Reskilling/Upskilling
26:38

Episode 13: The Future of Frontline Work with Heather E. McGowan

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Episode overview:

Does technology dictate the future of work? Or can we get smarter about how we leverage technology to create a better workplace (and world) for ourselves and the people around us?

JD sits down with Heather McGowan, internationally-recognized speaker, author and future of work strategist, to explore the importance of taking a people-first approach to workplace evolution and why it’s essential for businesses to put the frontline first.

Grab Heather’s new book The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast and Thrive in the Future of Work and check out her featured AxoniCom LIVE session on-demand.

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com

Join the #FrontlineForward effort by visiting axonify.com/frontlineforward to access free training content, download the new 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training Report and subscribe for the updates.

Audio from Back to the FutureTerminator 2: Judgement Day and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is used in adherence with fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

About the Guest(s)

Heather E. McGowan

Future-of-work strategist Heather E. McGowan helps leaders prepare their people and organizations for our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) World. As a keynote speaker, Heather gives lucidity to complex topics through her research rich, graphic frameworks and powerful metaphors. In 2017, LinkedIn ranked her as its number one global voice for education. NYT columnist Thomas Friedman describes her as “the oasis” the future of work. McGowan is the coauthor of The Adaptation Advantage (April 2020)

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Episode Transcript

Introduction:

On this episode, we explore the future of work with strategist, Heather McGowan, we discuss the changing roles people are playing in our rapidly evolving workplaces and the importance of prioritizing the frontline. That’s coming up next on the 80%.

Voice 1:

I am more than a number.

Voice 2:

I am more than my mistakes.

Voice 3:

I am more than a cost center.

Voice 4:

I am more than my title.

Voice 5:

The truth has never been more clear. Business runs through the frontline. When you give the people on your frontline, the tools they need to succeed, your business succeeds too.

Voice 1:

I’m doing the right things.

Voice 2:

I am wowing customers.

Voice 3:

I am your competitive advantage.

Voice 4:

I am making my workplace safe.

Voice 5:

Axonify is sharing free training content, fresh ideas, and ongoing inspiration to help you move your frontline forward. Head over to axonify.com/frontlineforward to learn more.

Voice 1:

I am on the front line.

Voice 2:

I am on the front line.

Voice 3:

I am on the frontline.

Voice 4:

I am on the front line.

Voice 5:

Together, we will move the frontline forward.

JD Dillon:

Futurism is everywhere. Homes, bets, predictions, investments, forecasts, even my favorite movie is about the future.

Back to the Future:

Next Saturday night, we’re sending you back to the future!

JD Dillon:

We’re obsessed with trying to figure out what the future’s going to be so we can try to make better decisions now and feel more in control than we really are.

Back to the Future 2:

I spent a week in 1955. I can hang out, you can show me around.

Back to the Future:

Marty, that is completely out of the question. You must not leave this house. You must not see anybody or talk to anybody. And if you do, it could have serious repercussions on future events? Do you understand?

JD Dillon:

And for as long as we’ve had jobs, we’ve been trying to predict the future of work.

Voiceover:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging hazardous occupation. It has predictions sounded all reasonable. You can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative.

JD Dillon:

But even our historical inaccuracies, haven’t stopped us from forecasting a future, where people are overcome by technology.

Voiceover:

When I look around, I think the day is not too far off at all when we’re going to have Androids doing a lot of the work that we are doing right now, and we’re creating a world where there is going to be more and more technology and fewer and fewer jobs. It’s a world that Erik Brynjolfsson and I are calling the new machine age.

JD Dillon:

No wonder people have been afraid that robots are going to take their jobs. Thankfully, over the past few years, our predictions have become more grounded in reality.

Voiceover:

Take a second to think of any and every job that makes up our economy. Well 50% of those work activities are technically able to be automated by current technologies.

JD Dillon:

The focus has turned from human replacement to human enhancement.

