In 2014, Heather McGowan published a series of articles on Medium called “Jobs Are Over: The Future is Income Generation.” The concept was simple: “The future is one of life-long learning, serial short-term employment engagements, and the creation of a portfolio of passive and active income generation.”
This idea aligned with my personal philosophy, which is “do what’s best for the Bonner Foundation.” I knew her guidance worked. Eventually, Heather and I became close associates. Recently, she agreed to chat with me about the future — both for companies and for our individual career paths. What I learned is that this future is already on a trajectory that is deep within our collective blind spot.
Jerel: What does the future of work look like?
Heather: The future of work is about learning and adapting, which is letting go of the old ways of doing things and [who] you were in that process. We simultaneously are going through the greatest velocity of change in human history. At the same time, we are making the greatest leaps in human longevity, which makes for a longer, more volatile career arc.
Leadership is now about inspiring human potential. After stripping away the work that AI will be doing in the future, what are left are the uniquely human learning adventures that we all are going to be on. To accelerate those learning adventures, leaders need to create psychological safety so that employees feel safe to learn and to help them feel connection to purpose and passion to fuel that learning by their own internal motivation.
What purpose does a personal mission statement play today, and how has that purpose changed?
I’m not stuck on whether people need a personal mission statement. If they are going to have one, then it would be better if it is pointed to a higher calling … instead of being a guide that focuses on a set 40- to 50-year career that may appear clear today.
It’s more important for individuals to pay attention to what gives them energy compared to what depletes their drive. Then, they need to shape their work more toward the things that give them energy and learn more about those things. A job is always moving. If they are not moving by continuously learning, then their job is moving away from them. When people shape their work so that it gives them strength, then they will be inspired to learn more about those skill sets so it becomes self-reinforcing.
Kate O’Keeffe, founder of Cisco’s Hyper-Innovation Living Labs, shared with me, “We are now prototypes always in beta, always testing and refining.” People need to learn how to be comfortable with that experience.
That’s an interesting quote, Heather. What that means is that we will no longer be able to stay in our comfort zone. Going forward, we all have to be able to take on unpredictability every day.
In your new book, “The Adaptation Advantage,” you write about “scalable learning organizations,” a concept you learned about from [management consultant and author] John Hagel. This concept was new to me, as well. Why is coupling culture and capacity key to becoming a scalable learning organization?
Today’s business leaders tend to focus on whether they have a great brand, make great products and connect with their consumers, and they tend to focus on how they deliver value today. They focus on the outputs. That model is becoming outdated. The world is moving too fast. A focus on the inputs of culture and capacity gives an organization maximum agility.
Let’s look at Netflix. They have traversed three different types of value in their 23 years of being a company. Netflix began, in 1997, by shipping DVDs by mail. Under that business model, their required capacity focused on supply chain, to move the DVDs, and constant pursuit of perfecting the algorithm that moved their back list of higher margin and older movies. That algorithm introduced customers to movies unknown to them that aligned with their preferences. This type of capacity, which they continue to hone today, delights the customer with suggested content.
In 2007, thanks to the advancement of technology, notably less expensive storage, better devices [and] better broadband internet infrastructure, Netflix shifted to a streaming model. So, they needed to expand their capacity to new areas in order to store the content [and] to make sure thousands of people could watch the same program at the same time at different points within the program, without interruption. So, their core focus of capacity shifted from supply chain logistics to technology infrastructure, as they moved away from shipping and receiving DVDs.
Then, in 2011, Netflix started creating original content, which required an entirely different type of capacity. Content creation is now 44% of their revenue.
So, they made three major business pivots over 23 years. Between 2007 and 2011, Reed Hasting, the CEO of Netflix, realized the changing context and updated the Netflix culture by refining their mission statement. Culture needs nurture to remain relevant, and continuous expansion of capacity gives organizations maximum agility.
Culture is not a static statement a company prints on a coffee mug; it’s a living document. Company culture in a fast-moving world needs to be aspirational. It’s not something employees can achieve entirely today; it’s something the company is always in pursuit of, and it exists to answer three questions: Why we exist, which is the mission; how does the world look differently because we exist, [which] is the vision; and what we will do and not do to fulfill our mission and realize our vision, which are our values.
What is a change in the business milieu that is starting to gain traction?
The latest change that I see gaining traction is leaders modeling the behavior they want to see in their teams: trust, vulnerability, psychological safety and accountability. There are a lot of champions out there for it. Some of them [whom] I follow and recommend are Margaret Heffernan, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek and Amy Edmondson. Also notable is Google’s Project Aristotle, which conducts research into the secrets of accelerating team learning. All of these ideas focus around the topics of psychological safety, clarity of mission [and] connection to purpose [to] create[e] the conditions in which humans thrive. These are subjects that HR is aware of, and they are now trying to figure this out and how to roll out within their organizations.
What’s next on your radar to explore?
I’m researching and evaluating the difference between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that can be codified. It is the stuff that can be automated. It is the “what” that can be transferred to humans through school, and in the future it will be automated.
Tacit knowledge is learned through experiences. It can’t be read from a book, and it can’t be automated. Technology is not going to take over tacit knowledge, which will always be the domain of humans. After stripping away all the things that are routine, predictable and digitalized, what’s going to remain are the skills humans are really good at. Those things are deciphering intent, empathy, sympathy, communication and all those competencies, which are learned through human experiences.
One ailment that I want to amplify, to make leaders more aware about, is the practice of “spilling and filling.” This happens when companies “spill” hundreds of employees off their payrolls because they are older and want to “fill” those positions with younger employees who are more technically adept. The risk to this routine is that companies don’t realize that when they are doing this, they are losing years of acquired tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge takes years of experience and exposure to cultivate, and when they spill their older workers, they are losing tons of tacit knowledge, which is going to be more scarce and harder to recover.
This interview with Heather took place on Jan. 21. During my professional career, which spanned the 1987 crash, the “dot com” bust and the recession of 2008, nothing has flipped the world upside-down like what we are dealing with now. In her latest Forbes column, Heather writes, “Coronavirus, it turns out, might be the great catalyst for business transformation. In fact, where we once saw the future of work unfolding over years, we now believe that with coronavirus as an accelerant, everything we’ve predicted about the future of work will unfold in months.”