After a career as an executive in tech and media, Diana Wu David felt she had lost her purpose. In researching her viral TED talks and her book, Future Proof: Reinventing Work in an Age of Acceleration (2019), she found many executives felt the same. Demoralisation and burnout were rampant, and people needed a roadmap for their careers and lives. Then Diana found her purpose – helping corporate leaders reimagine what a career means in the twenty-first century.
After the Covid-19 disruption, fixing talent management is even more important for businesses that want to secure their future. MERIT spoke to Diana about how HR leaders can help advance corporate strategy while also increasing agility. Here are her lessons for leaders who do not want their people to feel like they need to leave in order to fulfil their purpose.
Diana, you are an expert in career management and people development. Your book Future Proof gave people, especially those in executive roles, individual advice on how to manage the shifting world of work. What is your key advice for HR and L&D leaders?
One of the forks in the road when I was writing my book was, do I have a book that’s for individuals, or do I have a book that’s for leaders or managers? And when I wrote it, I felt like businesses wasn’t doing enough. The initiatives that they were pursuing were fragmented and had not shown any measurable results. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book for individuals. It was very much like, “Save yourself! Your companies can’t do it for you.” But I also do relate to and understand the difficulties managers are facing. That’s been part of my research for the next book.
One of the loudest megatrends is the use of data enabled by technology and motivated by a desire for more transparency, but also more privacy. There’s a more data-driven approach to defining and assessing skills and the gaps for skills, and the transparency element of that is that it’s very clear for all parties – this is what we have, this is what we need, these are the gaps, and this is what you need to learn or demonstrate to get to where you want to go. That’s nascent, but it is becoming much more powerful. There are tech companies that can help organisations take advantage of that data to empower managers to have better conversations.
I don’t think data’s the only answer. Ultimately, the most important thing is matching talent to strategy and the ability of leaders to communicate this plan with empathy and understanding. Data and technology like machine learning and AI can support leaders in their own decision-making.
I work with a lot of companies and a lot of boards where they might pay lip service to data-driven talent strategies. But they haven’t been able to make it a cultural shift. Sometimes the tone at the top doesn’t filter down to the people who are seven levels down.
That’s the best-case scenario. It’s not actually happening super frequently right now, based on what I can tell. Maybe for companies that consider themselves really progressive and want to drive towards that, then, absolutely, there are leaders at the helm that are trying to make that a reality. I work with a lot of companies and a lot of boards where they might pay lip service to data-driven talent strategies. But they haven’t been able to make it a cultural shift. Sometimes the tone at the top doesn’t filter down to the people who are seven levels down – and you still have lower-level workers who don’t believe that they have upward mobility or reskilling options at all. So I think we have a long way to go before this is the broadly perceived path of how we can do things.
Do you think Covid-19 has changed company leaders’ strategic thinking about talent management and talent development?
This moment in time is very interesting because, prior to Covid, unemployment was extremely low in a lot of countries, and people were really worried about talent, so the power was shifting towards talent. There were more structures catering towards a diverse population – to get the best talent in whatever way they wanted to work. I’ll be curious to see if that is the case when we go back after Covid in different countries. You already have banks who are flying their staff from Hong Kong to China just so that they can go back to work and they can oversee them. Staff, worried about their jobs, are happy to comply.
How is the role of HR leaders evolving as people’s careers take new forms and talent management is changing? Have shifts due to Covid-19 impacted that?
There’s a tendency, even before the volatility of Covid, to have a core team and then the peripheral team. Companies are asking – what partnerships can we forge that allow us to bring the expertise as needed, but not necessarily carry the people and the costs when it’s not needed? I think that’s one way that companies will manage.
Without a pipeline of talent and without the right culture, there’s additional risk involved in terms of people leaving, in terms of data security, in terms of the right people to carry the strategy forward.
Having started out my career in management consulting, I see that, as people have more flexibility and agency, HR leaders will be a lot like the way consulting managers were. In consulting, there may be internal marketplaces for jobs with people who are employees as well as even alumni. This is what Mercer (part of Marsh & McLennan) is doing. The Chairman, Julio Portalatin, talked about how they are trialing using their alumni and retired professionals on projects that they don’t have the bandwidth to fulfil, for instance.
So I see HR managers as in a consulting firm – they would understand what your preferences were, they would understand what your skills were, and they would staff you on projects. That may become a full-time role in the HR department. For instance, when I started consulting, I spoke fluent French and knew tech, media, and telecom. But I had this personal desire to go to Asia – for no reason that you would ever know from my professional experience or see in an AI algorithm, just out of curiosity because I had never been there. So HR managers had their ear out for those unusual opportunities. It worked out – twenty years later, I’m still here.
Will HR remain a core, strategic function in the future?
HR can bring a strategic perspective about how talent and talent development lead to better business outcomes.
In the past, a board would be thinking that all they had to do was hire and fire the CEO. Then they got to thinking that they should also consider succession to the CEO. But as time goes on, they realise that, without a pipeline of talent and without the right culture, there’s additional risk involved in terms of people leaving, in terms of data security, in terms of the right people to carry the strategy forward. I think that people are the key competitive advantage. Rita McGrath’s book Seeing Around Corners says there is no sustainable competitive advantage beyond your own people at this point.
What is your advice for CHROs and CLOs regarding their own personal career development?
I have two CHROs that are in my Future Proof course, and they are thinking about personal career development as well as their teams. First of all, from the individual perspective, I always say that professional loyalty now flows horizontally, not to the corporate hierarchy, so your reputation and network are very important and worth investing in. For somebody who is not inside a company, it is even more important to maintain that network.
What are the biggest risks in terms of people and talent for companies going forward, especially after Covid-19?
With unemployment really high, one of the things I worry about is that we’ll lose a whole generation of people leaving college right now. If they haven’t had those formative years at work because they’ve been unemployed, that will have longer-reaching effects. That’s something for HR leaders to think about – any leaders. This pandemic has shown that great business outcomes but poor social outcomes do not lead to thriving, resilient societies.
I would also worry about being short-sighted about how leaders deal with Covid as a company. How you treat people during this time will have far-reaching effects for morale and for your employer brand. The kind of stories that I’ve heard from coaching clients or at conferences, or in asides have been really sad. I understand that many companies are suffering, but there’s a compassionate, real way to manage those things – and then there’s an opportunistic way. And people know the difference. In 5 years, when we look back, some people are going to be saying, I don’t respect the way that they handled that situation.
What would be your advice for a more compassionate way to deal with a really difficult time, or even needing to downsize? What would be a more future-oriented way to deliver bad news and still not hurt the culture?
Overcommunicating – being super transparent and clear and honest is a baseline. Beyond that, redefining how we can pull together and learn. This is, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime crisis – but there will be other crises. Some of the best companies that I see are actually using this opportunity as training. They’re having some of their middle managers come together, and the senior managers and CEO are explaining the assumptions and thinking behind what they are doing. It may not be the right thing, but this is a chance for younger managers to learn. One day, they will be in a position to have to make these hard decisions.
Your own career has had many transitions and transformations. Based on your personal experience, what is your advice for today’s executives?
Just before I released my book, I asked my daughter what her impression was. She said that sometimes you have to take a risk to do the things that matter to you. I think that’s very true. That was what she had learnt at 12 years old. If that’s the one thing I’ve imparted to her, then I’m pretty happy.
Interview by Ani Kodjabasheva