With 25 years of consulting experience spanning the globe, including the United States, Argentina, Germany, India and currently Switzerland, David Michels is a Senior Partner and the Global Leader for Bain’s Results Delivery practice, based in Zurich.
Michels joined Bain 25 years ago and has worked with a wide variety of organizations, leading large-scale programs on topics including operating model, growth strategy, commercial business model development, culture change and team effectiveness, as well as operational improvement. He is known for his ability to inspire executives and their teams and roll up his sleeves to help them deliver sustained results. His approach to co-creating pragmatic solutions combines insight-rich analytics, leadership coaching and delivery risk mitigation to address the what, who and how of change. Michels’ work has spanned a range of industries, including healthcare, industrials, consumer products, retail, private equity and high technology. He is a frequent author and speaker on leadership, transformation and change.
In this exclusive interaction, Michels talks about how, in the post-pandemic days, there may be jobs that get lost forever, and then there may be jobs that can become more important than ever, and shares his perspective on this shifting equation
Here are the excerpts from the interview.
The COVID-19 outbreak is different from any previous crisis and hence the way leaders respond to this crisis should be different. How do you see the current business landscape and their readiness to come through stronger on the other side?
I’m hopeful. What’s different this time is that I think the world is coming to the realization that this is not a one-time event, but rather the start of a “new normal” in which flexibility and agility are king. Businesses are increasingly operating in an environment of constant crises, be that a pandemic as we are in now, trade wars, natural disasters, terrorist events, data breaches, social unrest, etc. The job of business leaders today is to build organizations that will thrive in a world of unpredictable and accelerating change.
I see many organizations moving quickly to take on this challenge. One global company, for example, has taken a very deliberate set of steps to prepare themselves to come out stronger on the other side. They call their first step “reflection and gratitude”. This is a conscious act to collect and share stories from the front line, like one manager who re-redesigned supply chains on her dining room table. The second step is “culture and purpose”, believing strongly that the values they demonstrated during COVID-19 are so powerful that they want to harvest that energy and embed it into their ways of working going forward. The third step is “strategic transformation”, with a set of portfolio moves that will make their business stronger coming out of the crisis.
The latest data on the labor market impact of the COVID-19 tells us the disturbing effect on workers and millions of enterprises worldwide. Between April-June 2020, the world lost almost 400 million full-time jobs due to the pandemic, according to ILO. What's the need of the hour given this never-before situation?
We need two things: strong leadership, and massive re-skilling programs. On leadership, we see the difference good leadership can make, both in the public and private sectors.
During times of anxiety and adversity, strong leaders stand out for their empathy, transparent communication, and humility.
They are flexible, able to shift based on what the latest data or science says. All our research shows that leaders who trust and empower their teams unleash tremendous energy and potential. In the public arena look at examples like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, and Andrew Cuomo in New York. I see many similar examples of great leadership in business – we need more of that.
At the same time, this is a wake-up call for governments and businesses alike to change the way we approach training and skill building. The half-life of management skills had already been precipitously declining pre-COVID-19. Artificial intelligence (AI) is fundamentally changing the nature of jobs and we need to catch up. Unfortunately, public and private spending on re-skilling programs has hardly budged. Companies need to cultivate an ability to train and retrain their workforce on new skills on an ongoing basis – both advanced technical skills as well as the human skills that go along with them. I see many organizations doing some really innovative things here, but much more is needed.
In the post-pandemic days, there may be jobs that get lost forever, and then there may be jobs that can become more important than ever. In fact, a new category of jobs may emerge altogether in the post-pandemic days. How do you see this shifting equation? How do you see the job landscape five years down the line?
I think organizations will increasingly need multifaceted workers. I call this the π-shaped future, using the Greek letter pi to represent a broad mastery of general management skills atop a few spikes of deep functional or domain expertise.
With competition and complexity on the rise, workers’ best hope is to develop a number of truly distinctive, differentiating capabilities – what you might call “spikes”. At the same time, organizations of the future will also need general business skills and will put a premium on leaders who can cope with ambiguity, be creative, think strategically, work across functions, and offer coaching and inspiration. As technology accelerates the pace of change, leaders must be comfortable working on a range of topics and with broad sets of stakeholders from different parts of the business. Perhaps ironically, it is precisely because of increased automation and AI that these very human skills are now so critical.