Voiceover:

Because a job automated is not necessarily a job lost. Frequently, machines don’t replace jobs so much as tasks. A good example of this concerns ATM’s. It is hard to imagine a time now that they weren’t around, but, but when they became common in the 1980s bank tellers were afraid of them stealing their jobs. Fears of job losses turned out to be completely overblown because bank teller employment actually increased over the next 30 years. What happened was, ATM’s took over the job of dispensing cash and tellers were then freed up to do sales or other work, their jobs didn’t go. They changed.

JD Dillon:

Rather than competing with technology for work. We can partner to make one another even better.

Voiceover:

Uh, so there’ll be machines plus humans outperforming either humans or machines alone. Whoa, maybe this is why in a world filled with advanced technology. George Jetson’s only job is to push a couple of buttons.

Voiceover:

After all, I’m a darn good digital index operator. You gotta have it up here to not have it start these things and stop em.

JD Dillon:

Even as technology rapidly advanced, future of work conversations stayed pretty vague and distant with predictions about what will happen 10 or 15 years from now and how it’s time to start getting ready. Then 2020 happened. And the future of work became our immediate reality.

Voiceover:

We will go through three phases broadly. There is the response phase, uh, in which we are acting as digital first responders to all the other first responders. That is the recovery phase. We are in the midst of this, you know, talking about what is back to work look like. Um, and of course there is the re-imagined phase, uh, because I don’t think we, uh, go forward, uh, with exactly the same type of workflows or how we did work or business process the same ways.

JD Dillon:

But is the future of work really about technology or is it about people and how we take advantage of technology to improve the world with, and for one another. To find out, I spoke with Heather McGowan.

Heather McGowan:

In April, I wrote an article for Forbes where I’m a contributor saying that the coronavirus is going to be the biggest catalyst to business transformation. And I was just spit balling. To be honest with you, I threw it out there. I saw some things happening really quickly in the first two weeks. Every company that could work from home, did everybody who could teach or learn online did in two weeks. And I’d worked with the universities is saying it was going to take a decade to make some of these things happen.

JD Dillon:

Heather is co-author of the new best-selling book, the adaptation advantage, let go learn fast and thrive in the future of work. She’s an internationally recognized speaker and expert who helps organizations get ready for the not so distant future of work.

Heather McGowan:

Find and frame the problem, scale the value happens to be those two things together. And it’s kind of what we need right now to have people have that mindset.

JD Dillon:

Our conversation focuses on what really matters most right now, and moving forward in the workplace. People, especially the frontline workforce.

Heather McGowan:

Gotta put the frontline first and foremost above everybody else because they are the ones who are making the value for your customers. They’re the ones who are fulfilling the brand promise. They are the interaction, they’re it. They’re the value.

JD Dillon:

Let’s kick off season two of the 80% with Heather McGowan.

Heather McGowan:

Okay, i’m thrilled.

JD Dillon:

To start our conversation, I have to ask a question that’s probably on every listener’s mind. How do you become a future of work strategist?

Heather McGowan:

Well, I joke around with people and say that, you know, there was a future where an opening and I applied because I had the right degree and experience. I started to see the world changing about 10, 15 years ago. I had worked mostly in corporate, but I had started working in higher ed for university presidents and provosts, trying to help them prepare a future workforce without realizing that it was a future of work thing. In the process, I started explaining how the world was changing, because I didn’t think that my corporate clients were getting it and my academic clients absolutely were not getting it. And then I started writing about it in my second article on LinkedIn, a hundred thousand people read it in 24 hours and I started getting speaking requests all over the world. First one was in Australia. Um, the recording of that went viral and I started getting more speaking requests and four or five years later now that’s all I do. I just go around explaining continuously learning and adapting myself and explaining how I think the world is changing.

JD Dillon:

Now I have to assume that conversations around the future of work have shifted a lot this year.

Heather McGowan:

Why is something going on?

JD Dillon:

How have you responded to the changes we’ve seen over the past few months as organizations have bounced back and forth from strategy to survival mode? How much of the workplace feature we were talking about last year is even still valid.

