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4 ways to lead the new breed of talent

How should you lead a global, clever workforce?

By Tammy Erickson and Anna Johnston . 04 May 2016

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What if the future were to be based on facts instead of imagination? There’s a mappable pattern emerging about “people who work”, says Tammy Erickson, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Notice her choice of phrase. Not employees, but people who work.


This is how you must think about the people who work for you and your company, now and in the future. “We need to explore the idea of HR becoming an on-demand agency,” she says. Of course, ‘agency’ means more than one thing. First: the capacity for individuals to act independently and make their own free choice. Second: an organisation set up to serve others. “Used as a noun, I think it accurately describes what we're seeing in the workforce and what we’re asking of HR as a function,” says Erickson.


There are four components that underpin a successful agency on-demand, she says.


1. Master – Understand how the business works. Break work into tasks and recognise how the business creates value


2. Minister – Offer a wide variety of work arrangements and lead a portfolio of individuals


3. Market – Create and execute a powerful, consistent brand and maintain long-term relationships with the right people


4. Measure – Identify relevant metrics and make the most of technology.


More on the four Ms after you’ve explored how work is changing and why as a leader, it matters to you.


From personnel, to human resources, to human capital


According to a PwC report in 2014, while 93% of CEOs said they recognised they needed to change their talent strategy, 61% hadn’t taken the first step, because they weren’t sure how. In 2013, according to this report by Aberdeen Group, only 11% of HR leaders said they had a strategic workforce planning process and just 23% had planned for a future workforce. Why is the planning part going wrong?


The nature of the work being done today isn’t the same as it was even 10 years ago. Work is becoming knowledge-based, says Erickson. “Workers will need to leverage both human and machine-based intelligence effectively – detecting patterns, providing insights or innovating new capabilities,” Erickson writes here.


As the nature of the work changes, so too does the worker. As a leader, you need to nurture relationships with your workers, as well as “those who buy” says Erickson. “Workforce characteristics are shifting from people eager to be a member of an institution, and a homogenous workforce wanting to sign up and stay for life, to a much shorter work week, a push for flexibility and those who are increasingly skilled.”  Most leaders are comfortable with asking: ‘How do I create long term brand loyalty with my consumers?’ But are you prepared to ask the same of your staff? Erickson says you need to ask: ‘How do I help my organisation become the preferred option. How do I get people to choose working here?’


Free agent nation


In the future, you’re more likely to lead individuals who are diverse, have diverse needs and want to be treated as such, says Erickson. That’s why creating a switched on agency is so important. How do you lead the new effort? With the four Ms.


1. Master 


“If I were to pick simply one thing that’ll have the biggest impact on improving organisational productivity going forward, it would be the ability to break work into tasks,” she says. After that, she adds, the most important tasks must be identified. By doing so, your most creative workers won’t fall into the trap of spending 70% of their time on data entry. And your highly skilled knowledge workers won’t spend their time on spreadsheet analysis.


“Optimise their time”, says Erickson.


“The more you can think about a task as opposed to a broad role, the better.” It’s certainly not about job title or hierarchy. “Think less about this person being the vice president of marketing and think of them instead as being responsible for launching a new product this year. Go one step further and break the launch of the product down into specific sub tasks and work out which are dependent on others, and how.”


Erickson takes Walt Disney World as an example from Based on Beyond HR by John W. Boudreau and Pete Ramstad. “Try and pinpoint what is most critical to the theme park’s success,” she provokes. "The answer is clearly Mickey Mouse.” But, she says, it’s also the people who design the rides, the engineers who make the rides work and the people who clean up the ice creams off the floor.


“Disney's positioning is about being the happiest place on the planet. So how do they maximise customer delight? They make sure that every moment is individually delightful and quickly minimise any defects. Who’s responsible for that? The designer, ride engineer, or Mickey Mouse?


“In fact, it's none of them. It's really the street sweeper dressed as a Disney character that stops to talk to the guests and creates delightful encounters. The character that carries chalk in his/her pocket and draws pictures on the street for children and fixes problems before they occur.”


