Today’s CEO must also be a chief talent officer
In 2021, an unprecedented 47.8 million people in the United States quit their jobs. The Great Resignation has prompted organizations across the country to double down on efforts to attract and retain talent and build work experiences that put the workforce at the center.
More and more CEOs understand that they can’t let talent matters take their own course. They need to be intentional and visibly at the forefront of efforts to empower people, help effect change in areas that matter to them—from racial and social justice to well-being in the workplace—and ensure that direct reports, leaders, and managers down the chain take these issues to heart and act on them.
That further requires a commitment by the CEO to know the organization in all its facets, notably its culture, especially from the perspective of people at all levels—from the boardroom to the at-home office. That demands much more than being able to cite traditional KPIs. It requires finding new and more agile ways to measure and understand what employees need so they will feel supported and empowered.
That’s because, whether we want to recognize it or not, employee sentiment is the new primary KPI. It’s realities like these that lead me to one clear conclusion: Today’s CEO must be first and foremost a CTO, a chief talent officer.
All the ongoing uncertainty and turmoil—social, economic, public health, and personal—has accelerated not just the pace of that trend but also its nature. Traditionally, most CEOs focused their attention on investors, strategies, boards, and the like. The concept of people was often a delegated responsibility overseen by the human relations department. Now, those once ancillary thoughts are smack in the center: talent, culture, employee expectations, and company-employee relations. Historically, people were just part of the strategy. Today, people are the strategy.
What can a CEO do? Beyond acquiring a thorough understanding of the dynamics of how other leading companies are thinking about talent, strategy, and the future, I see three key elements:
Put talent on the front burner. Be attentive to the explicit, and sometimes implicit, needs of your workforce. This requires your executive team to actively listen to a variety of voices in the organization and continuously recalibrate priorities as they implement the talent strategy. And then be ready to modify (again) as circumstances and needs evolve and change. Above all, be prepared to experiment and be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is often inaccurately associated with weakness. But being vulnerable is not a show of weakness. On the contrary, being open and vulnerable gives us an opportunity to inspire authenticity, to develop meaningful relationships, and increase trust in a profound way. It means being willing to admit that leadership does not have readily packaged answers to all the queries, concerns, and challenges it faces. And vulnerability can foster innovation at all levels and enable the sharing of new ideas and practices.
Start the difficult conversations by asking questions and listening. It’s tough sometimes. You need to clearly convey your vision of company culture and invite diverse and dissenting perspectives into the discussion—across race, gender, sexual orientation, as well as personal goals and ambitions. People are seeking tangible evidence that the organization they work for wants them to thrive; that it cares about their personal as well as professional needs—from career development to mental health.
We have to gear up to view company-employee relations less as a tug of war and instead as delivering an experience, one that creates the best outcomes for all. Given all that we are learning about the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” in what may well be an ongoing tight labor market and pipeline, it’s even more important to make people feel that the organization is a place they can thrive and be themselves—a place they want to stay and feel heard.
If we commit and connect, in the end we’ll shape the right culture for our organization to drive our strategy and, ultimately, grow. Nothing beats culture. Now more than ever, our corporate cultures need to focus on the workforce of the future and the future of work. Let’s challenge ourselves and our leadership teams across the company to think about how we are investing in our people.
Are we thinking about unconventional approaches to hiring and forging our workforce, in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion and also in education? Are we providing people with varied and hybrid work solutions to manage increasing complex personal and professional lives? Are we meeting our people’s expectations for a predictable and flexible work arrangement? Are we creating a genuinely inclusive culture so that all voices are heard and respected and our people can connect with clients and colleagues?
Finally, are we thinking about the future in monetary and non-monetary terms? In other words, are we creating new opportunities for our people so they engage with us for the long-term?
Let’s remember to recognize that our people are the root of our company’s success. Let’s renew our bond with them to rebuild and refresh optimism and hope, even in the face of challenging times. And as CEOs, let’s put them at the center of our organization and reassure them that their colleagues, from the C-suite to a home office in an undisclosed location, have their backs, and have their future in mind.
Lara Abrash is chair and CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP. Deloitte is a partner of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit.
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