Heather McGowan:

Our book came out in April and I noticed that all the things that we were predicting in terms of changes in technology, how we have to refocus humans, we have to focus on trust and psychological safety and helping people find their purpose, their passion, and their curiosity for self defective learning and adaptation all became that much more urgent because what the pandemic has done is accelerate our transition into the digital future of work. And then I noticed a about a month ago, McKinsey did an analysis of the first 60 days. We leaped forward five years in our transformation to digital in terms of how quickly we adapted, which is really just human transformation. Time is compressing. Everything I’ve been talking about is happening. It’s just happening that much more quickly. So there’s even a greater imperative for us to make some of these kind of major shifts.

Heather McGowan:

And there simple. It’s the future of work is learning and adaptation. In order to do that we got to rethink our identities because we’ve got this whole process of forming a future self based on things that happened back in kindergarten, first grade, grade school, we tell you what, you’re good at, what you’re not good at. We direct you into a monolithic degree and major. If you go to university or a single track career towards the future self. When the world’s changing much more quickly than it ever has before. So we’ve got to recast a lot of those things because we’re really creating impediments to adaptation.

JD Dillon:

It’s too easy to lose focus on the human experience at work during times of great change, as we try to balance everything else needed to help keep organizations running. How do you think this experience is fundamentally shifting the way we think about the connection between people and the work that we do?

Heather McGowan:

How do I answer that question, Who am I? Has been, at least in the US has been in my job title. Here’s my company title. It’s a social signal. That’s how we greet each other. Studies have shown that job loss can take twice as long to recover from the loss of a primary relationship. It’s a loss of everything that you are. Yet we’re still reinforcing that greeting. And I can’t remember how many tens of millions of people in the U S are out of work right now. Don’t want to answer that question. That question has prohibited us from adapting to whatever our next role might be or to take on multiple roles. At one says we’re navigating and evolving. So that’s a huge one. Stop asking young kids what they want to be when they grow up. Too many jobs are changing too many jobs aren’t here yet.

Heather McGowan:

And you’re asking them to pick a future self based upon what they’re told they’re good at. And what’s in their immediate social circle, which has huge social mobility implications. You know, if we’re all limited to what we were told, we were good at in high school and what our parents and parents friends do. We’re really cutting off a tremendous amount of human potential. We ask university students to pick a major before they step foot on campus. Less than a third of them ever work in the field of their undergraduate major. The faculty who teach are often people who did work in the field of their undergraduate major. So they tell you to my optically focus on it, even though that’s not really a realistic path, you need to get people much more internally driven and curious. So they’re constantly discovering because chances are good if you believe the research from the foundation of young Australians, which I think is the best research I’ve seen out there for the developed world. Young people are considered kind of 16, 17 different jobs across five different industries. There’s nothing we can do to better prepare them other than to connect them with their internal purpose and help them learn and adapt.

JD Dillon:

Let’s add technology to the conversation. How should we really think about technology as we shape the future of work? How can technology help us change the way we think about our own evolving roles?

Heather McGowan:

I think the best model I’ve seen to think about this. And I use frameworks and analogs to help people understand. Is one I read in a book by those two folks that eccentric called human plus machine. And they talk about our transition in terms of how we navigate in the world. So we used to use maps and we would take up the map and look at where we thought we were and where we need to go and tell ourselves to take a right or take a left. And then we got to understand GPS in that something would tell us, take a right, take a left. And it would correct when we made an error, that’s almost where we are in terms of our understanding of digital. We’re understanding that it could be something much more fluid that could help us and correct us. The next leap, we have to make is to like adaptive navigation.

Heather McGowan:

So think like ways where data is changing our behaviors all the time as we’re changing data, when you’ve got a kind of a classic GPS that doesn’t have traffic in it, take a right, take a left. It keeps you going on the same traffic pattern, no matter what’s happening in the world. When you use something like way’s, which was acquired by Google a while ago, it’s telling you, okay, you took a right now you’re on this street, but Oh, there’s more cars on the street. There’s an accident up ahead. And as a police officer where there, so now are we going to say, we take a left and go down the street and it’s this constant adaptation in creation of data. And what I say is, data is just an input for learning. Data by itself is meaningless, but data that you can interact with that you can predict and analyze and prophesize and automatize and visualize things you couldn’t see before. That’s how we have to think about things. So we’ve made the leap from paper maps, becoming PDFs to becoming MapQuest, to becoming actual GPS that will correct for us. Now we need that sort of interactive. We’re creating data, we’re using data. We’re creating data. That sort of sense in responded, real-time adaptive navigation.

