $1,000 bonus.
While Facebook can be applauded for making a quick, rational decision in real time, it’s not clear what the company will do when, or if, employees return to the office. There is, however, a strong argument for a firm second look. The company has been criticized in the past for performance and peer reviews that discouraged dissent and promoted a sometimes cutthroat political environment.
Facebook’s performance review decision reflects a growing cognizance among HR professionals about whether now is the perfect time to improve, streamline and alter long-standing practices and policies that are not working but which have been starved for attention and resources.
The performance review issue is one of the best examples of a HR practice that is badly in need of reinvention. Although they can be an important source of feedback, very few are structured to meet the needs and expectations of today’s workforce.
A Gallup survey published in late 2019 just before COVID-19 struck found that only 14 percent of respondents strongly agreed that traditional performance reviews motivate them to improve their work performance. Given the cost, the survey authors noted, “many business leaders have started asking themselves, ‘Why do we do this in the first place?’ Are our performance reviews really helping us get the most out of our people and engage them?”
Gallup bolstered those results with another survey in 2020 that focused specifically on Millennial workers and performance reviews. That survey found only 19 percent of Millennials surveyed worldwide believe they get meaningful feedback at work. Rather than traditional performance reviews, Millennials are looking for more ongoing, more individualized feedback.
Taken together, the Facebook decision, the Gallup results and the well-known concerns in the HR profession about the limits of traditional performance reviews, have created an unparalleled opportunity to revisit long-standing policies and practices to look for more strategic, flexible and adaptable ways of conducting evaluations.
What other opportunities for change exist? Most HR leaders have a long list of innovations they’d like to introduce to improve or replace traditional practices. However, prior to the pandemic, it was difficult to generate urgent interest in these changes.
Streamlined hiring. The endless job interview has been a sore point for many in the HR community for a very long time. Depending on the organization, it was standard for candidates to endure an endless string of interviews and soft meetings with leaders who have input on final hiring decisions. The pandemic has changed all that. Now, it’s important for organizations to focus the hiring process on only those people who truly need to be involved. Many hope that this streamlined approach—with fewer interviews and meet-and-greets—lasts into the post-pandemic period.
More robust onboarding. Let’s face it—far too many organizations survived for far too long without any kind of formal, comprehensive onboarding process. It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach that tossed new hires in the deep end and expected them to swim. In a virtual world, many of those organizations have been forced to create structured onboarding that moves new hires through a process to get them acclimatized as quickly and effortlessly as possible. This is a trend that will most definitely endure into the post-pandemic world.
Reskilling and redeployment instead of layoffs. In this economy, it is impossible to avoid layoffs completely. In certain industries and sectors, many companies are in crisis-management mode, with drastically reduced prospects and profoundly uncertain futures. But in those industries and sectors where there is less threat, but still lots of uncertainty, opportunities abound for new approaches to talent management that utilize reskilling and redeployment.
The shift away from layoffs will not be easy for some organizations to embrace. For too long, too many employers shed talent when times were tough, and then went out and hired the people they needed as things improved. However, thanks to the global skills shortage, if you were flush with the wrong kind of employees with the wrong skillsets, there was no magic talent tree where you could go out and pick up a new crop of fit-for-future talent. Now, companies are looking at their current employees as assets with knowledge and expertise that can form the foundation of a move into an entirely new role.
The pandemic has provided a keen opportunity to embrace or amplify reskilling and redeployment strategies. Organizations that take the time now to find the potential in existing employees and help them acquire the skills needed to fill future jobs, will be much stronger coming out of the pandemic.
It has often been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that has never been truer than now. HR leaders have been forced to be more innovative in reshaping basic HR functions. Senior leadership has been forced, more than ever before, to listen and act on these innovations.
Although there is no avoiding the sheer devastation that some companies in some industries have suffered, there are many other organizations who may find they have used the pandemic to make quantum leaps forward in both HR policy and HR practice.
As a leader of a fast-growing global company in the HR space, I am passionate about helping companies realize the full potential of their people, no matter where they are in their career journey or which industry they operate within. The events of 2020 have caused us to adapt personally and professionally in ways none of us could have predicted, and have proven why upskilling and reskilling are so important; we need to evolve at lightning speed to survive, as discussed in our recent article. Businesses are having to rethink how they approach and invest in talent management, with the focus shifting from replacement to redeployment of people.
Investing in career development has become increasingly important as companies seek, retain and develop talent. The way we choose to nurture new and existing skills within the workforce can also help build human-first, future-proof businesses. At LHH, we understand that how we invest in and develop people will result in whether a company thrives or not. We follow the philosophy of the “Return on the Individual”—investing in the development of people at key moments in a person’s career. From when they first join to when they have opportunities to move into new roles or senior leadership positions (or even when seeking roles outside of the organization), this approach has revealed itself to be of prime importance this year.
