Preparing For The Future Of Work: Kimberly Mahan of MAXX Potential On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work

An Interview with Phil La Duke

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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Yes, Automaters are Going to Keep Automating (Say hello to your robotic coworkers!) No, I don’t think that is something to fear. In fact, I attribute a lot of my early career success to running toward this trend. When entering a new position I always started by trying to figure out how to eliminate it, which is an effective way to earn your way to an even bigger and better one.If you don’t figure out how to automate your job, it is highly probable that someone else will. As someone building a company that engages in a lot of robotic process automation work, believe me when I tell you that the ‘bots’ are already working among us, their numbers are growing, and they are here to stay.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Kimberly Mahan, CEO of MAXX Potential.

Kim is an Enterprise Technology Leader who’s held leadership positions at GE Corporate, GE Industrial Systems, and Genworth Financial. She founded MAXX Potential in 2012 with the goal of onshoring/insourcing IT work and helping people from all walks of life make the transition to higher-paying careers. Kim is passionate about continuous learning and the strategic application of new technologies in order to improve our lives. She is also a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and served as Chair of the board for RVAtech, Richmond’s technology council where she co-founded the Women Etc. conference and RVA Techsters program for middle school girls. She has also served on the board of the Richmond YWCA.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I grew up just outside of DC, in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and was an unapologetic nerd going back as far as I can remember. Even before we all had computers in our homes, I loved puzzles, problem-solving and in general, just taking things apart to figure out how they worked. Very few electronics in our home were safe or off limits!

In 1985, I was so fortunate to have been accepted into the Science and Technology specialty center at Oxon Hill High. They called us “techies” back then. Unfortunately, like many troubled youth I lost my way somewhere mid-high school and fell way, way off the tracks. I also lost my father to cancer in 1989, just after turning 18. Like many who lose a parent when they are young, that was a life-altering (and eventually a life-shaping) event. One of the last pieces of advice I remember from my Dad was: “You should go into computers. Someday they’re going to take over everything!” — Here we are!

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

‘Future of Work’ conversations are happening just about everywhere as we collectively keep working to improve ourselves and our world. It’s easy to grab a buzzword and drop it into alarmist terms -

“OMG — here’s how [fill in the cool tool] is going to completely disrupt how we work!”

“Automation/Technology is going to put so many people out of work!!”

Those are statements I’ve heard my entire career (I’ve even said them more than once!), and have likely been used to describe every new technology throughout history.

What I do think is changing dramatically is the pace of change itself. We are following our human instinct to keep getting smarter, faster and better, and have reached a stage where the amount of data that’s been collected, the computer power that is available and the level of connectedness between both humans and systems are all at all-time highs. Products are launching faster, and our rate of introducing new technologies is at an exponential point. Not every business is prepared for how dramatically different this jolt in pace is going to feel.

To keep up, our approach at MAXX Potential is to foster experimentation and continuous learning across our entire organization. We aren’t afraid to try new tools or techniques that will make us better, or throw out approaches that are no longer serving us well — quickly, and with no regrets, only lessons learned. Cultivating and strengthening this culture in a distributed work environment is a top priority for us.

The other major shift I see taking place is related to how companies attract and develop talent. Employee expectations are at an all-time high, with many people rethinking how, where, and even whether they want to work. Combine that with the increasing pace of technological change, and many employers are struggling to keep their workforce staffed, engaged, and continuously reskilled. Traditional training and classroom paradigms are struggling to keep up, which is why our focus is on Apprenticeships and on-the-job skillbuilding. Companies approaching MAXX Potential are often rethinking their overall talent development strategy and are looking for creative solutions that can deliver value faster.

Like many business leaders, I’m also keeping an eye on the crypto/financial markets, and geopolitical conversations around technology regulation and governance. Both of those areas are beyond my expertise and well above my pay grade, but could significantly impact our business. In the tech industry, governance and legal frameworks have always lagged behind new capabilities and the increasing pace of innovation will certainly continue to widen that gap.

I am betting on our next generation, and surmise that the future will favor the fast and flexible!

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

I have had this conversation with so many folks over the years, and I won’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. I can only share my experience as someone who chased the degrees, and is still paying for them. They certainly don’t hurt my resumé, but my work experience speaks louder, as it includes tangible results that better illustrate what I can actually deliver.

At the end of the day, this is a personal financial decision that should be taken very seriously. The cost of a degree is often very high and you should know WHY you want to go to college before making that kind of investment.