JD Dillon:

People like you and I have adapted the way we work this year in pretty straightforward ways. We’re traveling a lot less and we’re working from home almost exclusively. This is not the kind of change that the average frontline worker has experienced. Is the future of work evenly distributed, or does it mean different things to different people?

Heather McGowan:

We’re in the middle of a crisis. So we have to realize that, you know, while people are saying, we’re all in this together, no, we’re not. We’re all in the same storm. We’re in different boats. So the reality of how things are going to change is different depending on what kind of boat you’re in. If you’re a frontline or essential or worker, and you’re interacting with other humans, you need personal protective equipment that you may not have needed it six or seven months ago. If you were working from home, suddenly all your interactions are mitigated through a screen. Either case what’s become abundantly clear is we have not paid attention enough to wellness. We’ve got zoom fatigue and parents who are working two jobs, trying to raise their kids and teach their kids while they’re doing full-time jobs and sharing devices, depending on what their financial resources are. To people on the front lines with levels of stress they’ve never had before, because their life wasn’t in danger doing their job. So I think it shined a spotlight on something we’ve been ignoring for decades. We’ve been trying to squeeze more productivity out of people without paying attention to – how do you really nurture the human to get maximum human performance and maximum human wellness, as opposed to just seeing the human as a depersonalized unit of productivity,

JD Dillon:

Finding that balance of productivity and humanity is something we see a lot of companies struggling with on the frontline where turnover is a constant challenge and people work in roles that are often incorrectly considered replaceable. What do you see as the difference for companies that really understand the importance of the human experience of work, especially on the frontline.

Heather McGowan:

I think the companies that get it understand that the frontline is not your afterthought. It’s where you should begin. The frontline is they make the value for you. They make the experience for you. They realize your brand promise. They’re all your customers can see. When you have a bad experience at the frontline that’s what you think about the entire company, no matter who’s behind that frontline. So the folks who understand that and say these are the most important people at our company because they’re the people who really kind of create the value for the customer. They’re the ones who get it. And that’s why a company like Southwest airlines, airline industry is hard. It’s hard. Lots of stuff goes wrong. People are stressed out and Southwest airlines has put culture first. They screen for cultural fit first and then they figure out if you can fly the plane or manage the baggage and stuff like that.

Heather McGowan:

And they never put anybody in place who can’t do what they’re doing. They have the longest record of consecutive, uh, safety and profitability because they just let humans do the right thing. Look at United airlines versus Southwest. United airlines had an algorithm culture. Their entire culture was, if this happens, do this, if this episode there was no human decision-making in there at all, such that it seemed right to them to beat up their customer and pull that person off the plane and put them in a hospital because they didn’t comply with the if then that never would happen in Southwest airlines. And I’m confident that Southwest airlines would enable their people to make the right human decision with the resources at their discretion to do the right thing. So something like that would never happen.

JD Dillon:

Where does the shift need to begin. If a business wants to enable their frontline teams to make more human decisions and deliver a great customer experience, where should they start?

Heather McGowan:

It comes back to leadership. It comes back to the leaders who put the humans first, regardless of what industry they’re in. And you can see it across the industries. I had a problem once with U-Haul, I rented something from them. I had a problem. I’m a squeaky wheel. I managed to get to the CEO. He got back to me and said, you’re right. What happened shouldn’t have happened. I’m going to fix it this week. I will tell everybody that U-Haul is one of the greatest companies that I’ve ever worked with. Why am I passionate about you? Well, because there was a leader stepped up and said, you’re right. We made a mistake and I’m going to fix it. You know, the whole scalable efficiency era to use John Hegel’s world has come to an end. It’s a scale of a learning era now. So we need leaders who are comfortable being vulnerable, comfortable saying, I don’t know, cause they’re leaning, learning tours now. Where they aren’t the expert. They’re the guide leading these teams of individuals who are on this learning journey.