Reskilling was at the center of the talent conversation in 2020, with several companies, including JPMorgan, Accenture and Verizon, having evolved their approach to reskilling, launching million and even billion-dollar programs to help Americans improve their knowledge and skills during the pandemic. Indeed, the current health crisis has prompted a surge in interest in reskilling among both employers and employees looking to contribute to an adaptable and future-ready workforce. With technology like AI and machine learning automating jobs in many sectors—and the new roles emerging as a result—it’s important that employees stay agile in their skills and engage in continuous learning.
After speaking with Deanna Mulligan, CEO of Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, it soon became clear that fostering a culture of learning within the workforce was already a priority for some businesses pre-pandemic; so much so, that Mulligan wrote an entire book on the subject: Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap. Exploring what defines a “learning and growth mindset,” Mulligan discussed the organization’s work with General Assembly—a global leader in upskilling and reskilling—and how this investment has already paid off. From the creation of more sustainable roles for graduates to reskilling call center workers to be coders—and even dedicating a day to micro-learning for employees across the business—Mulligan’s advice was to “start small and keep moving forward.”
Organizations are waking up to the fact that investing in reskilling and upskilling to prepare employees for the future is ultimately good for their people and their business.
Why make upskilling a priority?
To put it in terms we can all understand, many leaders see little value in investing time and money in staff members when they have no guarantees that they are even going to stay. To them, upskilling is not an investment – it’s a cost, and one that will always be pushed to the bottom of priorities when push comes to shove.
But according to Gartner, managers who are good at developing their direct reports’ skills are known to boost their employees’ performance by as much as 26 percent—yet almost half (45%) of managers say they don’t feel confident doing so.
So, while upskilling might be a trending topic, adaptability must be the primary focus. The old hire-and-fire model for evolving companies is no longer the socially-responsible approach—and even if it was, the volume of expertise needed simply isn’t out there anymore.
Ensure upskilling doesn’t slip through the net
Ambitious people are motivated by personal goals; they are on a journey towards their ideal working life, with all the different stops planned out before them. As a leader, it’s almost impossible to know what that journey might look like. If your team member feels like their journey is being set off course by a lack of communication, personal development opportunities being pushed back, or conspicuously absent pay raises and promotions, they might start to feel lost—and begin looking for another way to get where they need to go.
Of course, while it’s one thing to develop a reskilling plan for your employees—it’s quite another to prioritize (and stick to) amidst trying times. With the usual barriers of being too busy or with attentions diverted elsewhere, the added challenge of effective communication from behind a screen—and knowing when a team member might be ready to engage in that conversation—is one of the reasons why upskilling might fall by the wayside. Ultimately however, this won’t make a difference to your employees. If they feel they aren’t being supported, they will start to feel disengaged; bad news for them, their work, and the business at large.
The bottom line? Upskilling and reskilling can save a company more money than the initial investment involved in delivering it. It sounds like a big undertaking, but not if we view it as a continuous investment. To simplify things and work towards a new vision, I would suggest approaching the challenge in the following three ways:
Invest in analytics and assessment. While many are spurred on by their own ambitions—are they bringing that drive to work with them? As a business, having robust skills mapping and an individual assessment process in place allows you to set priorities and keep everything objective, ensuring that everyone in your organization feels seen and heard. It also shows you who is most adaptable—and therefore who is worth investing in. While the metrics by which people are assessed are likely to vary according to their role, it is essential that steps to progression are clearly signposted, and that everyone is held to the same standards—wherever their personal strengths may lie.
Implement new approaches to learning. Whether you’re teaching your team new skills or empowering them to enhance the skills they already have, it’s worth breaking the steps down into bite-size chunks on demand, ensuring employees don’t get too overwhelmed. You could enlist the support of external coaches when onboarding new hires, develop training in-house, and leverage mobile and remote learning platforms.
Make feedback transparent. This is something that managers should always be working on, endeavoring to offer constructive feedback in the moment and making the route to success crystal clear. When taking a new employee into the organization, giving them a coach as an incentive is a great way of showing them that the company is invested in their career.
While it’s crucial that things are kept equitable, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the upskilling and feedback process. Best practice for career development varies from sector to sector, role to role—and of course from person to person. It all depends what stage an employee is at in their career journey—and what their destination might look like. As one of the best ways you could invest in your workforce, both from a personal development and productivity point of view, I anticipate a bright future for those businesses willing to embrace this positive change in 2021.
One week, three conversations, all on the same topic.
The future of the office.
My first call was with a senior leader in financial services who made it clear that while he wasn’t entirely sure what to do when pandemic conditions allowed us to return to normal, he did not like the idea of the “hybrid office,” where employees would get to spend time at home and time in the head office.
Then, I spoke to an academic at one of the world’s most prestigious business schools who told me about research he was involved in that seemed to show that working from home was creating a very high level of stress for mid-level, front-line managers who really didn’t know how to do their jobs with remote teams.
Finally, I talked with an executive from a professional services firm who was almost giddy about the prospect of shuttering all the corporate offices so that his entire company could work from home on a permanent basis. Not only would this save money, he argued, but there were new productivity tools available that could help his company monitor his employees’ every keystroke within every minute of every working day.
After talking with all three, the only conclusion I could reach is that the “office” as we knew it before the arrival of COVID-19 is facing an existential crisis.
