Let Go, Learn Fast and Thrive with Heather McGowan
Sherry: Tell me about the factors that influenced your “Futures” worldview.
Heather: It all started with my education early on at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a private art and design school. RISD is known for teaching students to question the question as rigorously as searching for the solution. I learned and thrived in the comfort of wide open ambiguity and uncertainty. Later on, I went in an entirely different direction and got my MBA at Babson’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, known as the best school for a focus in entrepreneurship. This served me well as I made my first step into product design and branding.
Known as someone who reframes challenges in a compelling way, I was asked to work with the President of Philadelphia University (now merged and part of Jefferson University) to re-imagine and design a unique, interdisciplinary College of Design, Engineering and Commerce for 18 different undergraduate majors representing more than half the university. It was an early dive into reframing challenges so that faculty and staff could see their way to engage in building a new future. Then, I was asked to be an advisor to the president of another academic institution to best prepare students to meet the Future of Work. In this role, I was the architect of the Agile Mindset concept and built a foundation and curriculum for approaching careers in a new way. Our goal was to move students from understanding their identity as linear (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”) to something more open and continuous; a purpose-driven path where they would define themselves, their skillsets, and their interests beyond just a job title. The reality is most students graduating today will have 16-17 different jobs across 5 or more industries so it is very important to help them navigate between jobs rather than focus on any singular role.
SB: How did you see the impact of this work?
Heather: In many ways, early on, it was more effective for faculty than students. We were teaching faculty to think differently about conversations with their students and have them see a process in their life where experimentation would be embraced. This was very important as faculty are products of an earlier paradigm where finding the right answer, or simply their first job, was highly valued. Today, finding the right question to pursue is of greater significance as is the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing job market.
This is a difficult shift for us all to make. Even in my recent conversations with faculty, many are still myopically focused on their desire to deliver students a good starting salary. The career arc is longer due to advances in human longevity while it is more volatile due to accelerated change so a focus on simply the starting salary of the first of many jobs is far too short sighted. Curating curiosity, purpose and passion takes time and gives students and faculty the adaptation advantage.
SB: How has Covid changed your focus now?
Heather: This year was originally planned to focus on the book launch for The Adaptation Advantage with a packed calendar of planned speaking engagements and conferences. You can imagine how that changed. Some events have transformed to virtual talks while others have postponed until 2021 and many are emerging with new requests for help as to how to wrap their brain around how Covid is rapidly reshaping work. Our clients in HR, learning and development, and senior executives across industry are dealing with the unknown of what is next. The silver lining that I see is that this forced social experiment of all online learning, virtual teams and a distributed workforce have forced us all to adapt very, very quickly, which we did. I remind folks that inside of two weeks we changed who works, where we work, how we work, and what we do from remapping supply chains to pivoting product lines to managers and leaders focusing on building trust and psychological safety.
SB: How is this current situation adjusting your worldview?
Heather: Some of it is to learn how we engage as the economy unfreezes. There are obviously different parts of the economy that thrive in this new normal, while others are seriously impacted such as restaurants, movies, tourism, and travel. There is not one singular future and I don’t think we are going to go back to the way it was. We are learning that online works. Remote work is effective and good for the environment. It will be an additive process of change and virtual work will remain a key part of the path forward. The really interesting question for companies that were able to continue operating once rapidly transforming to a virtual company is: “Why gather face to face?” “What are our goals for in person work?”. Instead of figuring out a way to "return" to 2019, we should instead be asking what is requiring a return to working in person? How can we design our spaces and interactions to achieve this goals instead of retrofitting the past?
SB: What feels different about this intense change going on across this nation and the world (Covid, Virtual Work, Protests, etc.)?
Heather: Patterns of where we work and live may have the very real potential to recast settlement patterns. We have been steadily moving towards denser and denser megacities. That may now reverse with the potential to revive secondary cities and rethink rural life. Questions will be asked about whether office space is needed? And if so, how much? A workforce that was once centered, here in NY for instance, may move to other areas. Geographic location will be less important. The changes we are going through engage a broader group and they’re global because if you employee does not need to be in NYC right now, does it matter where in the world they are? In times of tumultuous change, we need a touchstone of common purpose. Companies are coming out with clear and honest statements about their values. We see CEO’s living up to their values and changing the conversation as evidenced by the business roundtable’s declaration last summer that the purpose of a business is bigger than generating shareholder value and must include employee value and experience, community value, environmental commitments, etc. Consumers are paying close attention to how big companies are treating their employees as well as their smaller business partners. This is an incredible brand moment for them.
This feels different and is engaging a broader group – companies are coming out to be clear and honest about their values. There is an opportunity for them to live up to the conversation and take actions rather than shrink back.
There have been rumblings related to economic inequity, racial gaps and more for a very long time – we know the importance of having the inside of your company look like your customer as greater diversity of all kinds brings better outcomes. I grew up in an interracial family and this awareness and the resulting dialogue have been optimistic and hopeful. In the third section of my book we talk about teams and the accelerated learning which builds strategic advantage. The conversations we are having now open us up to greater cognitive diversity and psychological safety in our teams.
SB: As you reflect on the future, what would you say to the 2020 college graduates?
Heather: Your first job may be harder to find, but the process of finding it will serve you well throughout your career. You will learn how to adapt and create value in this experience. You will have first-hand experience in what it means to take responsibility for your learning and adaptation, which is your greatest competitive advantage.
The Gen X and Boomers who have lost their job will have a tougher time looking for their next role and get grounded in a new identity. I feel the experience of hardship prepares you for a better future whether you are an early career professional or Boomer. For boomers and Gen X who are going through their first job loss or involuntary change right now it may be very difficult.
I would also say to this new graduate, that we recognize this has been and will continue to be hard. We should have done better for you especially in pandemic preparedness, climate change mitigation, addressing income inequality, and finally dismantling structural racial and poverty barriers, but the resilience you are building throughout this process will strengthen and get you through. This is the third existential threat of our lifetime – climate change, income equality and now the pandemic. There is no question that this will challenge us to imagine a future that isn’t currently clear. I talk about this in the book and feel positive that those who resist looking in the rearview mirror and optimize for risk taking will learn faster and thrive in the future. The first line in my book is a quote from psychologist Dan Gilbert who says: “Human beings are a work in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.” I think that is especially true right now as we move from response and recover and into the reimagine phase of post covid lockdown.
More about Heather McGowan
Future-of-work strategist Heather E. McGowan helps leaders prepare their people and organizations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Third Industrial Revolution was marked by computerization and automation of physical labor, laying the foundation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will be notable for the rapid advancement of technology tools into the domain of human knowledge work. In this world, humans must continuously learn and adapt, and with this transition comes information overload.
McGowan’s academic work has included roles at Rhode Island School of Design, Becker College, and Jefferson University, where she was the strategic architect of the first undergraduate college focused exclusively on innovation. Heather advises and gives keynote addresses for organizations all over the world and, with her colleagues, provides bespoke consulting to help organizations adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.