JD Dillon:

Some companies may have a heightened level of self-awareness and know that they have gaps when it comes to leadership and how they prioritize and enable their people. But there are also plenty that think they’re doing these kinds of things to set themselves up for the future. And they really aren’t. How can you tell the difference? What should you look for?

Heather McGowan:

If you’ve ever had interactions with a company that clearly values that kind of stuff, you know it in your interactions with them. Those humans seem well rested and engaged and they care about their job beyond what they’re asked to do. Carol said to me, once, whenever people leave her, I want them to say, this is the best place that I’ve ever worked. When you got a CEO, that’s got that as their priority. You’re experiencing it no matter who you touch in the company, because you’ve got people who are willing to do more for you, who are going to forgive more when things don’t go perfectly well, who are willing to say, Hey, I’m going to jump in and try that. What’s the need and how quickly can we get there? Absolutely. But when you’ve got a culture of people who are like, what have you done for me lately? Trying to squeeze more out of me. You don’t get that. When you put your people first, they’re going to put you first as well. That’s why that employee’s customer shareholder model works. Because if you treat your employees right, they treat your customers, right. Treat your customers, right. They return for your shareholders. We believe we’ve been upside down on that model.

JD Dillon:

Prioritizing employees over customers has been a recurring theme in our conversations, especially with frontline forward organizations. How can we get managers to think more long-term? Do we have to expand our perspective around leadership and look for people who already have this kind of people first mindset?

Heather McGowan:

For so long leadership was only male, and we’ve still got a gender imbalance problem there. And it was only the people who wanted the authority. And a lot of times you get insecure people who aren’t comfortable being wrong or being vulnerable, that’s a trap. So rather than having your leaders, being people step forward, who need it or want it for their own ego need, look for the people who put everybody else first. Look for the people who have a sense of vision built for the people who are comfortable being vulnerable. There was a, a study. Um, HP did it. And then I think it was repeated a few other places that men will go from a promotion when they have 60% of the skills, women will wait till they have a hundred, which essentially means that men are promoted for potential and women are promoted for accomplishments.

Heather McGowan:

We need to flip that. We need more people to step forward when they don’t have all the information, because we’re increasingly going to be doing things we’ve never done before. So we need leaders that are comfortable saying, I don’t know yet. Let’s find out. I think I was wrong about that. Let’s fix it. We’re comfortable forming teams with people who are unlike them. And it does also suggest leadership could be all different ages. I don’t mean just younger people. I mean, a lot of older people who have wisdom and they have less of sort of an ego need to prove themselves. And they have more, tacit knowledge in the organization and they can make more thoughtful decisions. And so I see a real multi-generational leadership in there. Multi-generational, multi-gender multiculture with cognitive and neuro diversity, but folks who are really good at listening, not knowing, but knowing where to listen and learn and knowing how to have sort of role fluidity is an expression I use. Not always be the person with the answer, but being comfortable, passing it off to somebody else who might have expertise depending on where you are in a process.

JD Dillon:

That brings me to the question of learning. What role should learning play in helping organizations prepare for the future of work.

Heather McGowan:

So you need a certain baseline of knowledge. And some of that needs to be codified, you know, sort of put into a formula and transferred into the human. But that’s not all of the learning that we need at any level, whether it’s a frontline or a university, we need to help people figure out what they’re interested in. So they self-direct their own learning. We’ve been focused so much on extra. Like what do you want to be? What’s your grade, what’s your, you know, the carrots and the sticks of your future self, rather than the, how do I help you figure out what lights your on fire, what you might be interested in and then give you the resources and direct you and coach you and guide you to learn yourself. And that’s one of the big shifts because you know, the whole idea of like you go down the hallway to take the training where the human comes out with the new operating system downloaded in them. That’s not the way it needs to work. It needs to work where the people go out, seeking the information.