When it comes to WFH, be careful what you wish for
Most business organizations were not given a choice when the pandemic hit. The novel coronavirus was so contagious and so potentially dangerous, many governments simply ordered everyone who could work from home to abandon their offices.
At first blush, few people were concerned about abandoning the corporate office. For so long, so many people around the world were clamoring for the opportunity to work remotely. Why not give them what they wanted?
Although we didn’t have a choice in the matter, none of us really knew what impact it was going to have on companies and the people we employ. Some of the early, viable data is showing that working from home has affected us in many unforeseen—and even alarming—ways.
Effects on productivity
The first thing we’ve proven is that even with all the distractions that come with a home office, we can be as productive, if not more so, when working from home. But that’s not only because we squeeze more work out of each hour; it’s also because many of us are simply working longer.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review analyzed time-use diaries from 1,300 knowledge workers through the summers of 2019 and 2020. The study found that the subject workers saved about 41 minutes a day by not needing to commute.
However, while non-managers were able to reallocate that time to non-work activities, the workday for managers simply increased by 56 minutes. If the managers worked at bigger firms, they spent 22 minutes more in meetings and 16 minutes more responding to emails.
Ah yes, the video meeting
A NYU professor made headlines around the world last fall when he taught a class by dialing into Zoom from his phone while stuck in a malfunctioning elevator. It would turn out to be a pretty ironic tale.
The term “Zoom Fatigue” is now permanently embedded in the lexicon of the pandemic. The relative ease and low-cost of video-conferencing solutions sparked a global binge on Zoom and Teams meetings. Several research studies have confirmed we now attend more meetings than ever before, although each meeting is slightly shorter than the old, in-person ones.
A research team at Stanford University defined the causes of Zoom Fatigue thus: excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze; cognitive overload; increased self-evaluation from having to watch a video of yourself; and the sheer physical constraint of being forced to sit at your desk for hours on end as people try to find the mute button on their computers.
In the end, the Stanford researchers suggested that too many Zoom calls was likely worse, from a psychological perspective, than being trapped in an elevator.
Since we’re talking about psychological safety
Working from home, combined with the stress of the pandemic, has been bad for our overall psychological and physical safety. A survey last fall by multiple researchers at USC found two-thirds of respondents reported one or more physical ailments related to working from home, and three-quarters reported one new mental health issue.
And if you thought that social distancing was an antidote for toxic work environments, think again. Psychologists that study workplace environments report that toxicity can and is being cultivated through video conferencing.
Bottom line: the future includes an office and a home office
As we began to fully embrace the reality of full-time remote work, we also began to realize that the future will likely be one characterized by hybrid working arrangements.
Surveys of workers impacted by the pandemic clearly show that, notwithstanding Zoom fatigue and other psychological consequences, a strong majority want to work at home at least some of the time. And that means we’re going to have to fundamentally re-think why we need an office and what kind of office we need.
I like to break things down into what I call the three Cs of future workplace planning: culture, collaboration and communication. These are the key elements we need to consider when deciding who comes back to the office, what the approach looks like, and what kind of office they come back to.
1/ Culture. One of my main responsibilities is to build a positive, productive and caring culture. I’m not saying that’s impossible to do over a video call, but I know it is possible when I get to look my people in the eyes and find out what’s going on in their lives. This is particularly important when it comes to building a coaching culture among leaders. This is a culture where people work together to find solutions, and where everyone’s opinion and input matters. Although not impossible to do through videoconferencing, a coaching culture is very difficult to build when you don’t have opportunities for face-to-face interaction and the accumulation of social capital which goes with that. The culture I’m trying to build is profoundly informed by those interactions.
2/ Collaboration. Ours is a company, and an industry, that lives or dies by its ability to work together to generate new ideas and build new solutions. Again, you can do that via Zoom, but it is much easier and productive to do that in an office setting. I can’t tell you how many great ideas I have seen grow from a conversation involving someone who just “ducked their head” into someone else’s office. The sense of community we have in our office sparks collaboration, which is the lifeblood of creativity. And even more so in a world where collaboration is required not just with our colleagues, but also with our customers and partners—co-creation and breakthrough innovation is super-charged by proximity, by working together in an office.
3/ Communication. Many of us in the business world know psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule: only seven percent of what we absorb through communication comes from the spoken words, with 38 percent coming through tone and 55 percent through body language. And while Mehrabian’s theory likely did not consider the ramifications brought about by the Zoom revolution, there is no doubt that communication is impaired when we can only talk to each other through our computer screens. If we can imagine that the future involves at least some return-to-the-office scenarios, leaders are going to have to renew and refine their communication skills. Over the past year, you can be sure that a lot of what you were trying to say got lost in the Zoom translation.
I think the office environment will return; but I’m not sure any of us know exactly what it will look like. Everyone from landlords, to human resource professionals, to designers of office layouts and furniture, are working steadily to create an office that is fit for the future.
What I do know is that the future will be brighter for me when I get to see at least some of my team in person.