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  • Writer's pictureBenoit Hardy-Vallée

28 - On the possible futures of work and leadership - a conversation with Dustin W. Seale

***We are very proud to announce that Abrupt Future was ranked no. 9 on that list of "Top Workforce Management Podcasts You Must Follow in 2021" by Feedspot***

Key Points

Dustin W. Seale is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and managing partner of Heidrick Consulting in Europe. He focuses on CEO and board advisory, specifically on improving leadership and talent, and transforming organizations through culture

Dustin built a model to think about the future of work around 2 vectors

  • (1) how quickly does the economy rebound from the disruption from the pandemics (from a prolonged recession to a quick rebound)

  • (2) social trust- how safe do we feel with one another? from a health and a social standpoint with the institutions we interact with. (from low social trust to high social trust)

  • Scenario 1: Digital enclaves – quick rebound and low social trust. Narrower digital spaces with people who think alike which starts to splinter organizations or countries or societies

  • Scenario 2: Tech-powered humanity - quick rebound, but high trust. A world in which the economy has come back and we have learned from the disruption and are leveraging technology in ways that we hadn't imagined. People value the face-to-face connection,

  • Scenario 3: Growing divide - prolonged recession and low trust creating division between the digital haves and the non-digital have nots, with less trust in our institutions and of one another.

  • Scenario 4: In this together - prolonged recession and high trust. A bumpy road for organizations and our economies, but people bind together to solve these challenges together. And there's a high level of connection in teams, in organizations and across society

The impact of the pandemics on C-suite leadership:

  • As a client CEO of Dustin said, everything is an educated guess. The world, going forward, is a series of disruptions and this is not going to calm down - labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, division in Western societies, etc.

  • For leaders in the C-suite two capacities are critical and interlinked. One is foresight, which is living in the future or potential futures and noticing the ripples, the changes that you're feeling from that future. The second is being comfortable with ambiguity, disruption and constant change. The leaders that are distinguishing themselves lean into it and see change and disruption not as a threat, but as an opportunity.

  • Heidrick & Struggles found that of all the expectations that employees have from their C-suite leaders only two (out of eight) have moved significantly - nearly two standard deviations.

  • Number one is purpose: not the purpose that organizations have plastered on their wall and refer to occasionally, but truly living and embodying a purpose of an organization beyond the profit, the positive impact on the world, helping every person in the organization to connect with the purpose. It is not a surprise, since the pandemic has highlighted that people want to be doing something bigger than just work.

  • The second is trust: “do I believe in you, do I believe in where you're taking us”, does the leaders’ actions and words match the need amongst people. That sense of trust moved considerably. Everything you need to do from the C-suite needs to match actions and words so that if someone is remote, they know you and trust you.

  • They also look at the key derailers in the C-suite. There are ten - seven of the top 10 all have to do with the ability to create clarity and prioritize, to do the right things. Leaders must be able to create clarity and help organizations prioritize money and energy

Heidrick & Struggles have been looking at the biggest differentiator for companies during the pandemic.

  • The biggest drivers of performance for organizations is collaboration and change.

  • Organizations that have outperformed through the pandemic have high levels of collaboration across organizational boundaries - within teams, but also across teams. They have a natural tendency towards collaboration that has to start at the top.

  • Change means changing the way we think, the way we engage, the way we work. We all need coaching. Every one of us. This means C-level executives, coaching each other, not just their people, and coaching upward to their CEO and to their board. That culture is going to be critical going forward.


The next generation joining the work world is the millennials and Gen Z.

  • We need to look at the world they grow up in. It's different from the one we grew up in. They've grown up in a world where the world is meeting their bespoke needs and their sense of self. Children nowadays have never grown up in a world where they didn't have a screen on which they could choose, which app they want, etc. Those apps created communities and access. They're building their digital life, which is a big part of how they interact with friends. Their expectations of leaders and the culture around them are going to be different

Currently, leadership’s impact on sustainability and inclusion is not inspiring.

  • Announcing sustainability targets for 2030, for instance, is relatively meaningless to most of the population, especially the leaders, all of which will be retired by then. You can have targets for that point in time but what is more important is what are you going to measure this next quarter? What are you going to change? What's going to happen in six months. What's going to happen in a year? The key is to get to that level of specificity around meeting those targets - it has to be broken down and it has to be turned into reality.

  • On inclusion: most organizations have woken up to the fact that diverse and inclusive organizations outperform. They also know that they could literally lose their license to trade if the face of the organization doesn't match their consumer or customer base. They can see that there are some existential threats if they don't tackle this problem.

  • They've tackled inclusion in two different directions, both of which are not bad, but incomplete. One is simply addressing representation, hiring people of different backgrounds so that the complexion of the organization looks different. The second is running training courses and helping people see unconscious biases to start to open the conversation. Billions has been spent on biases training and there's no evidence that it changes the level of inclusion.

  • We need to raise diversity and inclusion to a strategic priority, tied to the strategic ambitions of the organization to build that internal and external pipeline of talent. It requires a truly inclusive culture, a change in the way the organization works to make that new talent create a place where they will thrive and where you can actually get the best out of diversity to drive different outcomes

  • If you measure sales every single week and culture every couple of years, what do you think your organization thinks is important to you?

On hybrid work.

  • 90% of people are asking for flexibility. Historically the company-employee relationship has been parent-child and going forward it's an adult-to-adult relationship—transparent conversations, productive conflicts, getting different views out to make better decisions and come up with better solutions.

  • Collaboration is a habit and it needs to be reinforced and rewarded.

Heidrick & Struggles surveyed CEOs around the world and asked two questions. (1) which cultural elements are critical to your strategic ambition (2) which cultural elements are strongest in your organization; and was there a match between those two questions? The answer was, not a lot.

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