What Tech Executives Don't Understand About Talent

Will Marré

October 11, 2016

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In a recent interview, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said what most tech executives say about the growing talent shortage. She said we need more STEM education. She advocated channeling more students into science, technology engineering and math courses. That's of course the conventional wisdom . . . but it's wrong. Well, not so much wrong as it is incomplete.

What Ginni is missing in her message is that that the future doesn't belong to the scientist or coder. It belongs to the people who can lead and collaborate with teams of scientists and coders. The future belongs not so much to people with technical intelligence as it does to people who have emotional and social intelligence. It's group intelligence that matters. Here's why.

Just consider this graphic. Before the Industrial Revolution we lived in a world of blacksmiths and cobblers who made custom shoes for horses and people. It's true. Before machines and factories we relied on craftspeople to custom-make the necessities of life. The factory changed all that. Unskilled employees could be taught to do a repetitive process like screw on a front fender on a model T Ford. This was a massive productivity revolution. Build-time for the Model T automobile shrunk from 14 hours to 90 minutes. This represented nothing less than a complete revolution of how work is performed.

Factory work has massive social consequences. As work became scientifically designed to remove all variation and individuality workers became interchangeable cogs in a productivity machine. All workers were supposed to show up on time and do what they were told. If they did it long enough they could even earn something called a pension.

The social contract for workers was that if they were reliable and obedient they would have a job and retirement security. That changed in the 1980s when McKinsey and Company advised Jack Welch to start laying off productive employees from his prosperous locomotive plant. They argued that if he could cut labor costs arbitrarily, earnings would go up, stock prices would rise, and he would become very rich.

Welch loved this. Without having to invest any money in R&D, or take any new risks he could increase profitability by simply insisting that the workforce work harder. He liked it so much he got the nickname of Neutron Jack. (A neutron bomb is designed to kill people without damaging buildings, an apt description of generating higher profits through layoffs.) Thus the social contract of being rewarded for hard work and loyalty was voided.

In the 1980s financial spreadsheets were invented and this enabled knowledge work to be automated. It was really the beginning of artificial intelligence that is something that IBM and scores of other big data crunching companies are using to change the future. Artificial intelligence is relentlessly turning whole professions into factories in which a few low skilled people can enter data and algorithms can turn it in to something valuable. For instance, someone with a 10th grade mathematical literacy can use TurboTax software to complete most federal income tax forms within minutes. (That's quite an achievement since the U.S. has the most complicated income tax laws in the world.)

That's just the beginning. Industry analysts estimate the artificial intelligence embedded in Intuit's small business software packages has eliminated the need for tens of thousands of bookkeepers and accountants. You see, bookkeepers are similar to blacksmiths. In a way they are craft people and the new world we work in doesn't need very many of them unless they bring something much more important than technical know how.

Artificial intelligence is now being used to write newspaper articles, novels and even songs. It seems that any mental activity that can be broken down into a formula can be turned into a job that a computer can do.

New software tools are enabling coders to vastly increase their productivity so that what used to take weeks can be done in days and soon hours. This suggests that, in time, even the demand for computer engineers may wane like that of a shoe cobbler.

I believe that the great career opportunities, especially in technology businesses, will not be driven so much by technical expertise as it will be by emotional intelligence, thinking agility and good judgment.

These qualities are in desperately short supply in most businesses I consultant in. Leadership research from companies like Zenger-Folkman reveal that 80% of people in management simply aren't very effective managers. They don't know how to communicate clear goals that connect to strategic priorities. They don't know how to empower people and hold them accountable. They don't know how to inspire commitment and engagement. They don't even know how to complete projects in scope, on time and within budgets. They certainly don't know how to give effective feedback and coach teams to higher performance.

The same research confirms that over 30% of managers are so inept that they are actually the cause of failure. These are simply bad managers that people are loath to work for. 30% is a big number. It corresponds to some recent gender research in tech companies in which 33% of women employees say that they would pay to have their boss fired.

On the right side of the chart you see where value is being created in organizations. People who can collaborate and exercise good judgment are the people in the shortest supply.

Recently the Wharton business school released a study showing that 15% of employees produce 90% of the business value of almost any enterprise. The single quality of the 15% is their ability to collaborate. Human characteristics that predict good collaborators are self-knowledge, open mindedness, curiosity, empathy and versatile communication skills. In your experience how often do you find people with these characteristics in your workplace? Not often, I would imagine.

The reason we find so few people with superb human skills in technology organizations is that there seems to be an inverse correlation with analytically dominant thinking and social-emotional intelligence. There is more research going on in this field and we will know more in a few years but the simple reason is that analytical thinking tends to be binary, either/or, right/wrong rather than holistic.

So, my advice to Ginni and all leaders of technology companies is that they must over-invest in recruiting talent with high emotional intelligence. I also recommend that every employee and every new-hire be engaged in developing the skills of collaboration, teamwork and management. This kind of training will not have an effect if it's treated like a one-off by which you are a certificate and declare yourself an emotionally intelligent team leader.

The truth about soft skills is that it is like bathing. You have to do it every day or you will stink. What I am getting at is that using social intelligence in high stress, high-pressure environments are not natural to most people. Employees need to be constantly engaged with live learning experiences to open their minds and give them the skills they need to collaborate successfully.

The bottom line.

Science without humanity will lead to disaster . . . and a lousy place to work. If you want a great career, work on your humanity. It's in short supply.


P.S. Most women feel unheard and undervalued in their workplace. Do you? Multiple studies confirm that women leaders are instrumental in leading companies to greater profits and now we know why. It's called the Women Effect and it arises from a distinct gender strength called CORE intelligence combined with female thinking versatility. Attend my live event to learn these skills and master the new tools that will change your work-life and your future. Learn more and register for the event October 26 & 27 in San Jose, CA.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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