In The War For Talent, Good Is No Longer Good Enough

Creating an environment of greater autonomy and meaning has become a more significant competitive advantage because of the emphasis on speed and agility in a world with increasing uncertainty and complexity.

In the last few months, there has been a flood of news stories pointing to a shift in the relationship between employers and workers. Macro trends like increasing labor mobility and little or no growth in the working age population have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A tight job market with numerous openings and new employee expectations—signing bonuses, flexible hours, “no-meeting Fridays”—is forcing employers to rethink their talent acquisition and management strategies.

Repeated research has shown that providing employees with meaningful work—jobs that offer a fulfilling purpose and allow employees a high degree of influence—is the most critical element to high job satisfaction and retention. Addressing factors like compensation and job security may have been good enough in the past, but in today’s context, focusing on these aspects alone results in low employee retention and untapped potential.

Creating an environment of greater autonomy and meaning has become a more significant competitive advantage because of the emphasis on speed and agility in a world with increasing uncertainty and complexity. While few leaders at the top of the organization could process the relevant information and make good decisions in a slower-moving environment, organizations now need many individuals throughout the organization providing leadership and direction. To truly engage employees and unleash their full potential, leaders must now strive for “even better”—better ways to articulate and connect employees to the organization’s purpose, better ways to create an agile culture that responds to employees and the market, and better ways to encourage autonomy and leadership.

A better way to connect to purpose and strategy

Business leaders are increasingly focused on corporate purpose driven by 1) the expectations of a new generation of workers, for whom purpose is integral to job satisfaction, and 2) a growing body of research demonstrating that workers who see more meaning in their work are more productive, have longer job tenures, and are more creative. In many cases the work of defining purpose, vision, or strategy is still viewed as something that must be done by leaders at the top of the organization and pushed down to everyone else. The challenge with this approach is that it mostly fails to inspire employees to connect in a meaningful way. Instead, leaders should look to engage employees in providing input and playing an active part in defining the strategy and purpose. This can be done through dialogue, feedback forums, surveys, and by ensuring that strategy teams represent a diagonal cross section of the organization, not just a few “elite” resources.

A better way to evolve culture

The pandemic has forced many businesses to realize that established practices are not always best practices. In addition to policy and structural changes, organizations are looking for ways to create a culture of empowerment and adaptability because there is an increasing recognition of the importance of culture as additive and a driver for both employee retention and business performance. Unfortunately, the typical approaches—relying on leaders to define the culture and cascade it or fully outsourcing cultural development to HR—have been ineffective at producing significant changes. A better way to successfully start a cultural evolution is through new behaviors, rather than by articulating the desired culture.  These new behaviors, when consistent with the business strategy, start to generate tangible results, which when recognized and celebrated, inspire more new actions. These actions not only produce immediate results, but as these new habits snowball, the new ways of working become “how we do it here.” By focusing efforts on encouraging these new strategically aligned actions and behaviors, leaders can exert a much greater influence on culture than by trying to mandate it from the top.

A better way to encourage more autonomy and leadership

More leadership from more people is crucial for successfully navigating an increasingly unpredictable and complex business landscape, but it is also the key to a workforce that is engaged, excited, and motivated. Individuals who feel that they have the autonomy and support to take initiative and provide leadership are more likely to feel engaged with their work. The challenge for organizations is to create an environment that encourages employees to lead—to take initiative and act with urgency in pursuing aligned business opportunities. This starts with focusing on opportunities instead of problems, delegating control and decision making, articulating principles and guidelines, celebrating progress, and reducing noise. Creating space for leadership may mean taking a hard look at the management processes within your organization to ensure they encourage autonomy, agility, and change.

The war for talent is as much about attracting and retaining the right individuals as it is about developing them and unleashing their potential. In addition to investing in recruitment and providing incentives, most organizations will need to transform how they engage employees and whom they look to for leadership to fully tap into the potential and talent of their employees. Clarity of purpose and strategy, a culture that is adaptive and responsive, and an environment that encourages more leadership from more people is a significant competitive business advantage in today’s world of increased uncertainty and complexity.

John Kotter is the Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School and Chairman of the management consulting firm Kotter. Gaurav Gupta is a Director at Kotter and founder of Ka Partners, with global business experience translating strategy into successful implementation in diverse industries. Their new book, Change, details how leaders can leverage challenges and opportunities to make sustainable workplace changes in a rapidly accelerating world.