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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

The future of work—The leadership challenge

It’s a given that the workplace of the future will be different, but should we be afraid or excited about what’s ahead? John Allen thinks there’s much to look forward to—but we must learn from history.

My grandfather, born in 1908, used to regularly recite the verse of a song:

Work boys work and be contented,

As long as you have enough to buy a meal,

You’ll be wealthy by and by lads,

If you’ll only put your shoulder to the wheel.

This message—with its gender stereotypes and celebration of hard work as a vehicle to success—reflected both his Calvinist Scottish heritage and the macho, hardworking, hard-playing culture of a young Dominion. The words, of course, seem entirely out of touch with the contemporary work scene. It’s not just the huge impact and contribution of women in the workforce. The fact is that work, and attitudes to work and leadership, have changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Medical, technological and social changes have driven this and jobs have been created and destroyed in the process.

When I was growing up in Hamilton, New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s people got a job, perhaps supported by some tertiary study, and most expected to stay with that employer for their entire working life.

Joining a law firm in 1984, I expected my career to be entirely in the law and largely in that firm (I harboured occasional thoughts of becoming a barrister, or even more improbably a judge in some distant future).

The reality for me has been very different. Although I still consider myself a lawyer, I’ve not practised for more than 20 years. Instead, I’ve had opportunity to work in a range of remarkable organisations—New Zealand Post, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and currently the New Zealand Racing Board.

The journey has been challenging, risky (you have to back yourself to get the next job) and hugely rewarding. The need to learn a new industry every six years or so has been stimulating, and the opportunity to work with different boards and teams has taught me a lot about organisations, what works and what doesn’t.

The point of this personal history is simply to demonstrate that the fact the workplace of the future will be different from the present, or that technology is evolving which will create and destroy jobs, is not unique and has been a factor for well over a century. The dramatic reduction in agricultural employment or the disappearance of major corporates such as Kodak are both examples of this.

There are lots of statistics thrown around about how we will work in the future. We will apparently each have seven careers, more of us will work as contractors in the gig economy, artificial intelligence and robotics will perform many of the jobs in which we are employed today and, as a consequence, people will need to retrain to keep themselves in employment.

So how do you prepare for this dynamic working world. In my view little has changed. To succeed you need to be able to think, to work with others, to communicate effectively, to act ethically, to deliver results and to accept accountability.

It is not, and never has been, about academic degrees (although obviously they are essential to undertake some roles and useful in helping us think about issues and learn how to learn). The necessary skills are more practical—learned by doing, learned in failing, and learned in trying again.

I do not mean by this to suggest that adapting to the new world of work will be straightforward. It will not. Most will be disrupted and many will need retraining, but I don’t believe there is anything new in this.

If this is right, then we can learn from history and the impact of previous disruptions—such as the seismic shifts experienced across New Zealand in the 80s as our market was opened to global competition, or the more recent impact of technology on manufacturing jobs in heartland USA that has been a major catalyst for the election of President Trump.

In my view, the lessons of history are simple. Without support, people and communities will be damaged in the transition. The cost will be high, the impact long-lasting. We need action now to avoid this. We will need:

  • • 
    A strong safety net for those who are displaced and need retraining. Ideas like universal basic income have a real application in this context.
  • • 
    A culture of active lifelong learning, and to create real opportunities for people to access this. Our educational system and institutions are not well placed for this. Courses are too long, too expensive and with requirements for face-to-face learning often too inflexible. Businesses need to get serious about this. The sort of training programmes that constitute professional development today don’t come close to meeting the challenge of the changes we are anticipating.
  • • 
    Strong communities in which people know and support each other.
  • • 
    To stop defining people as successful on the basis of what they do—or what they earn. Rather we need to value them for who they are and the contribution they make to the community.

Most importantly we need to celebrate and support the employers—the creators of jobs. People who put their capital at risk to grow businesses and create opportunities. Our best defence to the challenge of the suggested new work environment is to be creating lots more fulfilling exciting and well remunerated jobs. For that, we need many more profitable companies.

Encouraging people to take the risk to invest in establishing a company and then to employ others to work with them is a challenge for all societies and governments. While we all understand the benefit of well-paying jobs, public cynicism towards large corporate structures and their pursuit of profit over customer benefit is high—as the recent Hayne enquiry in Australia has demonstrated.

In this context, corporate leadership and governance comes under the microscope. While it is true that the legal status of the company, as a “person” independent of its employees, executives or directors is a useful device for encouraging risk taking, a company which focuses entirely on maximising profit and forgets its customers, or wider community stakeholders, will ultimately fail not only because such a narrow focus is unlikely to attract the talent that they need, but most importantly because the community at large will not support them.

This then requires corporate leaders to be far more than simply profit generators. They have to be builders—of talent, relationships and communities. That does not mean they need big personal brands or big egos. In fact, in my view, both of these so-called attributes of leaders are constraints on the development of business in the 21st century. Humility, openness, curiosity, debate and diversity should characterise the future leader. The reason for this is straightforward. With so much change, intellectual flexibility is at a premium.

There are some who think the day of the corporation is over as we all become independent contractors selling our talents to the highest bidder—completing, over our working lives, a series of projects rather than a traditional career.

While there is no doubt this model works for a growing number of people, it is not for everyone. It requires you to take responsibility for your own training, to fund yourself through sickness, time off and time between jobs. It limits your opportunity to try new things that you may or may not have the skills to do.

In my time at New Zealand Post, I ran the Letters business (employing more than 5000 people), a venture capital business, a significant retail business and the project to start a bank. I did not have the formal skills or experience to do any of this, but within a corporate structure it was possible for people to take risks deploying me—and picking me up when I made mistakes. That is how you learn. It is much harder as a specialist contractor. In my view the corporation is likely to continue to play a key role, but only if it delivers more than a profit for shareholders.

So what attitude should we take to the future? Should we be afraid of the robots or excited about the opportunities? I think we are right to be excited. There is no doubt that new jobs will be created and new opportunities provided which will enable many people who are not currently participating in the workforce—such as the disabled—to have meaningful, well-paid careers consistent with their abilities.

However, we must learn from history. Managing the transition requires preparation and investment. We need to be ready to support those who will be displaced to provide them with funding, to provide them with training, and to provide them with support to ensure that the transition to the future does not dislocate this country and its communities and benefit the few at a cost to the many.

There is a longstanding view that in some utopian future we will not need to work. That day, I suspect, is a long way off. For most people, today and tomorrow, work is necessary to earn the means to live. But even if the leisure-filled vision becomes reality, I expect most of us would choose to keep working—the workplace is more than a pay packet. It is a community in which we are valued, within which we can learn, and through which we can take pride in what we have delivered.

It is not the be-all and end-all. But work will be important for most global citizens over the next 100 years.

JOHN ALLEN is CEO of the New Zealand Racing Board.

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