Received grants? Awesome! Go. It’s a wonderful opportunity and life experience to be grateful for.

Looking at loan documents? You might want to think this through.

Many industries have alternate pathways, such as Apprenticeship programs, that can at least get you in the door with better longer term economic outcomes. There are so many affordable (even free) online options for acquiring knowledge and exploring career paths. Many larger employers also have tuition reimbursement programs, so getting a formal degree is something you could consider later in your career.

As someone who completed degrees in my late 20s, I feel like I got a lot more out of my later coursework because I had real-world experience to apply the concepts I was learning to. I see a lot of wisdom in the rising trend for folks to take a gap year to explore before investing in a campus experience. Tuition is way too high for college to be the place you go to figure out what you want to do.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

I try to stay away from doom and gloom predictions. As Colin Powell said “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” and I believe we humans are pretty resilient creatures!

As far as finding your lane, what are you currently spending time on that no one is paying you for? I always advise that people pay more attention to their subconscious choices. Early in your career — any experience is a good experience. Even bad experiences can become good experiences if you are honest with yourself and learn from them. Double down on the things that light you up! There are so many options for exploring your interests. Keep pursuing the ones that cause you to lose track of time.

The alignment of interest and joy is precisely what we look for when hiring at MAXX Potential. From day 1 our candidate pool has been extremely diverse in every way shape and form, “from GEDs to PhDs and everything in between” as many have heard me say. Very core to the development of our business model was deciding how to choose. Do we hire the folks that need a job most? The best resumes? What are we really looking for?

We landed on looking for those who love what we do as much as we do, as we feel that is the greatest predictor of longer-term success. We feel like giving someone a job doing something that they ultimately won’t enjoy would be doing a disservice to both the individual and our industry.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

The very first website I built (a clunky, atrocious thing!) had the following quote by H.G. Wells front and center on the home page: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” Now that sounds a little bit dramatic, but I have always been passionate about maintaining a continuous learning mindset — and immersed in tools and techniques for learning (and re-learning) how to learn. I believe that is the most important concept we need to be teaching right now, to everyone, regardless of age.

Knowledge vs. Skill: As one embarks upon a path of self-learning, it is important to keep in mind the difference between acquiring knowledge and building skill.

Both are important and go hand in hand, however far too often I see folks lost in a sea of information overload and escaping to the land of intellectualization. Learning and studying are great, but knowing stuff doesn’t add value to society until you can apply that knowledge to work that needs to get done. At MAXX Potential we are huge advocates of a hands-first approach that emphasizes learning by doing.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

This trend has been underway for years and was only accelerated by the recent pandemic. Individual preferences that were always there have become more pronounced, and it is becoming clear that there are some folks who definitely want the atmosphere of an office environment, some who definitely want the focus and efficiency of working from the location they choose, and still others who want some blend of both.

Given the competition for talent, and the fact that this is definitely an employees market, most employers are trying to determine the optimal mix that accommodates all of the above working preferences without losing access to or alienating an entire population of potential candidates. We are rolling out a “MAXX Flex” approach that takes into consideration the individual needs of all of our employees no matter where they are on the at-home/in-person spectrum.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

I try to stay focused on where I can add value and how I can do my personal part to keep us moving forward. When I find myself starting sentences with “As a society, we need to . . . “ and pontificating along these lines, chances are I am not in a good headspace and well outside of my lane.

Per my father’s early advice, I do believe we have long since crossed a bridge where our machines and systems are learning way faster than our humans. What I have to offer are my unique experiences and lessons learned. Where I feel best able to contribute is in the areas of education and workforce development.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

I see a lot of employers struggling with a perceived loss of control.

As the workforce continues to be more connected with information more readily available it is becoming much harder to ‘control the message’. This is creating some interesting dynamics as different companies respond in different ways. Some companies are trying to maintain this control through increasingly sophisticated surveillance tools, while others are trying to take advantage of the increased speed that can be achieved by being more open and taking advantage of the multitude of cloud-based collaboration tools. These are decisions that need to be made based on what is best for the business, and could vary greatly by industry or company culture.

For employees, I see a very different challenge: the paradox of choice (be careful what you wish for!). For those that have or are seeking flexible work options, there are now even more opportunities that don’t necessarily require moving away from family and friends. Too many choices can sometimes result in inertia. Maintaining focus and a healthy work-life balance, as well as being tuned into your personal needs is becoming an increasingly valuable skill.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

Timeless wisdom: “Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” ~Lao Tzu, and many others

Once developed, a skill is something that no one can take away from you. We’re doing our part by providing an onramp for breaking into the tech industry, while advocating for lifelong, experience-based learning techniques like Apprenticeships, and teaching 21st century skills: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity.

