With the rapid evolution of technology and the lasting impact of the pandemic, the future of work has become pretty unorthodox. Hybrid workplace setups are becoming widespread, and a company’s success is often dictated by its digital capabilities. Dr. Santor Nishizaki chats with best-selling author and futurist, Kian Gohar, to discuss how to future-proof your team in the new world of work. Kian presents practical tools that lead to efficient collaboration and improved communication and shares his insights about the Great Resignation, the qualities of an inspiring leader, and the greatest strengths of the Gen Z workforce.
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Leading Within Your Organization: How To Future-Proof Your Organization In The New World Of Work With Kian Gohar
Kian Gohar is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and futurist and inspires organizations to build exponential teams to thrive in a world of hybrid work. He’s the Founder of Geolab, an innovation research, and leadership development firm. He is a co-author of The Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Competing in the New World of Work, published by Harvard Business Review in 2020 with Keith Ferrazzi.
A former Executive Director of the XPRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, Kian has coached the leadership teams of dozens of Fortune 500 companies on innovation, leadership, and the future of work. He has been featured widely in global media and is a sought-after keynote speaker for more key events globally. He’s a graduate of the Harvard Business School and can be found on social media, @FromTheKGB. Let’s hear what Kian has to say about the future of work.
Kian, thank you so much for coming to the show. I’m so happy to have you.
I’m excited to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
You are an expert on the future of work. We have your new book that has come out already called Competing in the New World of Work. I’m super excited to have you here. I have a copy. For the people that are reading, you can check it out on Amazon. Thank you so much for joining.
It’s my pleasure.
Tell us a little bit about your story. What drove you to where you are now, and the future of work writing about that?
I’m a futurist and historian by training. What that means is that I study different plausible future scenarios and try to help organizations think about how they can build their way to this desired future state. For many years, I was an Executive Director of the XPRIZE Foundation, a leading technology nonprofit here in Los Angeles. It was trying to solve grand challenges for humanity using incentive prize competitions and develop what future scenarios look like or one of the first steps of trying to solve these moonshots.
For many years, I was also an Executive Director at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. I was studying AI, automation, robotics, and all these technologies that were transforming all of our industries. In the mid-2010s, around 2015 and 2016, I became fascinated with the impact of these technologies on what, at that time, people were calling the future of work. What impact would it have in terms of job loss?
The more I studied it, the more I realized that the only way for humans to thrive in this bionic age, where we are living side by side with AI and automation, is if we double down on the capabilities that make us uniquely human. Those capabilities include problem-solving, emotional empathy, emotional intelligence, creativity, and collaboration, and these things are unique to humans, vis-à-vis artificial intelligence, at least as of now.The only way for humans to thrive in this bionic age is to double down on capabilities that make them uniquely human. Click To Tweet
I shifted my focus from studying exponential technologies to understanding what makes an exponential team successful. I have been focusing a lot on this idea of making sure humans and teams are the ones that are good and thriving in the world of uncertainty, regardless of what technology brings in the future. This concept of the future of work. To be honest, I dislike that term because I don’t think it’s a thing. The future of work is a present of work, and technology is constantly going to shift how we do things as it has for generations and Millennia.
I don’t like using that term. I only refer to it because it’s a search engine and industry term. I feel that we should double down on making humans, individuals, and teams capable to thrive and work side by side in the near future, where automation and AI will sit side by side with us. That’s how I have come to study and focus on this concept for the better part of a decade.
You mentioned my book. It has been a decade-long study and research on what makes humans take and how to change technology to change your business models. When the pandemic arrived years ago, I wanted to better understand what was making individuals, teams, and organizations very successful. We did this major research project with Harvard Business School, where we interviewed over 2,000 executives from around the world to understand how they were changing their leadership models to thrive. I would like to call the future of work the present of work. It’s always going to change and be a model that we’ll have to constantly adapt to. The more skilled we are as humans to upgrade our capabilities to live in this new age, the more successful we will be.
The present of work, I will try to call it that for this episode. What is the present of work look like as we emerge from this pandemic or whatever that is if we are out of it yet? What does that look like? What are you seeing, Kian?
We have had this tremendous transformation over the last few years. The pandemic made us reassess all of our assumptions about how we live and how we work. Pre-pandemic, the vast majority of people were working in a physical co-located environment. Before the pandemic, only 4% of people working full-time worked remotely away from their office.
