Talk Less About Innovation and More About the Future

Even a boom economy can be a source of anxiety, when talented employees have lots of options and disruptive change is everywhere. Resist the temptation to demand instant innovation, and instead motivate your team with conversation about the future.

As 2020 kicks into gear, the thing that seems to be keeping leaders up at night most is the talent that works for them. Of course, executives have never stopped worrying about having the right people on the bus, as Tom Peters famously put it. But a new decade seems to have brought some new anxieties.

Evidence of that comes by way of the latest edition of the Conference Board’s annual survey of global leaders about their biggest internal and external concerns. The biggest internal concern, according to a release about the study [PDF], is people.

“Regardless of a company’s location or size, attracting and retaining top talent ranks as the number-one internal stressor for CEOs and other C-suite executives globally in 2020,” according to the report.

The concern comes largely from a tight labor market, which gives good employees more opportunities to move on if you can’t give them a good reason to stay. (Though the top external concern among execs is a possible global recession, so the anxiety is cutting both ways.)

Attracting and retaining top talent ranks as the number-one internal stressor for CEOs.

But bubbling under that overarching concern about talent is a more specific one about what that talent ought to be doing. To wit: Responding to disruptive technologies and creating a more innovative work culture were the second and third most common concerns among leaders in the survey, suggesting a prevailing fear of getting one’s lunch eaten by automation and other forces.

The anxiety is no less acute for associations than anywhere else, of course. Indeed, it may be more so. Nonprofits struggle to compete with the private sector on salary and benefits, which makes hanging on to A-list talent difficult. And if a recession does come to pass, associations will need to be creative about generating new programs and sources of nondues revenue to offset a likely dropoff in membership and conference attendance.

The stress this causes may, I fear, prompt some executives to take an overly direct response. New ideas for nondues revenue on my desk by Monday! We need a big 10-year moonshot program! Everybody must innovate!

I confess that the idea of being asked to “innovate” all but makes me seize up, as if I’m being asked to look at my dog and somehow shazam it into a horse. This may speak to my lack of imagination, but I think it’s also a common concern in a lot of work environments, prompting staffs to come up with bad initiatives for the sake of coming up with something.

It may be better, then, not to press staff to “innovate” so much as steer conversations with them toward the future. Organizations aren’t great at that: Last spring a pair of Gallup researchers, Ben Wigert and Nate Dvorak, pointed out that the way organizations deliver feedback is flawed because they highlight shortcomings in employee’s past accomplishments instead of generating future-focused conversations.

“Great managers are always thinking about the next play, the next game and the next win,” they write. “They keep conversations focused on the future. What can we do to improve our chances of success next time? What would it look like to exceed our expectations? How can we prepare for the future?’”

You’ll note that these are not requests for specific proposals. Rather, they ask for a mindset change among staff, pushing them to be proactive about imagining improvements, which in turn can stoke the kind of brainstorming that generates meaningful and valuable ideas. Maybe even some innovative ones.

And remember: The thing that’s keeping a lot of executives up is retaining staff, and one thing that staffers find alienating is feedback. According to Gallup, barely a quarter (26 percent) of employees say that the feedback they receive helps them do better work, so plainly a lot of executives aren’t delivering feedback effectively. If executives are as worried about the future as the numbers say they are, they won’t start solving that problem by creating an environment that dwells on the past.

(sbayram/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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