Will Siris and Alexas fit seamlessly into the workforce? Will artificial intelligence replace the seemingly inextricable human element of leadership? Will organizations become more or less hierarchical, and will companies look at all the same?
We set out to understand what the future of work might hold for our children and generations to come. In the spring of 2017, Russell Reynolds surveyed and interviewed more than 300 senior leaders, nearly half of whom sit in the C-suite, on what it will take to be successful in the workplace of the future. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents were parents, and we wanted to know what they hope their children and grandchildren will find when it's time for them to join the working ranks.
Overall, many of these executives, like many other experts, believe that technological advancements, AI and robotics will drastically change the future of work. But many said this metallic new world will place surprising value on warmth and humanity: Purpose-driven organizations will be best able to hire and retain young workers, while those workers will benefit from skills like creativity and problem-solving over pure technical know-how. Looking back at their own careers, these senior leaders also had insightful advice for future generations.
A New World—and Skills to Match
Much has been written about how computers and technology will remake the future of work, and the executives we surveyed tended to agree. When asked which forces will most significantly impact how people work in the future, 28% of respondents said technological advancements and innovations; followed by artificial intelligence and robotics (18%); and new, disruptive business models (16%).
Conceptual skills will be far more important, as well as creative skills and the ability to function in unstructured environments.
Vasant Prabhu, CFO of Visa
Interestingly, business leaders were even more likely to rank artificial intelligence and robotics as a critical trend, perhaps already seeing the impact of these technologies in their daily lives.
Because of these predicted tech advancements, executives say technical skills will become less important, replaced by skills computers can't copy—yet. Respondents said the competencies their children and grandchildren will need most to succeed in the future workplace include the ability to make decisions and problem-solve (18%), think creatively (16%), and communicate verbally with people inside and outside the organization (15%). Skills like collecting and processing information ranked dead last at 5%—because they're viewed as easily replaced by technology.
In fact, the biggest skill needed in the near future may be the ability to react to whatever comes next. Vasant Prabhu, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Visa, has learned a lot about reacting to change in his 30-plus-year career, including leadership roles at NBCUniversal, Starwood Resorts and Safeway, as well as a seat on the Mattel board of directors. Reflecting on the skills his 16-year-old daughter and her peers will need to succeed in the future, Vasant homed in on an ability to handle constant change.
The most valuable learning experiences often involve adversity, so don’t just chase what looks cool at the moment.
John Donahoe, CEO of ServiceNow
“Conceptual skills will be far more important, as well as creative skills and the ability to function in unstructured environments,” he said. “There’s no question that leadership will change as well. Twenty to 30 years ago, you got a position, you got the authority. Today you get a position and you earn the authority. Maybe in the future, you will have to earn your authority every day.”
Organizations of Tomorrow
Business leaders of today had high hopes for the organizations their children and grandchildren will join in the future.
Executives hope the organization of the future is both highly flexible (33%) and entrepreneurial (15%), while also affording their children and grandchildren work-life balance (18%), visionary mentors (16%) and leadership opportunities (15%).
Some executives commented on the future of what it means to be a leader, especially in the startup world. John Donahoe, CEO of ServiceNow, has seen this change firsthand in his own children, three of whom work in the tech industry. John is no stranger to tech himself, having served as the CEO of eBay and on the boards of Intel and PayPal. But he says today's tech leadership needs to understand the value of adversity.
"We are in an era where the pace of change is accelerating", he said. "Leaders of the future will have to be adaptive and be able to drive change. Learning from a wide variety of experiences and learning to work with a diverse set of people are increasingly important because they make you more adaptable and empathetic, both of which are helpful in driving change. And the most valuable learning experiences often involve adversity, so don't just chase what looks cool at the moment."
John also stressed that future leaders should pursue their passions and pay attention to what gives you a sense of purpose. He wasn't alone in that belief. Notably, the survey found that executives emphasize purpose—not just the bottom line—as the ideal way to work. Purpose-driven organizations were ranked by executives as the second-most-appealing future workplace scenario (19%).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t educate my kids about business … I was so naïve when it came to things like job opportunities.
Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable
Career Advice from Mom and Dad
Roughly two in five business leaders surveyed said they would encourage their children or grandchildren to follow in their career footsteps, with C-suite executives more likely than SVPs, VPs or directors to be very encouraging of their progeny becoming future titans of industry.
Among the reasons these leaders want their children and grandchildren to follow in their footsteps, they cited being able to influence people, companies and even society while being able to earn a comfortable living. In contrast, executives who wanted their children to choose other careers were concerned their jobs would no longer exist in the future or felt their children wouldn't be fulfilled pursuing them.
Whether or not their children follow their career paths, some executives touched on the importance of their function as role models for future generations.
Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable, discussed how her career may help her impart advice to her two sons, ages 9 and 6. Christa said she didn't benefit from business conversations around the dinner table with her own parents, a teacher and an engineer. And while that hasn't held her back from a career that's included leadership roles at Walt Disney Company and social network Nextdoor and a seat on the Kimberly-Clark board of directors, she's happy to be able to pass her business acumen on to her children. She said her sons love that she works because they can tell it makes her happy and fulfilled.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't educate my kids about business," she said. "I want them to know and understand what I do. It has to help. I was so naïve when it came to things like job opportunities. My kids will be better off because they'll have sounding boards."
Regardless of whether they hoped their children would follow in their footsteps, many leaders surveyed stressed the importance of finding fulfilling work. In fact, "pursue your passions" (37%), "persevere" (30%) and "do good" (22%) are the three most critical pieces of career advice business leaders would like to instill in their children and grandchildren.
Following passions was even more important advice among executives, perhaps demonstrating a growing trend among younger generations to find purpose-driven work versus an older, more practical mindset.
Yet some executives were concerned that many kids today face high-pressure environments that make it challenging for them to identify their passions early on.
David Wyshner, most recently president and chief financial officer at Avis Budget Group, sees this pressure firsthand in his children, a 17-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. David, who served as Avis Budget Group's CFO for more than a decade after a career in investment banking, said today's kids are growing up increasingly quickly.
"The faster that things seem to move, the faster younger people aren't young anymore," he said. "How do kids at 17 figure out that they want or don't want to be engineers? They aren't all that well positioned to answer since they are not given a lot of context, nor do they have the experience to be making those decisions. As a result, the more narrow the focus, the more risk that someone will spend a lot of time pursuing a more specialized career that they don't necessarily like. It strikes me as really inefficient."
The faster that things seem to move, the faster younger people aren’t young anymore. How do kids at 17 figure out that they want or don’t want to be engineers?
David Wyshner, Former CFO of Avis Budget Group
Looking Back to Look Ahead
Purpose-driven work is nothing new. In fact, 44% of business leaders say doing meaningful work and making a difference are the leading factor motivating them in their careers, followed by supporting their families (28%).
While six in 10 executives believe their career defines them to a large degree (62%), if they were financially stable enough to pursue any career path, 22% of business leaders said they would pursue philanthropic work, while 21% would continue in their current role working the same hours. Only 7% would stop working entirely.
The importance of purpose-driven work, both among current executives and in their hopes for future generations, highlights an important differentiator for today's companies. Meaningful work that makes a significant positive difference in the world is the new competitive advantage for companies, especially when it comes to attracting, retaining and inspiring future business leaders.
Purpose-driven or not, 58% of business leaders say they love everything about their careers, with business leaders 55 and older and C-suite executives even more likely to find their careers satisfying than their younger or lower-ranking peers, perhaps because they have a greater sense of control and influence.
Given the love many executives have for their careers, it's no surprise that 72% of business leaders would choose the same career path if they could do everything again. Common reasons provided for this include the ability to contribute to an organization or cause, continually learn and develop skills, and meet interesting people. Those who would choose a different path were split among those who thought their career was too narrow, those who wished for more specialization and those who just wanted to earn more money.
The Gender Gap
As we look to the future, it's important to note some things that haven't changed much: The survey revealed significant differences between genders that point to a continuation of traditional gender roles.
For example, male business leaders were more likely than their female peers to value purpose-driven organizations, with 22% saying purpose-driven organizations were most appealing versus 9% of female leaders. In contrast, female leaders were more likely than their male counterparts to find truly diverse organizations appealing by the same margin, perhaps because they can find more mentors and advancement opportunities in highly diverse companies. Female leaders were also more likely to value work-life balance, as the bulk of home and childcare duties often still fall to working women over their working spouses.
Traditional gender roles also persist when it comes to motivation for working. Female business leaders are 45% more likely to say they're motivated by doing meaningful work, while men are 94% more likely to be motivated by supporting their family and 150% more likely to be motivated by a desire to lead people.
Perhaps these traditional gender roles will begin to change along with the other transformations these executives predict. But either way, there will be plenty of changes coming. Today's business leaders think tomorrow's world of work will be dominated by technology, and yet "soft" skills like problem-solving and creativity will be prized. Even more critical, they believe purpose-driven work will continue to motivate their children and grandchildren as they enter the workforce, giving companies a clear area of focus as they look to recruit and retain the next generation.
ABOUT THIS SURVEY
In March and April 2017, Russell Reynolds surveyed more than 300 senior leaders, nearly half of whom sit in the C-suite, on what it will take to be successful in the workplace of the future. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents were parents. The study consisted of an online survey fielded by ClearVoice Research and five in-depth interviews with prominent business executives.
Jenna Fisher leads Russell Reynolds' Global Financial Officers, Human Resources Officers, General Counsels, Operations and Supply Chain, and Corporate Communications Officers Practices. With more than a decade in executive search, her clients range from Fortune 1000 corporations to middle-market private equity portfolio companies and highly visible, pre-public venture capital–backed enterprises. Her expertise lies in recruiting CFOs, although she has conducted numerous assignments for treasurers, controllers, internal audit executives and division chief financial officers. Jenna is frequently cited for her expertise in leading business publications, including The Wall Street Journal.