Shaping Talent for The New Future
How business leaders and individual employees can embrace new skill sets calibrated for the current climate and the future
Everything from healthcare to the economy to politics is getting shaken up by the COVID crisis, and it seems impossible to not get swept up in the turmoil. We cannot and should not lose sight of the fact that the core of all systems are composed of and run by people. This crisis is about people. Sadly, people are losing their jobs, and some are even losing their friends and relatives. We are being forced to change our behaviors and taking unprecedented safety precautions. In order to properly discuss COVID, we must discuss how it impacts people.
Although people are challenged in this moment, they are also showing incredible resilience, ingenuity and courage. It makes me think about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B. Two weeks after losing her husband suddenly and unexpectedly, Sheryl was preparing for a father-child activity. “I want Dave,” she cried. A friend said to her, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.” That’s what we’re all trying to do now, with all the grace and creativity we can muster.
Crises force people to adapt and improvise, to get brave and creative as we navigate the unknown. People and change have been at the heart of my own work for decades, so I am heartened by the groundswell of resourcefulness and passion that has resulted from this current crisis. I worked at GE as the Cofounder and Global Director of FastWorks, the innovation and growth operating system, where I created a culture of experimentation and learning, and built a new platform and playbook for growth. We looked for people within GE who were agile, flexible, and naturally curious. They needed to have a learner’s mindset, be passionate about solving critical customer problems, and be comfortable dealing with ambiguity and change. And I had the good fortune to find and collaborate with many such amazing people within GE.
Now, as Vice President of Executive and Organizational Development at Bionic, I help our partners find and develop the entrepreneurial-minded talent they need to bring their growth initiatives to life. I help organizations create the people systems and mindsets to thrive.
So, from an organizational talent perspective, I am optimistic to see both employees and business leaders embracing innovation during this stressful time. This is a difficult situation, but it is catalyzing beneficial reevaluation around the value of people, talent, brainpower, and teams. In this piece, we’ll explore how business leaders and individual employees can embrace new skill sets calibrated for the current climate, and hone them as we are propelled into The New Future.
How leaders must shift their talent-related mindsets
My daughter has been working at Standard & Poor’s for about six months now, and her office in Lower Manhattan is nearly 2.5 hours away from our home in Connecticut. She adores her work and, until the COVID lockdown, commuted without complaint. Like many of us, she’s spent the past weeks working remotely and has proven that she can perform and deliver, even from our kitchen table. Her manager let her know he noticed:
“I don’t expect to see you in the office five days a week when all this is over,” he told her. “Clearly, I can trust you to do excellent work no matter where you are.”
My daughter was so pleased when she heard this. She feels motivated and seen. And by proactively praising and rewarding her, her manager has lit a motivational fire under her at a time when it’s easy to be distracted.
How can business leaders mirror this type of encouragement and empowerment?
SHOW TRUST AND ENCOURAGE AUTONOMY
With teams dispersed and individuals working from home, habitual micromanagers are forced to change their ways. They are no longer sharing space with their direct reports, and are too busy easing client fears and juggling back-to-back calls to scrutinize every employee action. Truly forward-thinking business leaders know that now is the time to show genuine trust in their teams. As General Stan McChrystal explains in Team of Teams, when individuals are empowered to act without explicit approval, they will be more careful to do the right thing. He also points out that when team members trust each other and have a shared purpose, they are far more effective.
Psychologist Adam Grant also shares this sentiment, saying, “This is a time when leaders need to be flexible and compassionate. This is not an experiment that any of us opted into, but as long as we’re stuck with it, as a leader, it’s an opportunity to say, ‘If I impose less control over people’s schedules and plans, that’s going to teach me whether I can trust them or not.’”
This behavioral shift will allow leaders to listen deeply, seek input, and cultivate receptivity. They will see that phenomenal ideas can come from anywhere, at any time. If someone from middle management comes forward with a new idea, now is the time to listen. If someone on your team has been pushing for a massive mindset overhaul for years, now is the time to explore and experiment. Leaders must prove that they value their people by championing employee ideas and giving people more ownership of their work.
LEARN TO VALUE REMOTE WORK
COVID has forced organizations who swore by in-office culture to take a crash course in virtual team management. Now, the leaders of those teams must get comfortable with remote work as real work. And this will be a tough one for some managers, supervisors, and executives.
At Bionic, we’ve always been lucky in this respect. We have a policy called Anytime From Anywhere, which allows every employee to have two weeks of work from anywhere, to be used anytime. This long standing policy demonstrates the leadership’s trust in Bionic’s talent, and employees have proven that they deliver valuable, creative, and innovative work wherever they are located. Other companies have struggled in the past to accept that remote work is valid and productive. My son works for a major airline and a few months ago he said to his manager, “I’m traveling this weekend so do you mind if I work remotely on Friday?” And his manager responded, “How will I know you’re working?”
