UNLEASH19 - the future of work is learning, and CHROs must learn to let go

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 25, 2019
Speakers on the future of work and enterprise HR at this week's UNLEASH event in Paris focused on enabling individuals to manage their own careers in a changing world

Janina Kugel CHRO Siemens speaks at Unleash19 Paris
Janina Kugel, Siemens, speaks at UNLEASH19

There's always much food for thought in the presentations at UNLEASH, which earlier this week brought together HR practitioners and technology vendors in Paris. The dominant theme at this year's show was how HR professionals can help their organizations — and the people they employ — cope with accelerating change. As Janina Kugel, CHRO at Siemens, told delegates:

I personally believe that no organization in this world will ever reach whatever they have on their business agenda, if they do not invest in continuous learning, and continuous personal growth ...

There's one thing that I can actually tell you for sure, unless you retire next year — you will have to learn new things in your career. So you better get started, because I think it's our responsibility to keep ourselves employable. And we as an organization have to teach our people to get there.

Earlier, author and future of work strategist Heather McGowan had explained how big a change this is from the old assumptions that still permeate society:

In the past, you learned once in order to work. In the future, we're going to work in order to learn continuously.

In that past — which is a reality we're still stuck in — identity was bestowed, something that was given to us and therefore could be taken away. What's the first thing, if you went to a cocktail party last night, you asked each other? 'What do you do?' It's how we define ourselves, and it sets traps.

She argues that we have to move away from letting our work define us. Instead, we must each define our own purpose — "the energy source that drives individuals" — and then let that determine the work we choose.

I think we have to get more comfortable with the self-actualized identity that's internally validated, that allows us to navigate across multiple jobs and goals.

Constant learning is the key

The most difficult transition is for those already in jobs who are having to make the leap, mid-career, from the old world to the new. McGowan quoted research that suggests young people today will have a career that spans 16 to 17 different jobs across five different industries — while technology continues to change the world at a historically unprecedented rate. Constant learning is the key to surviving in this world, she believes, and people therefore must choose work that allows them to continually learn new skills:

Upskilling or reskilling isn't something you think about doing after you've been replaced at work — way too late. We all need to be upskilling and reskilling every single day.

Where does that leave the CHRO? It's all a far cry from the old model of managing back-office transactions and organization charts. In a panel discussion on the changing role of the CHRO, Laurent Choain, Chief People Officer of global professional services giant Mazars, argued for a more outward-looking ethos, noting that the most important aspect of the role is finding new talent:

A CHRO isn't doing their job if they're sitting in the office all day. You have to spend your time talking to people ... not inside the company but outside it.

New talent can also be found inside the organization, but in unexpected places, argued Kugel. She described a program that Siemens runs called job tagging:

Job tagging means that, no matter whether we have a posting or not, if you're interested in someone else's job, anywhere in the organization, you can tag to that position.

What does it actually mean for us? We get a much greater transparency about what people are interested in, who was interested, for example, to join certain teams that we never thought of.

Also, the entire conversation does take place when it is not about a concrete opening, but when it is only a question — 'Tell me exactly what are you doing in your job? And what does it take to actually get there?'

We had a lot of scared managers that said, but then what happens if they all want to have my job? What happens to me? And I said, 'Hey, relax, have a conversation, because then maybe you'll also want to have a different job' ...

The best thing is, people got candidates that they never even knew would exist in the organization.

A new approach to talent management

Another program at Siemens speaks to the same trends identified by McGowan. According to Kugel, the traditional HR approach to career development is that people go to HR saying, "I'm talented, I have potential, help me out." The new Siemens program called 'Own your career' aims to put this back in the hands of employees:

We told them after all, we can support you, we can counsel you, we can also guide you. But it's your own career. And personally, I always like saying, there's a lot of people that always have good ideas, what I should do in my life and what I shouldn't do. But at the very end, this is a decision that every one of us has to take on your own.

The scheme is most popular among younger employees and in Asia, but less so in Europe, says Kugel. Younger employees in particular want to work for an organization that allows them to nurture their talents. Senior managers should adopt a philosophy of "let them grow and let them go," she says.

In fostering these new approaches to create the workplace of the future that attracts and retains talent, HR won't always be popular, she adds.

We as HR have to think completely different, and not only execute what the business wants, but very often also give them a very clear indication and a pathway of where we have to go in terms of people culture. I think this is very often not easy.

I often say to my team, if you want to be loved in your job, then most probably doing HR is not the right place to be. But if you want to be respected for what you're doing, then probably HR is the right area to be.

My take

I detected a marked transition in the content at this year's UNLEASH, building on the London event in March, where the focus was very much on putting people at the center of work. Here in Paris, there were some answers about how to do that, whether it was vendors talking about employee engagement and improving how people experience their work, or speakers like McGowan and Kugel with their emphasis on individuals taking charge of their own development.

This is line with a more modern approach to talent management that encourages individuals to take charge of developing their own learning and skills, rather than seeing talent solely as an enterprise asset. People are moving between jobs and employers much more quickly today and the recognition that learning needs to be much more of a lifelong activity is becoming more mainstream.

McGowan's thesis in particular resonated for me. I've been lucky to have been able to do work that has meant I've always been learning new things. From that perspective, I can certainly endorse her conclusion:

I think learning is a new pension. It is the new way that you create a future value every day.

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