Do you think the new work from home phenomenon can transform the job market? How do you see the overall impact of this new form of WFH?
It’s for sure going to change it, and I think change for good.
The emergency need to work from home is already beginning to usher in a much more hybrid type of work environment.
While we may see perhaps 10-20% of people working remotely full time after COVID-19, the bigger shift will be towards hybrid models in which people work from home 2 or 3 days a week. That has implications for collaboration, innovation, how teams work together, and how managers can effectively oversee groups that are often dispersed. I’m confident that it will also support better work-life balance, also with positive implications for society as a whole.
Post COVID-19, will enterprises become more resilient because of a fully distributed model, and will employees become more productive because of flexibility over their schedules as they work remotely?
No question that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated distributed working – an experiment unparalleled in modern times. The results so far have been by and large positive, and a majority of employees do not want to go back. Before the pandemic, for example, only 30% of white-collar employees preferred to work remote. Now that they have lived the experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, that number has jumped to 75%.
More broadly, data suggest that organizations able to adapt to these new ways of working more quickly will outperform their competitors. At Bain, we’ve created a simple index to measure an organization’s ability to change, simply called Change Power. We’ve looked at dozens of companies across industries and geographies – those with greater Change Power report higher levels of growth, profitability, and employee satisfaction relative to their competitors. COVID-19 has put this to the test. Since the lockdown in March (for a majority of advanced economies at least), companies with high Change Power have outperformed those with lower Change Power by more than 10% in terms of total shareholder value, with correspondingly higher results in terms of management approval and culture ratings.
Do you think organizations need to invest in effective long-term remote-working foundations and revamp their upskilling approaches by embracing an agile approach to strategic workforce planning?
Absolutely. Organizations are like a rubber band. People within them can stretch when needed for a period of time, but unless the organization fundamentally changes, it’s going to snap back to its previous form. So now that we are several months into COVID-19, executives are beginning to confront a new challenge – how to bottle up the positive changes made so far during the crisis and make them permanent.
Many organizations have shown remarkable agility in the face of the pandemic so far. Nearly three-quarters of employees we surveyed report that their teams are working with greater agility. Prioritization has improved, the concept of creating a minimum viable product and then improving on that has been embraced. For some, cross-functional teaming has grown. But much of this recent adoption has been ad hoc. Now is the time for organizations to formally embed agile rituals and routines and implement new ways of working in a more structured way.
COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities of our societies. So, how do we build a better normal that supports the most vulnerable first?
We need the right kind of leadership. I think there’s a certain humanizing element that COVID-19 has brought to the surface, and I hope that it will take hold and propel us as a society to do better. At a time when empathy and authenticity are most needed – remember the saying that during times of stress people need to know that you care before they care what you know – it is a reminder for all of us the difference that one person can make on the lives of others.
Beyond this current pandemic, we see technological, demographic and macroeconomic disruptions that are changing our world and spurring a call for greater corporate and civic responsibility. I think those organizations who use the current crisis to reflect, learn and adapt will be best positioned to emerge stronger, with purpose, and better able to respond to the challenges ahead.
How do you see the overall role of HR and people managers evolving amid this pandemic and what's the way forward for people and talent managers to make the most of this situation?
The role of HR and people managers is and will continue to be pivotal for a bunch of reasons – let me highlight two. First, there’s a real battle for energy out there.
Those organizations who are able to tap into that discretionary pool of creative and solution-oriented energy from their workforce will innovate and adapt at a much faster rate.
HR teams can be powerful facilitators by creative platforms for real engagement and exchange. You can think of the CHRO as the Chief Energy Officer.
Second, the strategic deployment of human talent is more critical than ever. The reality is that the severity and speed of COVID-19 has forced a dramatic change in the way businesses organize their workforces. With the utmost urgency, organizations have had to get their best talent working on their most critical tasks, from business survival to growth and innovation.
In times of crisis, talent reveals itself, and COVID-19 is helping companies recognize those who create disproportional value for the organization.
Freeing up critical talent to combat a challenging situation is one such example. Now, the key will be to make sure that this critical talent, these difference makers, don’t, once again, get spread too thinly after the crisis has passed.
Read more such stories from the September issue of our e-magazine on 'Jobs: Now & Beyond’