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Hazel Wheldon on 21st Century Skills and Leadership

27 May 2015

Discover insights from Hazel Wheldon's keynote at the JVR ACP People Development conference. She looks at the evolution of workforce development in the 21st century

Hazel Wheldon, (COO of MHS in Canada) gave the first keynote address at the recent JVR ACP People Development in Africa conference, entitled: Hiring, leading and developing a 21st century workforce – Are you ready? This article summarises some of the main points of her address. We will be highlighting each keynote address in our upcoming newsletters.

We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn. - Peter Drucker

Due to the unprecedented rate of technological changes we are going through, and with the benefits (and challenges) that technology brings, it is becoming more important that we critically analyse how we educate, and who we select to lead us in the years to come. The world of work is changing, as is talent spotting. We can no longer assume that past performance will predict future performance. We need to better measure potential and 21st Century Skills.

“Much of my context for change is obviously from the developed world and the change that we’ve been through over the last couple of hundred years, however I don’t think this discussion is irrelevant for the developing countries - I think it is actually going to be more important, because countries like South Africa and the other African nations are actually going to leap-frog some of the phases we’ve gone through in North America. You can see that with phones - leapfrog landlines, straight to mobile networks...”

What are the changes that lead up to our world of work today?

Before the late 1800’s we lived in a pre-industrial society. We worked outside in the fields, or as artisans with a specific skills from our house or workshop. Economies were centred on agriculture and most people lived at a subsistence level.

Then, starting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s we entered into the industrial revolution and the rise of the machine. People started working in factories and the greatest contributor to the economy was the textile industry. Suddenly people were working together on assembly lines, giving rise to the need for more formalised management structures.

From the 1940’s we moved into the post industrial revolution, where there was a strong movement from the production of goods to the production of services, which signalled the start of the knowledge economy. Workers were no longer found in factories only, but a large portion of the workforce moved into office buildings and started working as white-collar workers.

With the advent of better communication technologies and the internet in the 80’s, we finally entered the digital revolution, also known as the information age. In the last few decades we have seen a dramatic rise in internet usage and access to cellphones. More and more workers are demanding the freedom to work anywhere, anytime, and with any device. It is no longer the goal to work from nine-to-five in the corporate office, climbing the corporate ladder using the company resources – people want to make their own ladders.

Along with the change in technology, many job titles and skills have and will become obsolete or dispersed in the organisation. “When I started we had twelve people in our hand scoring department...we have zero today. We had six people in our QA department, now everybody in the organisation is responsible for QA.” The rate of change is becoming more and more rapid and organisations are losing otherwise capable people, because they cannot adapt to the change.

How we’ve identified talent...

Talent spotting has 4 iterations over past hundred years.

For thousands of years, up until the industrial era we’ve placed tremendous value on physical attributes. If we had to build a pyramid, dig a canal, fight a war, harvest a crop, we trusted those who were the strongest and fittest to do the best job. Even though physical attributes are now largely irrelevant, we still value them highly as heuristic indicators of talent.

“Fortune 500 CEO’s are on average 2.5 inches taller than the average population. There are more male CEO’s in Fortune 500 companies named James than there are all women.”

Then from the 40’s - 50’s, with the rise of the knowledge economy we started measuring intelligence and other cognitive abilities. Intellect was seen as the most important factor for success. During this time jobs were still fairly homogenous, and past performance was considered indicative of future performance in a new organisation.

By the 1970’s we started looking at competencies. With the increasing complexity of jobs, the idea was that managers should be evaluated on specific skills that predict performance. We broke down competencies and started looking for those people who had the right combinations we we’re looking for. IQ was no longer the only predictor of success, personality, emotional, and social competencies also came to the fore.

The Next evolution will be the search for potential. What makes someone successful today, might not be required tomorrow. In the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment of tomorrow, we need to know who has the potential to learn new skills. Competencies alone are insufficient if the environment changes, or technology shifts make the job obsolete.

This is where the idea of 21st century skills come from, and there are a variety of taxonomies. Laura M. Greenstein proposes the following framework for educators in her book: Assessing 21st Century Skills:

  • Thinking skills, which includes: Complex problem solving, Critical thinking, creativity, and meta cognition (our ability to think about things)

  • Acting skills, which includes: Communication and collaboration, listening, flexibility, adaptability, and initiative.

  • Living skills, which include: Global understanding, Civic responsibility, leadership, social competence, lifelong learning, manage your career.

“The truth is, our kids are born with 21st century skills and we beat it out of them.” Our schooling system does not encourage curiosity and exploration - it is built around giving kids a data-set and not a skill set. This will have to change in the future.

The problem of measuring 21st Century Skills:

  • We still have a long way to go in terms of the measurement of 21st Century Skills. Some issues include:

  • Most of the current cognitive assessments measures fixed knowledge, they don’t measure complex problem solving.

  • The current critical thinking tests are highly structured, and they really don’t measure critical thinking.

  • Non-routine problem solving is not assessed by any of the current assessments that I know of.

Systems thinking is not covered.

In terms of IT skills - there are tests, but they measure IT skills as they currently exist, not as they will exist in the future. Probably the area in which the assessments are the most advanced are in inter- and intrapersonal skills - mainly the personality and EI tests. In terms of measuring civic responsibility and global understanding - there are no assessments for that, but I’m not sure that we really need them, because I think there’s a lot of things you can look for on a resume that can help you assess that.

We currently write a job description and use that as a checklist against which we match incoming resumes. Ideally we want to hire people, whose future skills will match what the organisation needs in the future. We unfortunately don’t have the systems for this.

21st Century Leadership

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs

Leaders need to unlock potential, and one of the key skills they will need to be successful in the 21st century is authenticity. Why? Because it allows them to embrace failure and weakness and be vulnerable. In essence it allows the leader to learn how to ask.

Historically leaders have led by fear, then, with the advent of the industrial age, by telling, and now we need to learn how to lead by asking. We need to give ourselves the freedom not to have all the answers, but to ask lots and lots of questions (be an engager and enabler) - if we can do that we will be ready to lead. “My biggest fear is that senior leaders may have the best ability to do this, but our middle managers who are hired for a particular skills-set or are not comfortable feeling vulnerable, will have great difficulty to do that, and will have great difficulty managing people who know more that they do.”


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