I would like to see expansion and development of similar approaches in use or envisioned across other occupational pathways.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

I believe in our next generation, and humanity in general. We are a strange and beautiful species and surprisingly resilient. As long as we remember to be good to ourselves and each other, I’m highly confident that we’ll keep adapting and carrying on.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

This is why from the outset our company focused on an Apprenticeship model, centered on delivering market value as quickly as possible. For those familiar with an ‘Agile’ approach to product or software development, you can think of MAXX Potential as an agile approach to bridging the skills gap. We focus on getting people working as quickly as possible, and then continue iterating on their skills.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Accelerated Evolution of Collaboration Tools. Remember the pre-COVID days when co-workers couldn’t even figure out Zoom? Now that collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack and the like have gone mainstream, I expect them to continue evolving rapidly. At MAXX Potential we are experimenting with new and fun culture-building apps like Gather Town and Slack plugins like Donut. I expect we’ll see continued evolution of these virtual office environments, particularly as the big players jump in, as Microsoft just did with Mesh.
  2. Redefining or Just Ditching ‘Hybrid’. To me, many of the current ‘hybrid’ approaches feel like a half-step toward an eventual new norm. It is also hard to justify the current office space model if it will only be at 30% capacity, 20–30% of the time. The co-working business model may have taken a COVID hit, but those that can hang in there are in a sweet spot for businesses seeking space on-demand and with more flexibility. At MAXX we decided to remove the uncertainty, and just get really good at the distributed model. Rather than spending a few working days onsite and a few days off, we plan to increase the number and scope of ‘purposeful gatherings.’ When we’re together in person as a team, we want to make the most of that time through more intentional culture-building activities that will help us be even more productive when we return to our individually preferred work locations.
  3. More Freelance/Outsourcing Normalization. In parallel with what gets referred to as the ‘gig’ economy, the rise in freelance marketplaces has exploded over the last decade. While it takes a lot of focus and discipline, freelancing can be a great way to build your skills, and earn a living on your own terms. As a business owner, you can now hire freelancers for just about any need you’re trying to fill, from accounting to software development, even strategy consulting and beyond. While it’s not the right fit for everyone, freelancing is certainly a viable path and one we highly recommend to aspiring technologists as well. At MAXX Potential we have an open and transparent freelance policy that supports our Apprentices who want to work on side projects without fear.
  4. Alternative Talent-Development Strategies. In order to remain competitive, most companies of all sizes are rethinking their approach to attracting, developing, and retaining talent. Some are learning to more effectively hire and manage freelancers, others are looking to Apprenticeship programs like MAXX Potential to tap into the growing number of high-potential self-learners or to even establish their own internal programs as an alternate approach to upskilling.
  5. Yes, Automaters are Going to Keep Automating (Say hello to your robotic coworkers!) No, I don’t think that is something to fear. In fact, I attribute a lot of my early career success to running toward this trend. When entering a new position I always started by trying to figure out how to eliminate it, which is an effective way to earn your way to an even bigger and better one.If you don’t figure out how to automate your job, it is highly probable that someone else will. As someone building a company that engages in a lot of robotic process automation work, believe me when I tell you that the ‘bots’ are already working among us, their numbers are growing, and they are here to stay.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

OK, I am admittedly a quote-a-holic, so it was tough to choose just one. For the past several years the following quote by Gandhi has been written on the whiteboard in my office. “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Like everyone, I have good days and bad days, struggles and achievements, things I’m great at and stuff I suck at. I believe our greatest enemy lies not in society or any external force, but within. In my very best moments, that quote always rings true.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

OK, for this I have to go with Tyler Perry. What can I say? On the last question you got me thinking about quotes and that was a tough choice

The following quote is also taped to the whiteboard in my office: “Don’t believe the hype. I don’t care how many number ones you have at the box office, I don’t care how much they say you’re great, don’t believe it. Just stay in your lane and do what you’re supposed to do.”

He has dozens more quotes out there that are worth a read, and he just strikes me as a living fountain of truth/wisdom who would be amazing to talk to.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

Website: https://maxxpotential.com/

Linkedin:https://www.linkedin.com/company/maxx-potential/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaxxTechnology

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/maxxpotentialllc

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

About the Interviewer: Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 500 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands is expected in March followed by Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic due to be released in June. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

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