This agile way of working is only achievable when tasks are defined and shared, she says and when workers aren’t limited to their job titles.


2. Minister


Now you’re a ‘task master’, you need to go about ministering to individuals in different work settings. “It won’t just be employ-based workers,” says Erickson. “But contractors, consultants and experts you can tap for short periods of time, and in a variety of settings: flexible, reduced, job-sharing, flexible and decelerating roles.”


From outsourced contractors to full-time workers, as a leader, it’s your job to tap what you need, when demand calls for it. You need to imagine a workforce made up of people working in ways to suit their goals as well as your organisation.


“Some might argue that it's becoming too complex for a ‘line manager’ to deal with. It takes too much skill. HR will become similar to a talent agency in the film industry. It will be responsible for a portfolio of individuals, matching people to tasks, orchestrating their development, and importantly, maintaining relationships with people in the long term, through periods of non-work,” she says.


But if HR becomes a talent agency what happens to the managers?


“Traditional managers don't go away; they're still a critical role. They need to set the direction, directing the process, coaching the team and integrate separately produced pieces of the puzzle.”


So the line manager plays a critical role but it's the role of integrating tasks not the role of managing a complex portfolio of people.


3. Market


The third role of the new agency function is to market, says Erickson.  This is about future-proofing your organisation with the right talent. You don’t have to have a relationship with everyone.


The classic definition of customer-focused marketing lends itself here, she explains: “‘Marketing consists of the strategies and tactics used to identify, create and maintain, satisfying relationships with customers that result in value for both parties.’ I think that’s spot on here. You only need to substitute the word ‘customers’ with ‘people who work’.


“If a strong brand is created by fulfilling a promise over and over again, that’s exactly what you’ve got to do.”


What commands Loyalty Beyond Reason™ she asks? A brand of course. People act on emotion. So it’s only when you lead your organisation to nurture an emotional connection and create experiences for both current workers and people you want to attract as workers, that you’ll develop your talent pool.


“I’ve found the companies that do well create stories rather than slogans. It's not about saying, ‘We’re collaborative’. It's about making people comfortable in their skin.”


It’s your job to reinforce the promise and values so there's no disconnect, she says. Does your organisation have authenticity running through it like a stick of rock?


“An essential role of this agency function is to be architects of goose-bump experiences and guardians of the employee experience. It's about creating powerful, differentiating experiences, it's about customising and delivering them in ways that are equal, even better, than the customer experiences you offer.”


4. Measure


This final component, measure, comes down to the enduring question: if you don’t measure what you do, how do you know you’re doing it right?


“Data has allowed organisations to move away from simple attrition rates or cost to hire, to more sophisticated predictive analytics more relevant to the future of our workforce.


“If you go back to the challenge of mastering pivotal tasks, you could look to measure the homogeneity of task requirements – the extent to which individuals feel that work requires skills they have. By asking people how much time they spend on tasks that fulfil them and use their full skillset will empower you to measure and break down tasks into relevant sub-components,” she says.


This, argues Erickson, is an opportunity to improve efficiency by task reallocation and as well as measuring efficiently. Remember the creative worker who was forced to spend their time on data entry? Now they can spend 80% of their time writing, designing or innovating.


“In the minister component, one of the most important metrics is something called ‘fit to task’: understanding who has the capabilities to take on which task,” she says.


And in the market component, of course, you can measure employment brand by asking people to tell you what they think it would mean to work in your organisation before they start and see how close it comes to what you’re trying to market.


“So these are the key components,” she says. Now what?


To shift your organisation, and the way you lead it, Erickson suggests you make a start here:


  • Identify discrete tasks. “Don’t try doing anything across the organisation, but choose a focused task-based idea.”
  • Then, articulate the principles of your employment brand. “You need to make three to five elements of your brand distinctive, unique and powerful.”
  • Build a portfolio of current and future talent to lead. “Think about creative ways to stay in touch with individuals, even when they're not technically working for you, to maintain your portfolio.”

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