Purpose, Meaning & Culture: Navigating Uncharted Waters

 

Foreword from Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur, CEO, writer, and keynote speaker

 

We live in an age of complexity. Which means that, while we may perceive patterns, they don’t repeat themselves regularly. It also means that very small things can make disproportionate impacts, and that expertise often can’t keep up because the system keeps changing so fast. In other words, the world has become inherently more difficult to predict, and our capacity to forecast with any degree of accuracy has become alarmingly short. 

One response to this profound change is to become even more short-term: go gig economy, invest in nobody, perfect just-in-time production and hope for the best. The other response is to accept that the future is uncharted and decide that a core competence for any company must be developing deep capacity and talent for adaptation. That means becoming a place where everyone expects to keep learning, where re-training isn’t a one-time thing, a bit of a lark or a luxury perk for executives only. It has to become a lifetime commitment for everyone. Many organizations aren’t prepared for this; they still baulk at the idea that this is their job, insisting that it should be the government’s responsibility to deliver machine-ready workers to their front door. Those companies may well find themselves every employee’s last choice. The only way to keep up with change is to be good at every aspect of it.

 

“One response to profound change… means becoming a place where everyone expects to keep learning, where re-training isn’t a one-time thing”

 

But being able to reskill the workforce, routinely, may be the easy part. Most employees these days don’t just want to know how to do the work, they want to know why. In part this is a weary response to programmes that were badged as “transformation” but turned out to be cost-cutting in poor disguise. It is also a reflection that the working generations now feel vulnerable in every way. They aren’t confident their organizations will last, or that their bosses will survive, or even that the planet will endure. Time is precious and nobody wants to waste it on work or people that aren’t trustworthy and meaningful. The companies whose activity contributes to the wellbeing of the planet and of their people will be able to explain, credibly, why working there is a good use of life’s time. Sadly, many corporate purpose statements today are laughable, just CSR dressed up in new words. But the companies that serve society will find people eager to serve them. 

 

What else will organizations need to navigate such uncharted waters? I think they will need to accept that their resilience depends significantly on the loyalty and commitment their people feel to each other. They will stay through thick and thin, for their co-workers, even for their bosses. Having written recently about companies that survived existential crises, it’s clear to me that their endurance derived in no small part from the tight bonds of friendship, generosity and reciprocity, developed over years, between their people. That takes time and longevity – pretty much the opposite of the gig economy. It’s a paradox and a leadership challenge, that the more temporary the world feels, the more resilience derives from what is permanent: people’s care for each other.

September 2019

About Future Talent Group

Founded in 2004 by Jim Carrick-Birtwell, Future Talent is part of Changeboard.

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