HBR Sept/Oct 2021: Rebuilding your workforce

Harvard Business Review
Sept/Oct 2021
Annotated table of contents

1. Adi Ignatius, A debt of gratitude

Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of HBR, highlights the article on Moderna’s model of innovation and the contribution of vaccines to helping nearly three billion people so far withstand the pandemic.

Idea watch

2. HBR Team, Stop screening job candidates’ social media

Recent studies of the relevance of information self-disclosed on social media for hiring decisions recommend that it should be ignored. It is virtually impossible to safeguard the integrity of the hiring process, and meet basic legal requirements, such as excluding from consideration non-workplace behaviours and applying selection criteria consistently to all candidates, while reviewing such information. Assessors are inevitably swayed but inadvertent disclosures allowing the free play of unconscious bias and even discrimination. Moreover, even when companies have been using information from social media for recruitment purposes, this has not been a reliable predictor for performance on the job.

3. Juan Martinez, In entrepreneurial pitches, stage presence is everything

Martinez interviews UCL professor Chia-Jung Tsay about her research on how subjects predict funding decisions for entrepreneurs, based on viewing, listening to, or reading pitches, in several experiments. According to this study, participants who viewed silent videos came closest to matching the actual decisions taken by investors. This indicates that stage presence, especially body language and facial expressions, may be the best predictors of success in funding competitions. These are useful signals for passion, engagement and energy, qualities that are highly prized in entrepreneurs and taken as indications of a high-quality product and start-up.

4. Carol B. Tomé, the CEO of UPS, on taking the reins amid surging pandemic demand

Having served as a board member for 16 years, Tomé took on the role of CEO of UPS just as the pandemic hit in March 2020, and was presented with huge, unexpected pressures, including raising demand while looking after the health and wellbeing of the workforce. She describes the crucial activities – a two-day offsite for the leadership team to decide on key principles and priorities, decision-making structures, and top projects – that served to set the tone at the start. This resulted in important business outcomes, such as speeding up time in transit, expanding the customer base among SMEs, implementing technological upgrades to reduce the carbon footprint of the UPS fleet, and refocusing the crucial performance metrics. Active care for the workforce, including certain leadership appointments, the review of pay, the hiring of 100,000 temporary workers, as well as the development of new cold-chain distribution facilities have enabled UPS to make a significant contribution to combating the pandemic by taking a billion vaccine doses to clients world-wide.

Spotlight: Rebuilding your workforce

5. Michael Mankins, Eric Garton, and Dan Schwartz, Future-proofing your organization

Bain & Company consultants Mankins et al. distil their research on over 300 multinational companies based across the globe and working in a variety of sectors that stand out for their experience with building technology-enabled workforces, the new competitive advantage. According to this analysis, there are six important principles that spell out the likely impact of technology and best responses. These include understanding what new roles will become business-critical, what great looks like, and continuing to invest in managerial skills. Technological innovation will shape the HR function itself and superior engagement with new tech will be required of all employees. The emerging workforce will have greater expectations regarding control over their work, rules of engagement and levels of compensation; companies need to develop cultures that are in step with this.

6. Carol Fishman Cohen, Return-to-work programs come of age

Cohen, the CEO of iRelaunch, has had extensive direct experience of return-to-work programs for mid-career professionals. She notes the shift in opinion from penalising workers for taking career breaks to appreciating the fresh contributions and renewed motivation and commitment they could bring. Importantly, she discusses the elements of program design that can ensure successful recruitment and onboarding of those who return to old workplaces or are new hires, whether their involvement is project- or role-based, and recommends early training for all groups involved, those relaunching their careers, managers, and colleagues. As with other organisational programs, success will depend on several factors, including the quality of the executive champion, effective project management, tactful communications, and savvy engagement of all stakeholders.

7. Ryan W. Buell, Elevate employees, don’t eliminate them

Buell, a Harvard Business School professor, leverages his research on workforce motivation to create a post-Covid play-book for employers seeking to help employees generate greater value. Direct connection with customers at critical stages can improve outcomes to the point that customers become interested and willing to lend a hand and increase efficiencies. Further, employees should be allowed to define their roles to include opportunities to establish meaningful connections, to see directly the impact of their work on customers and to receive better compensation and improved scheduling rights.


8. Noubar Afeyan and Gary P. Pisano, What evolution can teach us about innovation

This article shows how Flagship Pioneering, the venture-creation firm behind Modern Therapeutics, has emulated the processes of natural evolution, including variance generation and selection. In their approach, new ideas are generated by prospecting in novel spaces, at unexpected intersections of fields of research in life sciences. Ideas are then developed into speculative conjectures regarding causality mechanisms and submitted to an equivalent of the selection process i.e., a relentless questioning of hypotheses. Deep expertise becomes the starting point for daring, imaginative solutions that are then weeded out through rigorous testing. Perhaps surprisingly, the experience of Flagship Pioneering has shown that patience in the testing of hypotheses pays off and, while precisely defined, hypotheses ought to address general, rather than specific problems.

9. Marco Bertini and Oded Koenigsberg, The pitfalls of pricing algorithms

The availability of real-time data on purchases and customer interest more broadly has been hailed as a major source of superior financial results for companies as they are able to adjust prices in response to variations in supply and demand. However, as Bertini and Koenigsberg show, allowing the free play of prices can create high levels of uncertainty and even distrust of companies, with damaging effects on their brands and reputations. In response, they suggest ways to consider the sensitivities and loyalty needs of customers and nurture long-term relationships. They find that it helps to have a use case and narrative that frames prices variations in terms of shared benefits; designate an algorithm owner who has accurate understanding of the customer segment most affected by price variations and can explain how it makes sense; set limits to price variations to keep them in a safe zone; and override algorithms when necessary.