During the pandemic, that spiked up to over 50%, and now people are trying to figure out what this new world of work looks like, which you will appreciate. This is why I didn’t call the book competing in the future of work because I don’t believe in that. This new world of work is one that is going to be very hybrid compared to what the last years have been, which was very remote, and one that it was very much in person before that. I’ve seen research studies suggest that by 2024, more than 50% of full-time jobs will be of a hybrid nature.
What does hybrid mean? It basically means that some people are working physically co-located in the same space and some people are not. Sometimes it could also mean that people are working at the same time. Sometimes it means that they are not working at the same time, which is asynchronous. In this new world of work, there has to be a development of a management skillset of being able to manage people, teams, and individuals who are not co-located, who are not working at the same time.
This is a very different skillset than we have been training our leaders for the last many years of the post-industrial age. There are some best practices in that, and we are happy to have shared and identified some of those in our research. This is going to be an ongoing skill development of people, managers, leaders, and team members to figure out how they work effectively in this hybrid environment because that will be this new world of work.
It will vary from industry to industry. Some industries are preferring for cultural reasons to have more people work co-located in the office. I have seen that in the finance industry quite a bit, and then I will say that there are other industries which are very comfortable with working in a hybrid remote environment, from tech to others. There is no one size fits all answer to what this new world of work looks like but it won’t look like the past. The sooner individuals and team members can develop the skillset to thrive in this hybrid environment, the more successful they will be.
Can you give us an example of 1 or 2 of these skillsets that you saw that were successful or is necessary for folks who are leading remote or hybrid teams?
The pandemic taught us that collaboration isn’t about where you work but how you work and how you show up to work. Collaboration is one of the key success criteria in this new hybrid work world. Collaboration sounds easy like something we have all done ever since we went into the professional world. Collaboration essentially means problem-solving. How do you solve a problem?
When you think about the tasks that we need to accomplish in this new hybrid world of work, there are different layers of the collaboration continuum that people will need to identify and determine which tasks are better at which parts of that spectrum. This thing that we called collaboration stack starts with asynchronous collaboration, which means you are collaborating not in the same space and not at the same time.
You’ve got hybrid collaboration, which we are familiar with, which we talked about. We have got remote collaboration, which means everybody is remotefully, maybe working at the same time. We have in-person collaboration. Depending on where you are on the collaboration stack and what tasks need to get done, there are different layers of it that are better for particular tasks.
How do employees and managers get good at becoming good collaborators? First, identify where this task needs to get done in the collaboration stack. Second, identify if it does need to get done asynchronously. What are the tools that you use to be able to maximize the voices of inclusion? It’s not going to be the same people that you may have invited to an in-person meeting. There are other people outside of that team that are tangential to your organization, your team, that you should be inviting to give you ideas and feedback and crowdsource the best practices to identify real solutions to the problems you are trying to identify.The pandemic taught people that collaboration isn't about where you work but how you work. Click To Tweet
Collaboration means that you are trying to solve a problem. How do you solve that problem better? Is it by identifying the ground that you are working on? Which layer of the stack are you on? The second thing is what are the tools that you can use to make sure that you get the best ideas for those problems that you are trying to identify and solve.
Would you say Slack would be one of those types of tools or Teams, or even going beyond that like Trello or things like that?
All those are fantastic productivity and communication tools. What I will say is if you take a traditional analog mindset of collaborating and running organizations and you layer on top of that digital tools like Teams, Zoom, Slack, and Trello. All of that does not mean that you’ve become a digital-first company. Those are channels and pathways to improve communication and collaboration.
Those tools are very useful but you have to step back and do the hard work to identify what are the real issues you are trying to solve for before you do it. Let me give you an example. There’s this thing that we use called the decision board. This decision board is a cloud-based document. You can put it on Google Docs, SharePoint or whichever platform you like using.
This decision board is a tool to help the problem owner, sometimes this can be the team leader, to identify the real issues to solve before you call an in-person meeting with people. Oftentimes we know that when you call a meeting, how many times have you been invited to the meeting and not the right people are there? You have to reschedule it.
Oftentimes only 30% of the people who are in the meeting should be in that meeting. If you use this decision board in advance to identify the real particular issues and the right people to be in that meeting, then you can accelerate innovation and decision-making and reduce meeting time. What does this decision board look like? It’s a Google Doc. It’s very simple that you can create, and it has four columns.