JD Dillon:

We’ve been talking about the future of work from an organizational perspective. What about the individual? What can I do to be ready for what comes next in my work experience?

Heather McGowan:

The first thing you can do is try to understand what you’re interested in. That’s understanding your own fuel source. And so simple way to do it is to journal for a couple of weeks. Write down everything you do, whether it’s in your job or your classes or stuff you’re working on and circle the things you’re really excited about. You did first thing in the morning, or you thought about before you went to bed, kind of look at those things and say, where can I sculpt a career, a job, education around the things that naturally are like a flywheel that give me more energy to do more of that. And then look for the coaches and mentors and networks that can help you do that. Honestly, I had no idea I was going to land like making a living as a speaker, but I wrote an article and the right person read it and that right person invited me to do something, and that right person introduced me to some other people. And then I crossed paths with this person and they introduced me to that. I was really clear on what gave me energy, what I was interested in and not only who can help me, but who I can help along the way as well, because it’s going to be personal brand in networks. You’ve got to start with that internal drive first.

JD Dillon:

I can certainly attest the importance of exploration and reflection and networking in helping you find your passions and connect your skills to the right work experience. At the same time, it sounds like a lot of work. This year has already been overwhelming and scary. Should people be looking forward to the future of work or should they be scared that their jobs and value may be coming into question?

Heather McGowan:

I personally am excited about it, but that is how I make a living so that might be why I’m excited about. I think for some folks who have sort of been climbing the escalator and they’re seeing the steps start to break apart and they may not get what they were promised and their cheese has been moved. I can see a lot of anxiety and a lot of frustration, but if we’ve learned anything in this pandemic inside of two weeks, everybody who could work online, work online and everybody who can learn from home, learn from home, we did a pretty good job protecting some of our frontliners, not good enough, but given how fast everything happened, shows you how highly adaptable we are as a species. Now imagine if it wasn’t a massive external force that caused it, but rather a huge movement towards focusing on internal drives. Nothing we can’t do.

JD Dillon:

This year has hopefully helped us learn a lot and adapt in ways that make the uncertain future feel less formidable. But let’s wrap up with one final question. What do you see as the biggest opportunity that’s going to emerge from the changes we’re seeing right now in how we work and engage with one another moving forward?

Heather McGowan:

I think there’s a tremendous opportunity right now to shift from me to the we. So me is my job, my health insurance, my finances, my piece of land. Reality is we live in a world together. Even going through this pandemic, the only way we’re going to go through it is achieving some sort of herd immunity. And I do not mean at all that we let everybody get sick and die until everybody has it. I mean, once we have a vaccine, that’s how the virus can’t penetrate the herd anymore because enough of us are protected. Because I may get a vaccine, even though I don’t need it because you can’t for either religious reasons or allergy reasons or whatever it is. But more of us are protected. More of us wear masks, more of a socially distance. The climate change is the biggest me to we shift. Education, we used to not care about the kid down the street, whether or not they get educated. Cause it wasn’t my kid. Well, what if GDP goes up and your 401k goes up because that kid invented something or that kid is a contributor to society. We’ve been very, short-term me thinking, this is a moment to be much long-term we thinking. Of course, we’re going to slide back in some areas, but now that we know what we can do, we know we can trust people to work from home. We know certain amounts or certain types of learning can take place online. We have those as reliable tools, so I’m optimistic we’ll move forward on those fronts. To quote the late great Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I will continue to be a belligerent optimist.

JD Dillon:

Thank you to Heather McGowan for kicking off season two of the 80% and sharing her insights into the immediate future of work. You can learn more about Heather’s work and grab her new book by visiting the links in the show notes. If you enjoyed this conversation and want to hear more front-line forward stories, subscribe to the 80% on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. Be sure to stay with us throughout the season. As frontline forward organizations like Southwest airlines, Disney and Zappos, share their stories and show us how we can help frontline employees make a difference in their organizations and communities together. We will move the frontline forward.

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