Firstly one must acknowledge and pay homage to the hundreds of writers and commentators who over the decades have given their opinions and theories in the countless books and articles on the subject of managing people; you could probably step all the way to the moon on the various publications on offer.
Alas one would have to say a great deal of that material (with a few key exceptions) is less relevant in our world today; from advice on strategy to various forms of leadership it simply does not apply to the conditions we now are experiencing. Whilst it would be displaying a degree of arrogance to virtually “throw the baby out with the bath water”, many of those principles advocated can be put into question.
I raise the proposition that we are deluding ourselves that we have the challenge of leading and managing people in hand and that there is no real need for decisive action on strategic thinking and innovation. There is certainly a lot of discussion and hyperbole from many quarters about the subject but there is little evidence of sustained action by large sections of the business communities to address surely one of businesses and our nation’s most crucial issues. I speak from a position of having conducted hundreds of interviews over the past ten years with various stakeholders, the chorus of dissention growing louder as the various issues have emerged.
SO WHY DO I BELIEVE THIS IS SO?
The last decade has in many ways become more defining than any since the end of hostilities of World War II; the changes outlined below have had such a fundamental effect on the psyche of people throughout the globe. These changes have caused a major shift in how people think and act regarding their roles in business and society.
The shifting of economic power from West to East in the form of China, emerging trading nations such as Brazil and India, taking our attention as their burgeoning economies alter the economic landscape. The mature world centres for manufacturing, research and development have moved to more low cost countries in an effort to remain competitive, as the model of globalisation has been embraced by more countries. For governments around the world (including our own) having to reinvent economies where their people can be gainfully employed in other sectors, a highly difficult and costly exercise to fill the void after the demise of established traditional industries who in the modern era are unable to compete. Another consequence of globalisation has been the creation of opportunities for Australians to work in other markets which has made the so called “War for Talent” at home a more difficult proposition as the skilled labour market has tightened and become increasingly competitive.
World security issues have also dominated our thinking as terrorism becomes not regional but a global issue bringing with it uncertainty to peoples thoughts on what the future may bring for all of our lives.
The bursting of the financial bubble, an event most commentators and governments thought could never happen, placing trust in free markets philosophies, obviously that blind trust was seemingly misplaced as the world now hangs by a thread from financial meltdown; the effects reverberating into the lives of everyday people across the globe. The fallout being, nation’s economies crippled with almost unthinkable levels of debt and trading blocs such as Europe under serious threat of collapse. Institutions once revered are now under serious pressure to revive their respective reputations including Banks, Insurance companies, Local & Federal Governments, struggling to overcome this legacy in rebuilding some level of trust with its clients and stakeholders, namely the public.
The phenomenal growth of technology whilst adding to our lives in many ways has exposed us to challenges of living in a world of twenty four hours connectivity. Interestingly communication has receded in terms of face to face contact but the emergence where one can connect with hundreds of “friends” through the medium of social media. Claims from employers about the lack of inter-personal skills from new graduates, whilst on the other hand their level of technical competence is found to be very strong.
Perhaps the biggest change we have witnessed is the growth of how we receive our news, frequency, volume and the numerous channels from which it comes from. The demise of print media has seen it replaced by electronic reporting, this being beamed into our homes and businesses within seconds following an event. It is claimed that this medium has changed public thinking in a way never seen in our history including political and business decision making. The ability of people to effortlessly access information on a global scale has been a major feature of the decade. This change has also seen a thirst by employees for more information to be disseminated by companies and increased communication regarding issues which they feel are in their interests. Its major detractors claim that a great deal of the output is based on opinion and not fact creating unnecessary dissention both political and within organisations.
The growth of open conflict between generations, where for the first time we are witnessing several different age groups working alongside one another and to date the transition has been less than ideal as the so called Baby Boomers resist the change to their established norms and values. The newcomers pour cold water on the rules once considered sacrosanct by their elders and there is clearly a lack of respect for each other’s positions.
The decade has seen the beginning of the retirement of the baby boomers from the workforce and the consequences of a previous low birth rate are combining to create a serious skill shortage. It is estimated by 2023 the number of people leaving the workplace will outstrip those entering, further evidence we need to consider other innovative people solutions if we expect our economy to grow.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
The above issues raised of course are correlated in that they all involve people in some way or another, these combined events have conspired to create a new paradigm. The leadership of people is today a complex matrix of issues some of which extend beyond the boundaries and influence of business owners, more to do with societal change. Currently we have a rather volatile environment where we have stakeholders from all perspectives who are unhappy, angry,*de-motivated, confused and believe they are being short changed in relation to their respective efforts in life and work. Earlier in this paper I advocated that some of the doctrines we have been operating under be dismissed, I added a waiver in that some of the principles we have held so close to our hearts be remodelled to cater for our situation today and the future, that waiver revolves around, respect, relationships and trust.
WHAT WE NEED TO DO NOW?
My comments are somewhat influenced by the late US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who proposed a “New Deal” in the 1930’s where a compact was envisaged between government, business and their people (Unfortunately Roosevelt died before the proposal was enacted). A pact of mutual respect, relationships and trust with resultant benefits being shared by all parties was envisaged. These values will need to be fashioned to suit individual organisations and particular circumstances taking into account the current culture and practices.
I see no reason why individual companies and groups of employees cannot reach such an accord. I do not think that this idea will be successful overnight, after all many organisations are struggling to regain lost ground from the events of recent years, it will take a great deal of commitment on all sides. It is a basic platform which needs to be established if we are to tackle our not inconsiderable problems.
On a positive note there is evidence from a number of sources that organisations who have implemented such strategies have met with good results.
Other new mindsets have unfortunately been spawned and we will need to invest in a degree of re-education as there appears to be a perception on the part of some of the population minds that it is not permissible for companies to make profit. Of course this has been fuelled by erroneous and mischievous reporting by media following the business scandals of recent years. The reality being that business must make profit to reinvest in resources and survive; the clear distinction between unethical behaviour/ profit and normal practice has been somewhat blurred.
For those doubters who cling to the hope they can ride the storm without taking action are in my opinion sadly misguided, things will never go back to how they once remembered, our focus has to be how do we meaningfully tackle the situation before us.
In the period under discussion Australia has done particularly well compared to the fortunes of so many other countries around the world; although we continue to don the cloak of negative sentiment. We hear so much about leadership but it is incumbent for all leaders in the community and in business to show a measure of optimism. In the words of the great Arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton “Optimism is the true moral courage”, when leaders display this characteristic you can be sure their people will follow.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
A continuation of rapid changes can certainly be expected , these will affect people and business requiring new insights and perspectives, in how they work together, it will be necessary for all companies regardless of size to devote time in developing a strategic people plan.
Such a plan should encompass the building of a workable sustainable culture and is adaptable to other changes which will occur as time progresses. Rather than such a model being only used for internal purposes, this is your respective window to the world and many interested parties are peering back at your organisation through it. Your ability to attract talented and skilled people will be enhanced from this investment.
The leadership of people will never be a static challenge, due to the increasing rates of change and the vagaries of human behaviour. We can expect to devote more time to evolve strategies in ensuring relationships are healthy and our companies build and project an attractive profile not only for internal stakeholders but to the wider community.
Be assured those who take up this challenge will prosper whilst those who baulk and hesitate run the risk of damaging their business for the future.
9th January 2012
*Courtesy of Leadership Management Australia
60% of those in work dislike or have a ho-hum attitude to it.
50% in the past six months of the workforce considered looking for an alternative job in 2011.
37% employees and middle managers feel positive about job satisfaction.