The first column is one of the problems that we are trying to solve for. You list them out. The second column is what are some bold solutions to these particular problems? The third column is what are some challenges posed if we solve this problem? Another way of saying that is, “who would be pissed off if you solve this problem?”
The fourth point is, who else should we invite to this conversation or to this problem? Ideation session. You create this on an Excel doc, Google Docs or SharePoint and send it out to your team in advance of having a physical meeting, and send it out as broadly as possible. Give people some time, maybe a week, to fill out this decision board asynchronously. In real-time, at the end of that week, the problem owner or the team leader will look at this decision board and see the whole universe of potential problems, solutions, ideas, and people that they should be inviting to this meeting.
As the problem owner, they can drill down and say, “This is the real problem that I need to solve for now what I thought it was, and let’s call a meeting to solve for that.” This decision board is a new way of thinking, managing, and leading. It’s not using digital tools like Zoom, Trello, or Slack. All those are great but it requires a shift in mindset to think about, “How do I do the pre-work and figure out what the real problem set is before I even ever try to have an in-person collaboration?”
In the past, you might go down to someone’s office and say, “What do you think of this idea?” Go from cubicle to cubicle or have lunch with a bunch of people. These might be organic conversations that will happen as you are walking around. You are moving that to digital space but it’s hard though because we are shifting our mindset rather than walking around. We have to think a little bit differently.
In this new world of work, people have to be very purposeful about how they design how they work. These assumptions of what work means. We are not walking in the hallways anymore. What do you do to circumnavigate that and try to create that spontaneous conversation? Part of that can be using tools like Slack, Trello, and all these decision boards to replicate some of that.
Leaders, team owners, and young managers need to be very conscientiously thinking about how they design work to get the right product that they want out of it. Thinking through the incentives, the behaviors, all of that requires conscientious thought. Whereas in the past old world of work, it was very simple. You showed up to an office, and it happened organically. For teams that have it first or remote first, this rethinking of what work means, and then designing the behaviors and using the tools on top of that to get the right product and activity is critical.
That’s a great tool. I have used another one called MURAL, which is another fun collaboration tool to use. I’m not sure if you are familiar with that one. The next question that I want to talk to you a little bit about is the first-time leaders. Imagine someone going through the pandemic, they got promoted. Maybe they have never stepped foot in the office. What are the things you’ve seen that first-time leaders make mistakes and what would be your advice on how to fix them?
Leaders are individuals who manage teams of individuals. If you recognize that the people on your teams are individuals and have personal drives, ambitions, and goals and that they are humans first, rather than team members. That is a critical way to develop a level of trust and candor between a manager and the people who report to that manager.If you recognize that your team is composed of individuals who have personal drives and ambition, you can develop powerful levels of trust and candor with them. Click To Tweet
I’m refraining from using this word empathy but that’s a word that’s common in management language. I like to refer to it as trust and candor because people want to be in situations where they feel that they belong. The mistake that I see young managers make is that they feel that they need to lean into their ego to show that they are the boss. Sometimes that shows up in different ways like they don’t delegate enough or try to have communication in a public way that publish should be done better in a private fashion.
The big mistake here is that when you are thinking about who is on your team, those are individuals on your team. If you treat them as humans first, rather than team members, that is critical. I see that quite a lot because young managers rightly so are very proud of having been promoted, and now they feel that they need to show their chops. If you role model the behavior that you want to see, you are much more likely to develop teams that are going to be trusting and have very powerful, emotional connections and relationships rather than feeling that it’s going to be a top-down conversation.
Sometimes it could be maybe the defensive. Maybe there’s Imposter syndrome happening. We talk about that as well in my other episodes. Would you say that we promote people based on their technical expertise rather than their ability to lead people?
Historically, individual contributors are rewarded for their technical and work skillset. They are not promoted for their ability to manage other individuals. That’s historically how work productivity has been measured. When you become a manager, it’s not about the individual contribution that you make then distinguishes you from being promoted from manager to director to vice president. Having business productivity and outcomes is important.
The ability to manage teams is critical and much more so than your individual competency because you will eventually get to a point in your career. Let’s say that at the top of that particular functional pinnacle, you are the chief marketing officer of a company. You are going to have twenty different kinds of tasks that need to be accomplished in that marketing role, from search, and web, to branding to customer loyalty and customer service. All those things funnel underneath this marketing component, and you are not going to be good at all of them.
