· 7 min read · Features

A different slant: How can a talent or HR professional make a convincing case about key people?


How can a talent or HR professional make a convincing case about key people to an executive who is heavily quantitative and a sceptic to boot?

The players

C-Suite Hero (CSH)

A composite of the many tough, quantitative, highly competitive and successful executives with whom WSS (see below) has been colleagues over his career.

W Stanton Smith (WSS)

The author of this dialogue, with nearly 40 years of experience in business, much of it as a 'high impact' talent/HR executive with successful organisations made up primarily of knowledge workers.

The dialogue

CSH: So you want to talk about the so-called new workforce and its expectations, especially knowledge workers? Here's an expectation for them: 'I expect them to pull up their socks (if they're wearing any) and get to work. If they don't like that attitude, let them all whine and leave - or whine and get back to work.' What's wrong with this approach?

WSS: I admit there is a certain 'rush' associated with the 'take it or leave it' or 'my way or the highway' approach. It makes us feel heroic. But once the rush is over, there is the reality that you're not setting yourself or your enterprise up for longer term success.

CSH: Sounds improbable, but prove it to me.

WSS: To do so, we need to connect some dots. These dots represent eight realities that have permanently affected the workforce, especially the growing knowledge worker segment of the workforce.

1. The non-traditional family unit is the rule, not the exception


Government data in both the UK and US shows that traditional families, where the husband goes to work and the wife stays at home with the children, are a distinct minority now. Most workers have no stay-at-home partner to handle personal matters while they are at work. Workers must divide their energy and focus between work and home. Accordingly, there is a need for flexibility in navigating work-life issues that wasn't there when many of today's leaders were growing up. This reality is closely intertwined with the next.

2. Flexibility and personalisation of careers is now a necessity for workers of all generations


Research shows that nearly all workers, regardless of generation, want some tangible control over their work life. This is revolutionary: a consumer mentality of expecting personalisation being found throughout the generations.

3. Employees (especially those in their 20s) have redefined ambition and leadership


Today's young people generally favour family and personal time over the rewards that usually accompany increased job responsibility. These young people are working hard, but are generally not willing to work even harder. They are wary of the perceived costliness of the trade-offs they would have to make by advancing into jobs with more responsibility. People 50 years of age and older who return to the workforce are beginning to show the same attitudes as these younger people.

4. Technology has become the widest divide among people, regardless of age


The 24/7 connectivity that technology permits removes the traditional constraints of office hours and location. It encourages networks and lack of boundaries that makes operating in hierarchies problematic and challenges traditional ways of doing and managing work. Those who were not raised with the ubiquitous technology of the past 30 years or so and do not heavily use technology, tend to see technology as a tool or a toy. Whereas those on the other side of this divide see technology as the way they interact with the world. The upshot of this divide is that these technology natives believe that they should be able to work any time and any place and only be held to deadlines and quality expectations. In other words, 'evaluate me on the result, not how I achieved the result'.

5. Distrust of business is creating a growing rift between employees and business leaders


Growing up in a world of redundancies, scandals and environmental events such as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in young people believing that business generally, and big business, in particular, value their own financial gain above all else and that business talk about the importance of people is largely insincere. Research also shows that adults of all generations share these markedly negative views too. The result is that young people enter the workplace in a highly sceptical frame of mind, which adds to the adjustment difficulties that normally accompany new entrants to the workplace.

6. Consumerism rules


Most people up to the age of 40 were raised in a society that increasingly emphasised consumer value. Those in their 20s and younger are completely immersed in consumerist behaviour: they question value received, demand and expect high-quality, easy-to-handle 'microwavable' experiences.

With this background, it is understandable that they carry these expectations with them as they consume everything - including their own careers. The most profound implication is that this employee group will not be passive and accept a policy just because management announces it. These consumers want transparency and dialogue with the C-suite, as well as all other levels of management.

7. It's a flat world - Chinese and Indian youth have attitudes closer to Western youth than you might realise


There are great similarities when comparing young people aged 14-24 in US, China and India. They all expect: flexibility at work, being well paid, having the best technology, transparency from leaders and to operate in a 'fun' working environment. The only meaningful differences are that US youth show considerably less interest in business-related careers compared to China and India and that Chinese and Indian parents exert much more supervision over their children's use of the internet than US parents do. The upshot is that moving work to these two countries doesn't mean that enterprises can avoid the impact of the changed workforce.

