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5 Things We Learned About the Future of Work From Heather McGowan at Thrive 2022

Nicole Klemp

An inspiring group of HR leaders from around the country recently gathered in Austin, TX, for Thrive by 15Five. At this year’s event, some of the brightest and most inspiring voices in HR came together to learn and share with one another.

One of those leading voices belonged to internationally-known speaker, writer, and advisor Heather E. McGowan. In her keynote, Heather covered how people leaders should prepare their organizations for the rapid and disruptive changes occurring in education, work, and society today.

Read on for five of our key takeaways from Heather’s insightful and inspiring presentation.

1. Investors want to put their money behind companies investing in DEIB.

As an HR leader, you know how vital DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, & belonging) initiatives are to an organization. But in general, industries and the powers that be have been slow to make real, meaningful commitments.

As Heather shared with Thrive attendees, that momentum we’ve been waiting for is coming, as investors are finally ready to put their money where their mouths are. According to research by McKinsey, more diverse companies have outperformed less diverse organizations for the last 20 years, and companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. The ROI in DEI is clear, and investors want in.

Getting (and keeping) diverse leaders is also a top priority in competitive talent markets, and 84% of diverse execs say they would not take a position without DEI commitments. The days of companies claiming to care about diversity and inclusion—but taking little to no action—are numbered. To compete for both talent and investor dollars, organizations and their leaders must take their commitments seriously.

2. The Great Resignation was brewing long before the pandemic.

Probably the most surprising revelation that Heather shared in her talk was that the Great Resignation was, in fact, not a “post-pandemic phenomenon.” According to Heather, churn has been building since as early as 2009. It was around that time that people realized they could change companies or careers for more money, a better culture, or a more flexible work-life balance. 

Today, as we face growing inflation and the looming threat of recession, we’re seeing a shortage in talent supply, especially in strained industries like healthcare. According to the latest Staffing Industry Analysts Report , the demand for healthcare staffing has grown 85%, and according to the most recent Burning Glass Institute Report  only one person is currently studying to be a nurse for every 10 positions in the field. (For pilots, it’s one for every six positions, and in engineering, one for every three.)

As Heather noted, 53% of workers quit their job or changed industries during the pandemic. The top five reasons people left their jobs in 2021 included too little pay, no growth opportunities, childcare issues, not enough flexibility, and insufficient benefits. It is notable that compensation and opportunities for growth/learning were tied for number presenting a profound opportunity for both HR and L&D professionals. 

3. There are 5 “greats” changing the relationship between individuals and organizations.

We’ve heard a lot about the Great Resignation, but according to Heather, there are also four other “greats” impacting the current job market:

  1. Great Resignation
  2. Great Retirement (Boomers)
  3. Great Reshuffle (reskilling, changing industries)
  4. Great Refusal (rising costs with no minimum wage increase)
  5. Great Relocation (remote work allows resettlement)

All these cultural and economic factors are converging to create what Heather calls “The Great Reset.” To remain competitive, businesses are being forced to invest in safer, more fair environments for a more empowered workforce.

4. We’re in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution.

Heather discussed what is being called the fourth industrial revolution, or a “digital convergence.” According to the World Economic Forum, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about more than just technology-driven change; it is an opportunity to help everyone, including leaders, policy-makers, and people from all income groups and nations, to harness converging technologies in order to create an inclusive, human-centered future. The real opportunity is to look beyond technology and find ways to give the greatest number of people the ability to positively impact their families, organizations, and communities.”

Instead of joining a trade or going to college to study a specific field, this new model has emerged in which people must learn, adapt, and create new value. As Heather said, “The skills gap may never close, and that’s okay. By finding and framing new challenges, we can formulate new knowledge.”

5. Leadership must shift from individual to collective intelligence.

We’re seeing a shift from a company’s only responsibility being to its shareholders to now being responsible for the wellbeing of its people as well, as they are undoubtedly the organization’s most valuable asset. To survive this shift, companies must have empathetic leaders in place who embrace a people-first mentality.

Heather shared the following quote from Harvard Professor Frances Frei: “Leadership, at its core, is about making other people better as a result of your presence and making sure that the impact lasts in your absence.”

To move from what she calls “individual intelligence” to “collective intelligence,” Heather said people leaders must go through the following shifts:

  • A mindset shift from managing processes to enabling people’s success.
  • A cultural shift from peers as competitors to peers as collaborators.
  • A shift in approach from extrinsic pressure to intrinsic motivation.
  • A behavioral shift from productivity through fear to effectiveness through inspiration.

To enable your organization in making these shifts, she recommends coaching with personalized interactions, supportive collaboration, and commitment to the “we” on every team.

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