You have to be good at excellent at some of them, and you are going to be broadly knowledgeable about a lot of them. You have to rely on your teams to be able to excel in their particular functions. A good senior manager is one that sees. They don’t know everything that they don’t know and are okay saying, “I don’t know how to optimize for search engines because I have got somebody else on my team who was the expert on that, and I’m going to lean it onto them.” Rather than trying to have all the answers, which a lot of young managers feel like they need to do because that’s what they have been promoted for. When they get to more senior managerial positions, they are rewarded for managing teams effectively. It takes time to learn that skill.
That’s why we created this show. A lot of the times, I have noticed that in a corporate world, we promote people based on technical competence, as you were saying on the function. We also don’t train them on how to lead people either. I throw them in the deep end, and then when people leave or get frustrated, they say, “It’s a manager’s fault,” and then maybe they weren’t ready.
Part of what I do is we are in the business of behavior transformation of teams and helping train managers and leaders of teams to manage better. It’s fun for me because I love doing that. It does take a lot of insight and skill but it’s something that I have developed a lot over the last decades. It’s fun for me to help young leaders develop that themselves.
Talking about young leaders and young folks, Gen Z. They are the ones who are coming into the workplace. Born approximately 1995 and later. What would you say you’ve seen as the greatest strength, and what advice would you give to folks who are leading them?
I got a couple of Gen Z family members and had real interesting conversations with them. The biggest strength for them is this desire to have maximum inclusion. Inclusion means a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, it means having a sense of belonging and being authentic. You are seeing Gen Z be on social media platforms that are more about being real and having connections rather than what Millennials thought was popular in terms of Instagram and other kinds of social media. Gen Z’s biggest strength is their desire to have inclusivity for everybody on the team, for being real and authentic, and also asking for a voice at the table.
They are younger, in their twenties, and they believe that their voice matters. Whereas historically, oftentimes, you don’t speak until you recalled upon or until you were a more mid-level manager or above because that’s how it was. It was always very top-down, and Gen Z sees it differently. It’s much more bottom-up. While they may not have all the skillset or the answers, they have a strong belief that their voices matter, and they want to be included. One of the biggest mistakes I see in people who are managing Gen Z is that they don’t recognize this deep desire for inclusion and authenticity.
They will call them out on social media. The TikTok or maybe at a meeting. Family matters. I love your story of personal of, “Some family members may say this.” That’s great.
I’m not going to name names but there was a competition that happened to my family and my nieces who are Gen Z, they both instantly jumped up and said, “You can’t say that. That’s not appropriate. We want to make sure everybody is included.” That’s a powerful thing is that there’s a deep desire for inclusion and belonging. Gen Zs are reacting to what they saw with Millennials and bullying online.
They are a lot more willing to speak up for what they believe in and also willing to have others included. That’s going to have ramifications of how that generation is being led in the workplace and what their expectations or inclusion are. It’s going to be a real huge change. We have got four generations in the workplace, and they have vastly different perspectives on what work means, what inclusion means, and how it should be all done. I’m excited for this next generation.Having business productivity is an important leadership trait. But the ability to manage teams well is so much more critical than your individual competency. Click To Tweet
Makes me feel optimistic for sure of our future. What about the Great Resignation? It’s so great to have literally a futurist on this show. You are looking at the past, future or present. What are your thoughts on the Great Resignation like the cause of it? There are multiple things that have caused it, and what advice would you give to employers and employees?
The Great Resignation is real, and we have seen tremendous turnover in the last years for people who have been working in frontline roles, customer service roles, and low-wage roles. They have struggled for very good reasons because the pandemic made us all reassess our assumptions of what we want in our lives, and these individuals are exploring different avenues of work. They are looking for workplace environments that match their post-pandemic expectations and values.
It’s a very real situation but I also think that the great resignation is being this told in the media, in that those that are “trying to go back to work, go back to the office, or go back to the ways that we didn’t work in 2019 and before,” are the ones that are struggling with retaining talent in the Great Resignation.
Rather those organizations which are leaning into dispelling some of the myths of what work means and trying to create these workplace environments that are maximizing for collaboration, inclusion, resilience, and meeting employees where they are at are the ones that are going to thrive. My dear friend Keith Ferrazzi was my co-author. He and another individual in our research Mike Clementi, who was the Chief HR Officer of Unilever, developed this term, which is the Great Exploration.
Rather than thinking about the Great Resignation, where people are constantly shifting around, people are looking for ways of living better. Companies, for a long time, learned how to meet customers where they are at by selling or shopping in various different kinds of channels. For the first time, they are learning to meet employees where they are at in their Great Exploration.