As leaders, it can be hard to let go of that instinctive need to see faces in person, but that option is obviously eliminated for now. In the present moment, leaders need to assume “noble intent” and trust their employees, using quality of work as a yardstick not physical location.
Once we get back to the office, reverting to micromanagement, discarding great ideas, or insisting on colocated work will cause catastrophic churn. Direct reports will have gained new skills — including being more independent and self-sufficient — and won’t tolerate feeling mistrusted. Managers, supervisors, and executives must give their people permission to work in ways that suit them, now and always.
How employees can learn from this, change their roles, and their career trajectories
At the beginning of my family’s shift to working from home, my two daughters requested that we all sync up our calendars. They were astounded by my jam-packed day. Back-to-back meetings, leaving little time to think and even less time to work. Not a single moment to reflect and breathe.
Then today my kids asked me, “Why aren’t you in as many meetings? Don’t you have any work to do?”
And I realized that over the course of the past 50+ days, I have become much more discerning. When we were all sent home in March, everyone emphasized the importance of over-communication while working remotely, which translated to nonstop meetings. We all had good intentions, but the outcome was stressful and unproductive. Now, I only join meetings and calls where I know I can add value. My FOMO has disappeared and I have cultivated a new mindset. I am more effective and productive because I have created space in my schedule and brain to actually get work done.
Which makes me think about the new skills employees everywhere are gaining. They are cultivating new talents and flexing new muscles as they carve out new routines. Since part of my role at Bionic is to help our partners find unique candidates who are both willing and able to work in a radically different way, I always track the behaviors and mindsets of top talent. So what would I recommend to employees who want to self-advocate and reshape their career trajectories during and after this crisis?
BE SELF-SUFFICIENT, RESILIENT, AND AGILE
As we move into The New Future, I will continue to seek humility, curiosity, and passion in candidates, but I will focus on candidates who are courageous, decisive, self-aware, and independent. These will be talented people who reached out even in crisis, and said, “I can help.” I will look for individuals who need minimal hand-holding, and who can summarize their findings by saying: Here is what I did / This is what I learned / This is how I know / This is what I want to do next / And this is the help that I need from you to be successful.
The best of the best candidates won’t just be independent, they’ll also be flexible and resourceful. When it comes to seeking talent, I’ve always favored candidates who are agile thinkers and natural problem-solvers. Now, when I consider the current fragmented workplace landscape and the future of business, an employee’s ability to adapt seems more important than ever.
In short, I’ll look for people who have considered the shifts inherent to this crisis, seen opportunities for increased self-reliance, and willingly acclimated to new circumstances. The most promising candidates will have confronted The New Now and chosen to cope by adopting an owners mentality.
Collaboration has always been a critical skill set for people doing innovation and growth-centric work, but moving forward, I plan to look for individuals who collaborate in new ways. Naturally, people who feel comfortable collaborating over video calls, through shared documents, or via written correspondence will be in high demand. Collaboration is no longer limited to brainstorming sessions in conference rooms. Employees who can swap ideas and take feedback through multiple channels have a distinct advantage.
I’m also interested in people who know when collaboration isn’t necessary — something I’m learning for myself, as I mentioned above. Last week, a colleague introduced me to the idea of “meeting laziness” i.e. calling meetings to get consensus on issues that could’ve been handled individually. In my opinion, that’s not collaboration so much as irresolution. I would rather see people who call smaller, tighter meetings only when they truly need input to make a decision. Provided, of course, that leaders use other ways to listen to feedback and give direction if needed.
If you want to be recognized as a stellar employee in The New Future, these are some of the competencies you should be focusing on as you navigate the present situation. The best companies will embrace your augmented skill set and support your desire to continue along a growth trajectory.
Carrying the new into the future
A few weeks ago, I made a call to reschedule a hotel reservation. I had a pretty long wait time. I was just starting to get grouchy when I heard a pre-recorded message that said something like, “We value our employees very highly and they are all working from home. So, please excuse them if you hear their families, children, or dogs in the background. We want your experience to be ideal, but right now their safety is the most important thing to us.”
I actually started to tear up.
When the customer service rep came on the line, I heard chatting in the background, which would’ve tested my patience under ordinary circumstances. But I found myself saying, “Am I interrupting your family dinner? I’m so sorry.” I was so grateful to be reminded of the humanity of our current crisis.
Both business leaders and employees working from home are feeling stretched-thin and overwhelmed right now, and both would do well to practice empathy. Leaders need to ensure they are equipped to meet a more independent workforce; employees need to self-advocate; and workplaces will need to be flexible enough to accommodate all of these shifts. But for now, everyone just needs to remember that this crisis is about people. We’re all experimenting and growing, which means we’ll make some mistakes along the way. So let’s be supportive and kind as we navigate this New Future together.