A few years ago I came across two authors, Julie Coats and William Draves. They have a book called “Nine-Shift”, in it they discuss the end of the post industrial era and a shift into an “electronic age” of sorts. One of the things they talk about is how the work force will change dramatically between 2005 and 2015. So far they have been right, the workforce is changing dramatically in many ways. Prior to the recession the change was gradual, however, economic slow downs have a way of greatly accelerating changes in the work place, I believe this is true with the most recent recession. As the economy begins to slowly improve we continue to hear the words “job-less” recovery. Basically what that means is that the jobs that were lost as the labor market contracted in the last recession will mostly not be replaced. Why? The way we work is changing and, I would argue on the back side of this recession it has changed dramatically. No one is really talking about it just yet. To understand this change we must first look at the labor market prior to the recession.
Even before the recession began we were seeing shifts in the way people worked. Things like “flex time” and “telecommuting” were being widely adopted by organizations (albeit in a very narrowly applied way). By and large we were operating in the same work structure as our great grandparents did at the turn of the century; 9-5 (then 8 to 5) with an hour for lunch. We had very clear and consistent lines of authority. This structure provides a very clear pathway for personal career growth. This has served us well in a manufacturing-based economy. Yet as we move away from a manufacturing based economy it is slowly becoming irrelevant. The process of learning the work, then slowly acquiring more and more responsibility until you ultimately reached the executive office or hit retirement age is no longer working. As we move from an economy that manufactures thing to an economy of ideas and knowledge that are then manufactured by labor forces in other countries the way we work and how we progress down our career paths has changed as well.
Demographics are also playing a significant roll in changing the way we work. Our organizations are basically choking on high earning baby boomers who have been promoted mostly under the old work structure. Years of service and social promotion have played a large roll in creating this highly inflated upper management structure. Beneath these baby boomers is a much smaller group called Generation X. These 30-40 year olds are stuck behind the baby boomers who are staying in the work force longer and are, in many ways occupying unnecessary positions. Many of the X’ers have entered the workforce under the old structure as well. They are also the greatest force for the changes coming in the way we work.
Beneath the X’ers is another large group of workers called Generation Y. They get along swimmingly with the baby boomers and many of them will be promoted along side or past the Gen X’er’s as boomers eventually retire from the work force, especially in organizations that try to retain their old work structure. They have a high degree of respect for the boomers and while they are not averse to new working arrangements they also see value in the “old ways” that the X’er does not.
Prior to the recession we heard stories of Gen Xers bailing out of the corporate world feeling as if they had no place or did not want to wait in line behind a bunch of boomers whose conspicuous consumption lifestyles were going to prevent them from retiring. It is often a key indicator of major shifts in the way work when the middle generation, those who feel they are ready to take on leadership begin to strike out on their own endeavors and Gen Xer’s have done so in many ways with great success. Companies like Amazon, Zappos, Google are all thriving even in the downturn. Corporations suddenly woke up to the fact that there was going to be an experience deficit in their organization as boomers left their roles for the smaller Gen X cohort. To answer this organizations have instituted development programs for their younger work forces (mostly Gen Y) while still ultimately suppressing the wages of everyone that was not a baby boomer and had not “earned it” yet. The silver lining lay in the belief that over-promoted ranks of baby boomers were going leave open and vacant a lot of necessary positions and as organizations work to fill in those positions individuals with the skill sets to fill them will have amazing leverage. That was until the recession. The recession combined with a work structure that is not sustainable in a non-manufacturing economy has lead to lay offs in the highest ranks of our organizations. By and large these positions will not be filled again. The old work structure isn’t gone, but the change has accelerated. The charred remains of the post-war social promotion structure are still being clung to by many organizations. However, many organizations have moved on to greener pastures and ultimately any organization that wishes to survive is going to have to give up the old castle. Even after our economic downturn lead to a large contraction there is still going to be a severe skill deficit in the workplace. We are already hearing a lot about the post recession work place. Organizations are “flattening” in order to shift more functional responsibility to their bloated management ranks in order to keep those positions relevant as a matter of self preservation. This flattening also creates a need for new skills at the lower levels and almost eliminates the traditional paths of advancement.
The old work place model could be imagined as a pyramid. At the top is the CEO at the narrowest point then the model expands through ranks of executive, senior, mid-level, frontline managers and finally front line employees with the front line being the largest group. If you were to take each level and divide their required skills into two groups: technical expertise and people expertise you'd see that most of the work groups require technical expertise. It is only at the executive level the "people expertise" begins to play a significant role. Thus, "people skills" were the purview of the executive suite. In the old work model the cultivation and expansion of technical expertise was the key to upward movement. It was only the highest ranks of the organization that technical expertise was not a key requirement. This supports an experiential or time model of promotion and is a left over of the days when an individual entered the workforce in one organization and stayed there for an entire career.
What I believe the workforce is trending towards and, in-fact, already looks like in many organizations is a diamond. Most organizations have a huge (and mostly irrelevant) chunk of baby boomers in upper management. We are seeing this chunk of people reduced somewhat. In the future as baby boomers leave the workforce or change the way that they work this area will begin to shrink, as it does the organization will begin to collapse duties and this collapsing will lead to flattening. What does this mean for those people looking for movement? It’s not going to happen the way it used to. As our workforce flattens the distance between the functional workforce and the C-suite will decrease as the over swollen management ranks are cleared out. For those who entered the workforce and are expecting the old path to a high paying leadership position it just is not going to happen.
With the old pathways no longer viable (or at best, a slim margin of success) how does the mid-career and entry level professional achieve the position and earning potential of their predecessors? I believe the answer lies in re-orienting our professional development priorities. The potential of promotion through technical expertise has always been finite. I believe today that the potential is fully realized much earlier than ever before. Now it is essential for professionals to develop their people skills earlier and to a greater degree than before. As organizations flatten and re-orient their workforce around projects and knowledge centers it is the people who can work in the most diverse range circumstances and the largest range of group dynamics that will be of the highest perceived value and therefore a priority to retain by the organization. Ability to work with, motivate, and lead in a variety of work groups and circumstances is not a technical skill. And, until recently, it was learned on the job over long periods of time. This luxury is no longer available in a flat organization. Technical expertise is enough to carry you forward professionally for a few years, maybe a decade. I would argue that in this new work place the mediocre technician with highly effective people skills will go farther and acquire more than the most talented technician with no people skills. Understanding how people work, how to lead them, motivate them and achieve results is no longer the purview of the executive suite. In the flat organization it is a task everyone must master.
When we set out the create the EmPower Leadership Program at U of H our team knew that we had to create a program that met these needs. Leadership programs, in general, still primarily serve the old workforce model. How to get your boss to agree with you so they’ll approve the things you want and how to get your employees to work from 8-5 and all do the same thing. That world, though still prevalent, is steadily losing ground. Leadership now is much more about helping individuals, teams, and, at some level the organization, tie internal motivators to organizational objectives. Individuals who not only understand this but are effective practitioners can, I believe, expect to go very far. For this reason, development of people skills and social intelligence based leadership training must play a significant role in career development.
At an organizational level we have already seen the companies that get this starting to take a lion’s share of the talent. This trend will only continue especially as experience hiring begins to pick up as post recession growth begins to occur. Articles about “recruitment hit-lists” are starting to pop up in literature on organizational development as a major threat to retention at organizations who have not yet realized the need for re-orienting their workforce focus. As Tamara Erickson says in her book “What’s Next Gen X”: “Bodies and hands are just not enough; hearts and minds are essential too.”