The biggest advice I have for employers is to lean into this Great Exploration and try to meet your employees where they are at and create a workplace that is connected to values and purpose. One of the things that are driven by Gen Z is that they are very purpose-driven, and they are looking for organizations that have a higher purpose than the processed services that companies sell.
I’m not suggesting every company needs to become a nonprofit but rather how do you connect your existing services to a higher macro issue that people care about. That will incentivize and motivate people to work and show up to work because they want to find meaning in their work. The biggest advice I have to employers is to lean into meeting employees where they are at in this Great Exploration. Likewise for employees, they are sometimes struggling with older mindsets, maybe even Gen X mindsets like mine or older Boomer generation managerial staff who expect them to be in the office five days a week.
My recommendation to employees who are struggling with that older mindset of work is to ask their managers or their bosses to run an experiment. Run an AB experiment on one particular task or process that, in the past, they would do in person. Ask them to run this experiment in a hybrid or remote fashion and see what the data says.
After this experiment, whether it’s 3 or 6 weeks, look at the data and share that back with your managers. Show them if productivity, collaboration or emotional connectivity has increased. If so, then that would give their managers more of a license to be able to shift some of that work to be more hybrid. What this does is that it deep politicizes the conversation. It takes feelings and emotions out of, “I don’t feel like going to work. I don’t feel like working in the office,” and rather looks at the data. My recommendation to employees who are struggling with this new world is to ask their bosses for permission to run an experiment and see what the data shows and then go from there.
That may be a hard pitch for some managers or organizations because it may be organization-wide. That’s such a strong recommendation is look at the data. It’s going to be interesting to see. Sometimes when we get something saying, “You can work hybrid.” Everyone may not work hybrid. Some people like to have the option to have it there on the table. When I was younger, being in the office was helpful to be mentored and learn hands-on but it doesn’t have to be every day. It depends on what type of work you do.
I love that it can be done in a virtual or hybrid format. One of the things that I recommend for companies is to create a mentor pod between Gen Z individuals coming into the workforce and more tenured employees. Even if they are not seeing each other physically in the same space that they are connecting on a weekly basis through some virtual conversation. Gen Z is new to the workplace. They don’t have the network or the relationships, and they need to develop them. When you are not physically in the same spot office, it goes back to my point that you must be more purposefully designing these interactions.
It’s such a great tip. My last question for you is, what advice would you give to someone that graduated college, just entered the workforce or is getting promoted as a first-time leader? What advice would you give to them?
I would say role model the behavior that you want to see others perform. If you are a first-time leader or manager, you have expectations of how you want your team to work and behave, and the most important thing that you can do as a leader is to role model that behavior first so that everybody sees what the expectation is and that they will emulate that.
Thank you so much, Kian. I appreciate your time. For all the folks who are reading, you can get your book on Amazon, Competing in the New World of Work. Thank you. I appreciate it. Have a great rest of your day, and good luck with the rest of your book launch.
Thanks so much. It was a pleasure being here and having your audience reading. I’m happy to share questions. I’m very available on LinkedIn if people want to follow me or ask me questions there. I post a lot of more content on there as well. Thanks so much, Santor.
Thank you so much. You too. Have a good one.
- Competing in the New World of Work
- @FromTheKGB – Instagram
- LinkedIn – Kian Gohar
About Kian Gohar
A sought-after strategist and advisor, Kian inspires the world’s leading organizations to harness innovation and moonshots to solve complex problems. He coaches entrepreneurs, executives and leaders to make their impossible, impossible.
He is the co-author of “Competing in the New World of Work” with Keith Ferrazzi, published by Harvard Business Review in 2022, which is based on a global research project with 2000+ global leaders to reveal the best leadership practices that helped the most successful teams thrive in the pandemic, and is a roadmap for any team at any organization to future-proof their way to success in the post-pandemic era.
A former executive director of the XPRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, Kian has coached the C-suite of over 50 companies in the Fortune 500, and regularly keynotes, facilitates and emcees major business conferences like the World Economic Forum, SXSW, the Tokyo Motor Show, and many others. His research on the Future of Work and innovation has been featured on CNBC, Axios, HBR, and other media.
He is passionate about the intersection of innovation and impact, and his career spans venture capital, academia and startups around the world. He is a member of the Transformational Leadership Council.
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