Squaring the Circle...in 5 Minutes! Expected Innovation/Quality vs. Employee Fear/Distrust

For the last few days, I’ve been prepping for an upcoming panel at Columbia Business School entitled, The Post-Recession Workplace.   My message is going to be simple—the world has changed; therefore, we need to change.  I will explain the new work+life flex normal, and what individuals and organizations need to do differently to succeed. 

Here’s my challenge: There’s a canyon-sized chasm between how we need to manage our work, lives, careers and businesses in a post-Recession era, and where we are.  How do you square the circle…in 5 minutes, which is the length of my introduction? 

First how big is the chasm?  Big. You need to look no further than The Conference Board’s 2010 CEO Survey and the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study to realize it’s huge.

On one side: Leaders want, growth, innovation, quality and customers (Conference Board)

Every year The Conference Board asks hundreds of executives, “to identify and rate their most pressing concerns.”  In 2010, executives said they were primarily focused on:

  • Sustained and steady top-line growth
  • Customer loyalty and retention
  • Profit growth
  • Corporate reputation for quality products and services
  • Stimulating innovation and creativity and enabling entrepreneurship. 

On the other side: Employees are afraid, insecure, distrusting and want stability (Towers Watson)

But what about the employees who need to execute this vision of growth, customer service, innovation, and quality?  Are they ready?  How do they feel? According to the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of over 20,000 full-time employees in 22 global markets, they are afraid, insecure, and distrustful:

  • “(The) desire for security and stability trumps everything else right now, in part because employees see security as a fast-disappearing part of the deal.”
  • “Employees understand they are solely and chiefly responsible for ensuring their long-term financial and physical health and well-being, as well as career and performance—but have serious doubts about their ability to take on these roles. 
  • “Mobility is at a decade-long low point—with significant numbers of employees sacrificing the prospect of career growth for a secure job right now.”
  • “Confidence in leaders and managers is disturbingly low—particularly in terms of the interpersonal aspects of their respective roles.”    

Uh, oh. Houston, we have a problem…Not a recipe for the risk and creativity necessary for innovation.  And, fear, insecurity and distrust don’t usually lead to growth and quality. 

How do you bridge this gap between what employers expect and what employees are prepared to deliver?

Ah, the $64,000 question.  My goal is to be as concrete as possible, because I think people are desperate for specific actionable steps. I’m still working on specific recommendations but they will reinforce the following:

Accept that flexibility in how, when and where work is done, life is managed and business operates is here to stay.  Now, learn how to use it for personal and professional growth, innovation, caring and quality.  I believe this is an unprecedented opportunity for people and organizations willing to learn how to navigate this new era.

Ultimately, individuals will experience many different flexible work+life fit realities, initiated for both personal and business reasons.  There are no “right” answers or standard paths.

To some this will sound exhilarating.  To others, it’s chaos.  Regardless, for individuals, it means learning the new “how to” skills for self-directing  your life, work and career. 

For example, over the course of a career, a person might work for an employer full-time, but have to work nights covering clients in Asia.  Maybe they’ll leave that job to start an entrepreneurial venture.  And then, when their first child is born, sign up with a contract employment agency such as the Business Talent Group or Aquent to work on a project basis.  Then when his or her partner relocates, they’ll telecommute from another state or country 75% of the time.  After that, maybe he or she will take a cut in pay and prestige to learn a new skill, experience working in a different country or switch industries.

For organizations, it means strategically harnessing that flexibility to achieve specific objectives in a way that’s a win for the business and for the employees who are right now too scared, insecure and distrusting to execute effectively. 

The Recession will and will not end.  This was one of the most powerful takeaways from the Re-Set Minds, Thinking and Business Conference that I attended earlier this week at The Harvard Club.  It featured an impressive panel of thought-leaders, including Seth Godin, Tom Peters, Michael Eisner, Gary Vaynerchuk and Anna Bernasek all commenting on success in the new, post-career economy.

The experts shared many wonderful insights, but one comment by Seth Godin really hit a chord.  He said the cyclical Recession will end.  But in terms of going back to the way things were, the Recession will never end because it was the death of the Industrial Age.  As Godin emphasized, “You can either see it as an opportunity, or you can sit there saying ‘Tell me when its over.’ It will never be over.”  A hard but necessary truth, which is why…

Integrity, Character, Resilience, Partnership and Caring are going to be the foundational characteristics of success going forward.  This was the main message presented by the experts who spoke at the ReSet conference.

To be sure, when you’re afraid and insecure, it isn’t always easy to maintain your integrity, and character.  It’s hard to be resilient, and put yourself out there as a caring partner professionally and personally. But for growth, quality, customer service, and innovation, they’re a non-negotiable.  Here are the final “3X5 Card” thoughts Seth Godin asked each ReSet panelist to leave us with:

Gary Vaynerchuk: “Legacy is greater than currency”

Anna Bernasek: “Integrity is a have-to-have”

Michael Eisner: “Strength of personal relationships”

Tom Peters: “Character is required”

Seth Godin:  “Do work that matters”

Important stuff.  Tell me…if you had 5 minutes, how would you close the chasm between the expectations of growth, innovation and quality, and the prevailing fear, insecurity and distrust of employees?  What would you say? 

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