To succeed in the digital age, today’s business leaders will need to identify and integrate the technological advances this high-tech world affords—which, in turn, requires nurturing a workforce both willing to and capable of embracing digital transformation.
“It comes down to people,” said Ian Steff, senior advisor for nanotechnology and advanced manufacturing at the Indiana Economic Dev. Corp., at Chief Executive’s Digital Transformation CEO Summit. “The good news is that talent is readily accessible—you can build R&D design centers or marketing and sales teams around that talent. The bad news is that they’re just as willing to go work for your competitors. How do we recruit the kind of talent predisposed to meet those challenges and how do we hold on to it?”
It’s an issue that resonated with CEOs participating in a Summit roundtable sponsored by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. “The challenge we face with new talent is that they look for greener pastures after maybe a year or so, you lose the investment you made in bringing them along that learning curve,” said Gool Santchurn, CEO of Envipco. “That happens no matter what kind of compensation you give them.”
Many leaders see the challenge as genera-tional, a need to both get talented young professionals interested in a legacy business and have them work in harmony with current employees. “Our average employee is 30-plus years,” noted George Murray, COO of Northern Engraving. “The biggest challenge is to bring in young talent and keep them actively engaged so that they don’t leave—but also bring the senior staff along for the ride.”
Often, this leads to the need to manage parallel work forces. For example, at Precision Gear, the average employee was 60 years old until just a few years ago when an influx of young talent joined a company dominated by tradesmen, changing its demographic profile. “I have nine guys who are in their 20s and 30s now,” said Briggs Forelli, the aerospace gear manufacturing company’s president. “They’re on the engineering side and they ride their bicycles to work. It’s a whole different world over there.”
One Company, Two Worlds
Katherine Bishop, CEO of Lebanon Seaboard, also manages two different worlds of employees—but in her case the decision was calculated. Sales to commercial properties, such as golf courses, make up about 50% of her lawn and garden company’s business, with individual homeowners comprising the rest. Like many established consumer businesses, Lebanon has been finding it difficult looking for ways to reach a consumer customer base that is increasingly engaged in social media and e-commerce.
“Even people 35, 45, 55 and older have smartphones, iPads and computers,” Bishop noted. “They may not use them the same way that a 20-year-old does, but they still have them and they expect the speed and convenience e-commerce offers. A few months ago, I decided we would never get e-commerce straightened out and vital if we kept it within our traditional business.”
Toward that end, Bishop rented a second office across town and charged her manager with moving employees proficient in e-marketing and direct-to-consumer work there, where they wouldn’t be “stifled by our old business models,” she explained. “It marches to the tune of a different drummer now. It’s much faster—we can plan a promotion six hours in advance instead of six months. I expect them to do things quickly, fail more often, move forward and learn. My manager wasn’t the company’s sponsorship of housing for families in crisis. “We build houses for Habitat for Humanity and we adopt families for Christmas,” explained Johnson. “Our people flock to stuff like that, volunteering their time and money.
If you develop a culture and hire people who align with your core values, the business becomes a part of their lives rather than something they just show up to do. It’s not the hard-driving corporate culture that I grew up with, but it’s a great way to live.”
Investing in Education
Several CEOs pointed out that sometimes the easiest way to find the skill set you need is to create it yourself. While Mark Parrish, president of Igloo Products, agreed with his peers that retention is an issue, his company has chosen to commit to helping its existing employees build their technological skills. “We don’t look at it as generational,” he said. “For us, it’s about
creating a culture that allows lifetime employability, as opposed to lifetime employment, although we do hope that they’ll come here for a job and stay for a career,” he said. “But you truly have to invest, regardless of age, in digital skills. We have people recreating themselves and learning the skills required to be relevant every day.”
For an increasing number of companies, ensuring that the available convinced that it would work, but now he says that that the difference is night and day.” While Bishop’s separate-but-equal program seems to be working for Lebanon Seaboard, most companies look for ways to build one diverse, tech-savvy team aligned around its digital strategy, noted Daniel Johnson, CEO of Pureflow, who has found that core values that resonate companywide help align a demographically disparate workforce. He recounted rallying employees around talent pool is equipped with the skills a company needs now trumps things like tax incentives and general investment climate, noted Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s Steff. “We recently worked with Rolls Royce on an $800 million expansion of their Indianapolis jet-engine facility,” he said, “About 50% of the negotiation phase involved talking about what the public/private partnership would look like to ensure that they would have a steady pool of talent equipped with the skills that they will need not only today but 15 years from now.”
However, crucial skills aren’t always digital, several business leaders pointed out. In fact, educating younger workers on effective business communication and practices can be just as critical as bringing experienced workers up to speed on new technology. Younger workers, for example, often need to be coached to pick up the phone rather than rely solely on electronic methods of communicating with customers. After all, this is a generation that grew up texting, emailing and Facetiming with friends and family members. For many of them, building a working relationship by spending time face-to-face with a client is far from second nature.
“I have a tough time getting our staff to communicate with one another outside of a text or email—to really communicate,” reported John Thomas, CEO of Physicians Realty Trust. “Kids today find their boyfriends or girlfriends by text. I struggle to make sure that our people communicate with our customers in such a way that our customers get what they want. A hotel executive I spoke with recently told me, ‘The first person who interacts with a customer after they’ve had a bad experience is the most important person in a company,’ Texting doesn’t help that. Email doesn’t help that.”
Companies sometimes find that workers comfortable working with technology lack foundational skills, including communication, problem-solving and negotiation skills. “You can’t just have a millennial jump in and start dealing with high-net-worth individuals,” noted Greg Richman, president of SkyJet. “It’s challenging as a leader to achieve that blend of enabling those who want it to have the online experience they want while still providing a high-level interaction for those who want personal service.”