10. Mark J. Greeven, Katherine Xin, and George S. Yip, How Chinese retailers are reinventing the customer journey

To a notable extent the mass market, consumer economy in China is born digital and this is clearly visible in the extent and depth of online commerce. This article shows how domestic vendors have optimised the customer journey offering some tips for Western companies seeking to compete in this market. For instance, Chinese vendors have created single entry points within closely integrated platforms and rely on pro-active product recommendations. Detailed customer reviews, highly opinionated, active influencers, using video communication, as well as easily available independent evaluations saturate the online commercial environment. Compared to the West, there is more insistence on linking online and off-line channels, offering continuous purchasing opportunities and engagement via chatbots. The delivery service is by and large superior, enabled by technology and a vast pool of gig workers. Moreover, there is a notable sense of closeness between retailers and customers, sustained by after-sales interactions and loyalty programs.

11. Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro, Don’t let power corrupt you

Battilana and Casciaro offer a useful reminder of the many pitfalls of occupying positions of power and influence for a long time. There is a real danger of losing perspective and growing inured to self-regard, as the assumption of being right becomes very nearly automatic and difficult to disrupt. To counteract these tendencies, the authors recommend that we engage in two sets of behaviours, cultivating humility and cultivating empathy, and spell out practical ways to implement these daily.

12. François Candelon, Rodolphe Charme di Carlo, Midas de Bondt, and Theodoros Evgeniou, AI regulation is coming

Candelon et al. note an important shift in the focus of discussions surrounding AI, from solving practical, technical and implementation problems, to scrutinising the ethical implications of how the data is used, challenging the opaque construction of algorithms and their tendency to amplify biases. To head off a public backlash against AI, business leaders are advised to examine openly how AI operates and the capacity of their organisations to govern it. In the process, they need to establish standards for transparency regarding the extent to which data and analysis back up any claims. Equally, they need to evolve standards about how AI learns and when it should stop evolving to stabilise the use of algorithms.

13. Francesca Gino and Katherine Coffman, Unconscious bias training that works

Behaviour is notoriously difficult to change, especially when entrenched patterns are sustained by unexamined assumptions and biases. But even when we have attained a certain level of self-awareness and reflection, further progress may not be forthcoming unless there is active, sustained engagement with underlying issues. In this article, Gino and Coffman draw on the large literature on personal and organizational change to suggest a series of techniques for managing biases and openly tracking and challenging concrete actions to build more inclusive models of behaviour. These include prejudice habit-breaking exercises, using reflection notebooks, continuously asking how a seemingly negative trait in others could be seen as an asset, exposure to counter stereotypical information, perspective taking and many more.

14. Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, The net positive manifesto

Polman and Winston embrace the premise that societies have legitimate, high expectations of businesses, as they are called upon to address the planetary challenges of our times, especially climate change. Having led and witnessed significant transformations in corporations towards a more environmentally friendly mission, they are keen to emphasize the upsides of such a shift: in the long term the only solid foundation for corporate success is the capacity to respond to genuine social needs. They also offer a roadmap for corporations seeking to become net positive, including taking ownership of all impacts, embracing criticism, and using their advocacy capabilities for the greater good.

15. David Simchi-Levi and Kris Timmermans, A simpler way to modernize your supply chain

Wholesale digitisation of supply-chain management is a complex, lengthy, and expensive process. But to get started, Simchi-Levi and Timmermans suggest more incremental changes that use to good effect current capabilities. They describe a toolkit for better weekly market demand forecast, weekly retailer forecasts, a supply plan that connects demand and available resources, and a monthly revenue and gross margin forecast at brand level, which is finally linked to the firm’s business objectives. Tested on a global fashion retailer, a large manufacturer of consumer packaged goods, a global appliance maker and a high-tech company producing PCs and workstations, this model may help companies tackle the considerable supply chain disruptions created by the pandemic.


16. Dorie Clark, Feeling stuck or stymied?

Overcoming moments of self-doubt, mustering the determination to keep going or gaining the clarity to change course are part and parcel of becoming successful over time, and this article provides a series of suggestions for doing just that. These are organised around the idea of strategic patience, recognising that we often underestimate how long it may take to achieve a particular goal. Instead of comparing ourselves with others, it is useful to compare our achievements at different points in time and celebrate the progress. Capabilities we now take for granted were once difficult to acquire and represent the result of a great deal of hard work. Aiming to be directionally correct gives us more flexibility in how we assess opportunities, and it helps increase our chances of achieving ultimate goals.

17. Anne Donnellon, Joshua D. Margolis, and Amy Gallo, Case study: Is this the right C-suite role?

This case-study of a managing director asked by her mentor, the CEO, to become CTO, considered a staff position, sets out some of the reasoning and analysis that go into making career choices at this level. The picture is further complicated by the points of view of a male competitor and a friendly female co-worker, while two female experts present their arguments for and against accepting this position.

18. Juan Martinez, Getting back to business

Retail is clearly among the sectors most challenged by the pandemic. The tension between online and brick-and-mortar channels is the focus of five books reviewed in this essay, proposing an imaginative integration that can combine the upsides of online efficiency and distinctive, even theatrical in-store experiences.

19. Alison Beard, Life’s work interview with Billy Jean King

Billy Jean King was the top female tennis player in the world, founded the Women’s Tennis association and triumphed over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. She has just published her memoir All In which documents her brilliant tennis career and activism. In her view, ‘pressure is a privilege’ and it is important to be intentional about change. “I am going to fight the good fight with my last breath, understand it, and learn from it”, she says.