Is your company ready for the changes coming to the 21st century workplace? Do you know what trends to look out for? I got a glimpse recently when I interviewed Eric Schurenberg, editor-in-chief of Inc., the magazine of business and technology, on my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection. Eric and I had a great talk about the transformations that are taking over the world of work.
The evolving role of the CEO
Innovation has become such a buzzword these days that it might seem that it’s always been with us. Not so, Eric reminded me. In the 20th century, the CEO’s role was simply to maintain the company’s growth trajectory and preserve the culture passed on by previous leaders. “Think of the corporate boardroom with the portraits of leaders of the past and the giant framed portrait of the founder,” Eric said. “It’s not that way anymore. The expectation is that a good leader is flexible, and not so much a steward as a disruptor — even within his or her own company.”
In today’s corporate culture, everyone from the CEO down needs “to be an organization that iterates, measures, adapts, observes, and then goes on to the next thing,” Eric said. “Before, organization meant hierarchy. You understood the chain of command. Now what it means is you have to understand the constancy of change. The struggle leaders have is to create a culture that doesn’t get entrenched in the way things have been. One that’s constantly willing to reinvent itself.”
In other words, today’s CEO must move away from the command-and-control style of leadership and toward one that is more flexible and more empathetic, more creative, more willing to accept criticism, more feminine than masculine.
“Think of someone with an artistic or design frame of mind, rather than someone with a hierarchical, military frame of mind,” Eric said. “People with that approach to life will still have a role as a kind of chief operating officer, but they won’t by virtue of that state of mind tend to rise to the top.”
Companies that treat their employees less in a hierarchical way and more as a source of ideas and creativity will have the competitive advantage, he said.
Get ready for artificial intelligence
The biggest business trend on the horizon? The accelerating pace of technological developments, Eric said.
“Here in the media business, we have our noses rubbed in the question of machine intelligence vs. human intelligence all the time,” he told me. “Think about any business that’s driven by advertising. It used to be kind of gut-driven: is your advertising message being carried in the platform that enhances the image of your product? There was a lot of room for subjective judgment there.
“Well, those decisions now are much more driven by data, and increasingly they’re made by machines that operate in the blink of an eye. The ability to decide the right platform to carry the right ad — that’s now done by algorithms. This is an incredible, existential change in the way business is done.”
Ad sales are just one example. Artificial intelligence is also poised to revolutionize how management is conducted. A recent essay by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, speculated about how this might happen.
“Think about what artificial intelligence does,” Eric said. “It’s masterful at marshaling more data than the human eye can grasp, then recognizing patterns that would be lost on a mere human.”
Just as companies have dashboards to measure how fast units are selling and what outlets are producing the most sales, Hoffman envisioned a kind of pattern-matching to pinpoint where employees are placing their attention. “You’ll see if your team is paying a lot of attention to one particular market, or is excited about one particular product, or is not focusing on your company goals,” Eric said. “That’s a kind of insight that a manager can really only get in a very imperfect way now by walking around and asking people what they think.”
A.I. can also help produce more objective performance reviews. “At the moment, most companies don’t think performance reviews are worth the trouble because they’re so subjective,” Eric said. “They’re easy to dismiss. But if they’re driven by data, the value of them becomes a lot easier to measure and it increases the sense of fairness. It eliminates the perception that things are colored by people’s backgrounds or their chemistry.”
Yet another advantage to A.I. is that new employees will be able to track the network of knowledge within their organization to enable them to get up to speed more quickly. “There will be a much more rapid flow of talent between organizations,” Eric said. “There won’t be this drop-off, this acclimation period. A.I. will take care of that.”
The last new frontier: The brain
Eric recalled how, back when he was managing editor of Money magazine, a writer proposed an article about the new science of behavioral economics, based on the research of then-unknown psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “At the time, the editors of Money thought this was the most ridiculous thing,” Eric said. “Now the work of Kahneman is not only a best-selling business book (Thinking, Fast and Slow), but it’s just so filtered into the normal conversation of leaders that it’s almost reflexive.
“You can now say to someone, ‘You know, you’re just giving us the first order of thinking right now. You should actually reflect on this and think about it harder.’ We now have that kind of self-awareness about our own human propensity to take mental shortcuts and make judgements based on insufficient evidence. It’s helped people avoid the kinds of pitfalls that have tripped them up in the past.”
Eric and I discussed the phenomenon of “stereotype boost,” the theory that positive stereotyping can improve performance, just as negative stereotyping can hinder it. Experiments show that while subjects perform worse at a task after being reminded of their group’s supposedly poor ability in that area, the phenomenon is reversible. “If you’re the beneficiary of a positive stereotype, you do better than average,” Eric said. “For example, Asian-Americans do better at math after they’re reminded that Asian-Americans are good at math.” This pattern has particular implications for women: “Success will, in the end, breed success for female leaders and women entrepreneurs,” he said.
“The more it becomes clear that women do just as well as men, or better, the more those stereotypes will start to drop away.”
The path to globalization
Eric believes the current reaction to globalization — the Brexit vote and the U.S. election results — is a backlash against the “absolute breakneck pace of change.”
“It’s hard for people to put up with, and lots of people would really love to get off the merry-go-round, but they can’t,” he said. “Globalization is like technology — an irreversible trend.”
Globalization works in part because it’s “just so much more efficient than what went before. It’s a force of nature, because it makes people better off.”
But that doesn’t mean progress will happen in a straight line. “If you’re in West Virginia or the deep South, or the industrial Midwest, you know that the benefits were not distributed equally,” Eric said. “It would be very hard in those circumstances to see globalization with the kind of intellectual remove that it’s your privilege and mine to see it.”
To succeed, companies will have to help retrain workers to perform the skills needed in the 21st-century workplace.
Eric alluded to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute that found dissatisfaction among employers at the lack of training in people entering the workforce. “But during the time this lament became common wisdom, companies were cutting way back on their training programs,” Eric said. “What they used to see as their responsibility — to take on people as apprentices and train them in the skills required for their industry — they saw as now being schools’ responsibility. And since people left schools without knowing how to be a coder at Google or a machinist at Chrysler, the schools had failed.
“And yet maybe what it is, is that employers are not willing to make the investment they need in training,” Eric said.