8. Creativity is why we hire knowledge workers


Identifying problems, assessment of alternatives, sharing information and collaboration with others, effective communication and self-management all lead to the creation of value for a customer or client. Creativity doesn't occur on a set schedule; it can occur at any time, under the right conditions. Those conditions include a working environment of respect for all employees, regardless of level - and trust in their colleagues, especially their leaders. How do we know this? Take a look at the work atmospheres of major technology companies, where significant wealth has been created by breaking the mould of a traditional command-and-control environment or the major professional service firms.

CSH: Phew. OK, I get it that things are changing, but to me the solution is to train the young people on the legitimate demands of a business enterprise and in what it is to be a professional, a grown-up, even. So why would leaders like me have to change anything?

WSS: I am glad you recognise that the enterprise must play a role in teaching young people how to become professionals. Research shows that they are looking for this. They want to do things right and they definitely want to be mentored and coached.

That being said, we can't 'unring' a bell. That bell is technology and its impact on how people view work and how they collaborate to do work. They are digital natives. To them, technology is not a tool or a toy; it is how they interact with the world. Add to this the reality of how knowledge workers must work if they are to be most productive and it would seem that enterprise management is going to have to go through changes of its own to maximise the value of its investment in people.

CSH: Sounds like a 'nice to do', not a 'need to do'. What if we decide that it's just too hard, even unrealistic, to meet these new workforce expectations?

WSS: Perhaps you could avoid all this by minimising the number of 20-something hires and re-educating older workers to return to the workplace or stay longer. But to do that, you'll have to be quite flexible and creative in redesigning jobs, leveraging technology and establishing an environment that fosters the productivity of knowledge workers. So a powerful answer lies right in our path, but we won't take it up. Why?

CSH: Why? It's because what you describe could be quite disruptive and yet another challenge to an already stretched management cadre's ability to manage change. So we may have to take a calculated risk and do nothing. How bad could the fallout of this decision be? What will Armageddon look like for my enterprise?

WWS: A 'disguised Armageddon' is most likely. Your quit rate might not show much change. There would still be candidates for your jobs. But what will hurt your business the most will be the silent quit rate among your existing employees. They stop trying as hard. There is less creativity. The product or service becomes less competitive. Your employees aren't so alert for competitive information anymore. You find that you as leaders are out of the informal information flow about the real state of affairs inside your business. You are still competing, but less well year by year until the result is that your enterprise must combine with another or engage in an expensive and risky attempt at reversing directions.

Think of a once proud professional sport franchise with many trophies in the display case - but none are recent and the franchise has lost its self-confidence and its winning tradition. It reminds its fans of its great past, but offers the excuse of rebuilding every year for its continued lacklustre results. After a while, even the most devoted fans will drift away.

CSH: You paint quite the picture of doom and gloom, but it is all speculation on your part.

WSS: If my fact-based conclusions are speculation, they certainly seem far less so than your 'exceptionalist' beliefs that every trend we've talked about doesn't apply to your situation and that you can successfully influence employees to behave in ways completely counter to the culture in which they've been raised.

If you choose to do nothing, consider the following caution from management expert, Gary Hamel. "In most companies, power cascades downward from the CEO. Not only are employees disenfranchised from most policy decisions, they lack even the power to rebel against egocentric and tyrannical supervisors. When bedevilled by a boss who thwarts initiative, smothers creativity and extinguishes passion, most employees have two options: suffer in silence or quit." And, I would add, your enterprise loses either way.

CSH: But these people who leave aren't the best anyway.

WSS: That is one of the oldest clichés going. You may need to believe that, but I can assure you your employees and the outside talent market see right through that convenient fiction.

CSH: Right. I grant you that we may need to make some changes, but I really dislike the picture you have drawn as a result of connecting the dots.

WSS: To tell the truth, I'm not crazy about some aspects of the picture either. In this regard, economist John Maynard Keynes said something to keep in mind on the subject of changing facts. He had been heavily criticised for reversing his views on a key policy principle. Keynes responded: "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?"

Do you have a final word for our readers?

CSH: Yes, I do. If we all just did our jobs and weren't so finicky about the work environment, I'm confident that these irreversible 'facts' wouldn't matter anymore. It's the expecting special treatment that complicates the workplace for us all.

WSS: Your secretary just handed me a note. Your car and driver are waiting to take you to dinner at the club.