The Great Re-skilling

Leadership Imperatives

The predictions of trends for 2021 are in and, no surprise, they tell us that 2020 accelerated the trends that have been growing slowly over the past few years – remote work, a human-centered focus on wellbeing, digitization on steroids, DEI efforts that actually yield diverse and inclusive work environments, and enterprises with a higher purpose. As vaccines roll out and the world inches towards herd immunity, pundits predict that there’s no turning back on these trends.  So, what does this mean for how business leaders lead?

Characteristics of successful leaders came into sharp focus during 2020.  If the workplace trends continue, we’re likely to see work from anywhere and hybrid workplace models.  The ability to bring people together via screens vs. in person interactions will be an important leadership capability.  Leaders need to be deliberate about creating space for collaboration and space for independent work — no matter where that happens.  Some people say that they have been closer with colleagues than was ever possible when they were co-located.  They quite literally have been invited into each other’s homes and see how each other lives, and with whom they live.  While it may have always been the case, it’s become clear that leaders must show their vulnerable, human selves and be empathic towards others if they are to capture the hearts and not just the minds of their teams. 

They must also tune into the emotional impacts of work-life integration. We have been going through a period of great uncertainty, where people find so much to be out of their control. What 2020 has taught us is that leaders need to project possibility in times of ambiguity. While nothing is ever guaranteed, many things are possible, and people will need to embrace that sense of possibility to move forward.

Future Focus

And how do leaders think longer-term, and take steps today to be ready for likely future scenarios? As the business roundtable has said, leaders must drive long-term and short-term priorities for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just shareholders. One way by which leaders can focus on stakeholder value and secure the company’s future is to engage in upskilling an increasingly mobile early and mid-career workforce and reskilling those displaced by economic shifts.

In the January/February 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review, the former CEO of Guardian, Deanna Mulligan, tells the story of how she future-proofed the business, including understanding the talent shifts that would be needed in the future and taking steps to transform the workforce.  Guardian both hired new talent and re–skilled existing employees.  According to Mulligan, “And once we were operating in a more sophisticated fashion, with better technology and data and employees repurposed accordingly, the cost savings and revenue gains began to accumulate.”

Bridging the Talent Divide

Economists point to a misalignment of skills available in the market with those that are (and will increasingly be) needed, much as Mulligan found at Guardian. It’s not difficult to predict that those who lose jobs in manufacturing or oil and gas production might be res-killed to work in high tech or in renewable energy.  And for those who transition to digital work, the “work from anywhere” model means that people don’t necessarily need to migrate to find jobs, which should reduce the barrier to entry for finding work they are skilled to perform.

Companies needing skills that are in short supply might go beyond re-skilling existing employees, particularly if that won’t be sufficient to meet the need.  Companies could source employees by partnering with other companies that have an oversupply of skills that are declining in demand and, in partnership, engage with educational institutions to re-skill and redeploy that talent.  Through this approach, companies could transition talent from one company/industry to the next.  The cost in dollars is likely to be a lot less than that of reduction in force and recruitment costs, and the benefits to the employees concerned and to society at large are significant.