Are you looking for a trend in essential job skills for the coming years? Then CEOs are one group to watch.  A recent IBM report cited strengths related to innovation – specifically creativity and collaboration – as critical for the ‘Future Proof Employee.’  IBM’s bi-annual CEO survey interviews over 1500 CEOs from around the world in a wide range of industries.  Year over year trends in this survey deserve respect.  So do the conclusions of Tony Wagner, an Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard. He’s just published a fifth book on this topic.

Whether your job is to develop your organization’s workforce, or you are just looking out for own job security, this matters to you.

New York Times columnist and bestselling business author Thomas Friedman (you probably remember his smash hit, The World is Flat) interviewed Tony Wagner for a recent column.  Like IBM, Wagner has also interviewed CEOs.  His goal is to learn how our education system can serve the needs of future employers.

Wagner’s conclusions are that academic knowledge will take a back seat to innovation skills. Friedman quotes him this way. “The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’”

That lines up pretty well with results of the 2010 and 2012 IBM CEO surveys.  The 2012 CEO Study recognizes the effect of a rapidly changing work environment under the heading of The Future Proof Employee.  To quote the study: “CEOs consistently highlight four personal characteristics most critical for employees’ future success: being collaborative, communicative, creative and flexible… The challenge has historically been a shortage of particular skills. But today, it’s virtually impossible for CEOs to find the future skills they will need — because they don’t yet exist.  Bombarded by change, most organizations simply cannot envision the functional capabilities needed two or three years from now.”

The 2010 CEO Study emphasizes creativity as well, but specifically for CEOs.  “Asked to prioritize the three most important leadership qualities in the new economic environment, creativity was the one they selected more than any other choice.“ Integrity and global thinking were second and third.

IBM also surveyed Chief HR Officers from 700 organizations. These CHRO’s must have been listening to their bosses, because a top priority for them is “cultivating creative leaders.”   Again, the driving force behind the need for creativity is a constantly changing business environment.  Their dilemma is that they aren’t sure how to do that. 

I’ll take some credit for calling out this trend over the past two years.  When the only constant is change, the ability to lead change that delivers value is the most enduring strength. 

But I will also disagree with the CEOs and CHROs on two points. 

First, these aren’t just the job skills of the future; they are the skill set for today.  The economic turbulence of the past five years has touched organizations in every sector of the economy – for profit or non-profit – including a new group: federal workers on furlough thanks to the sequester. Every organization has been forced to rely on creativity to navigate the Great Recession.

Second, we CAN build the strengths to create and collaborate and be flexible.  Thirty years ago the U.S. economy was learning something new about quality, continuous improvement, and a process orientation. Those lessons went deep into our organizations.  The principles of creativity, stakeholder engagement, and risk taking can also be taught and learned. That is exactly what we teach every day for our clients.

With all due respect, I would add another set of strengths to the Future Proof EmployeeExecution, the ability to quickly and effectively put a new idea into action so we achieve results as soon as possible. But of course I’m biased, because project management is the discipline of execution.

Of course there is also a danger to this discussion.  I happened to show Tony Wagner’s book, The Achievement Gap, to my seventeen year-old son.  Since he’s heading to college before long, I thought he might appreciate the insights on what really matters in the workplace.  His response? “It made me wonder why I am studying hard in my organic chemistry and English classes.” And what about the college degrees that were most likely to help land a job for the class of 2013? Still those that include the words ‘computer’ and ‘engineering.’  Let’s be realistic. Majoring in creativity, collaboration, and flexibility is not a recommendation.

What I think we can all agree on is the increasing need to develop the enduring strengths.  Tony Wagner, Thomas Friedman, and the 1500+ CEOs are telling us the same thing: The 21st Century workforce will face a steady need to solve new problems and adapt to new circumstances.  No industry will be immune.  Whether you want to be the ‘Future Proof Employee’ or be her employer, include the strengths to innovate in your development plans.


Brandon Bretl

re: CEOs Want a Future Proof Employee. Are You Ready?

Thursday, April 25, 2013 11:59:06 AM

Great article.  You nailed the "Future-Proof" skill set and are right on the money that "When the only constant is change, the ability to lead change that delivers value is the most enduring strength".  But what really interests me is your son's insight into why he may or may not want to study hard in a class that doesn't directly relate to one of the skills in this set; it made me think about how it applies in the workplace.  I began to imagine an employee with ONLY the Future-Proof skill set and nothing else of notable value to offer my company and I asked myself who would train this person to be useful?  Me?  One of my staff?  Should I just let him wander around "being flexible and cooperative" until he finds a way to be useful?  Do I setup an internal training department to train all these flexible and cooperative Future Proof employees? If so, at who's expense...mine or the employees?

That's when your article started to really open a window for me into the larger picture of how high performing employers, educators and job seekers of the future may separate themselves from the pack systemically.  Imagine high performing employers seeking out the Future-Proof employers they want on their team and then working with educational professionals (or hiring them?) to develop a non-degree based training structure to quickly and completely train them in company specifics.  Whatever costs are associated are negotiated between the employer and employee and could potentially be "borrowed" from the employer and paid back on an agreed upon schedule.  Or reduced as a function of meeting performance based objectives?  Wow!  We've got a lot to think about :)

Eric Verzuh

re: CEOs Want a Future Proof Employee. Are You Ready?

Monday, April 29, 2013 3:26:04 PM


You are demonstrating some forward thinking!  The idea of getting trained in company-specific content reminds me of two stories:

  1. I graduated from college with a degree in Business Management and was hired by Electronic Data Systems. Their attitude was that they hired young graduates for personality characteristics that indicated they'd be good employees, then taught them the technical skills necessary to do business IT. It was a great place to begin.
  2. When I traveled to Nigeria o business I noticed that some of the basic craftsmanship in buildings was not to the standard that we enjoy in the U.S.  I am talking about a new hotel in the nation's capital.  I found out that they don't have unions, so there is no place to be an apprentice carpenter, for example.  Unions have provided job-specific careers paths for certain vocational industries in the U.S.  But they were perceived only as a political organization by my colleagues in Nigeria. 

Grabbing the bottom rung of the career ladder seems to be getting more and more difficult. As you point out, that is an opportunity for employers.


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