Hyper-transformation will increase the value of multi-disciplinary experience. Rapid business transformation has dissolved the traditional compartmentalization of roles, meaning having a deep but narrow experience of one particular function is far less important than having a deep and broad experience of effecting change. The people best equipped to cope with this change are ones who are able to network across teams and think beyond the confines of one particular role and skill-set. There are no longer jobs for life. The pace of change constantly accelerates, and the people who’ve experienced and driven change first-hand will be crucial to business success.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Jonny Crowe.
Jonny is an experienced transformation CEO and Chief Digital Officer who runs value creation advisory company Liminal Ventures. Until 2019 he was CEO of disruptive online car retailer cinch and Chief Digital Officer of leading European automotive company BCA Marketplace Plc. Before that he worked for leading PE firm Apax Partners, after serving as Interim CEO of Apax investment Wehkamp, the leading Dutch fashion and home online retail group.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
In more than twenty years of building, growing, leading, and buying high-growth digital companies, I’ve held multiple roles in many different industries: General Counsel, COO, Managing Director, Chief Digital Officer, CEO, across content media, online retail, automotive, and financial services. In those sectors, I’ve mostly run the whole business, but also frequently directly led marketing, sales, operations, product, or technology. Moving between different industries has given me a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes in different sectors and find out who gets business running right, and how.
One thing I always look out for is the company’s approach to training. I was a lawyer for seven years and during that time I had to continually train to even be allowed to practice. You aren’t allowed to do the job if you can’t demonstrate that you are on top of the law as it develops. Where else does that happen? For so many people, their formative years are spent learning and then as soon as they go out into the working world, everything becomes about doing, rather than learning. How can people be expected to get better, especially in an environment of accelerating change, if there’s no opportunity to improve? That realization has been a motivation for me to put continuous personal and professional development at the heart of every organization I’m part of.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
These trends, and the headlines they inspire, are very real phenomena. 4.3 million people quit their jobs in the US in January, the eighth straight month with more than 4 million workers walking out of their jobs. But we need to stop seeing the pandemic as the cause of this mass walkout, and stop using it as a convenient excuse for our staff leaving us. The ‘Great Resignation’ isn’t a Covid side effect; it’s the overdue outcome of a failure to invest in people.
Over two decades,, I’ve seen too many companies fail to understand the importance of personnel development or go about it the wrong way. This long-term negligence created a huge stored problem, which was bubbling under the surface until bam! — employees were forced to reevaluate their lives while confined to their homes, where they realized their employers had quit on them a long time ago. If there’s something companies need to take away, it’s that they need to stop searching for external factors to explain crises of their own making. Training is a cultural cornerstone and, for leaders, culture is one of the highest-leverage things they can directly influence.
So what advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Organizations have to start seeing the value in training. There’s a really old joke I use to sum the problem up, where a CFO says to the CEO, “what if we invest in training our people and they leave?” And the CEO says, “what if we don’t and they stay??”
We need a change of mindset — and fast. We need to see training as a necessary part of working life and develop approaches to make the most of it. No more separating it out and leaving it to HR. Learning needs to be part of company culture and company values, weaved into everyday practice — so it becomes a priority for staff and management alike.
As well as providing those need-to-have skills for staff, a more engaged approach to training delivers further benefits; maximizing communication, increasing IP, increasing value — and attracting and retaining talent too.
Managers often think they are ‘too busy to do training’. Imagine you developed some knowledge that could increase productivity by 10% or decrease waste by the same amount. How could spending a day preparing a PowerPoint and 4 lunchtimes sharing it with your colleagues ever not be worth the time investment?
Once you make training culturally important, celebrate those who train as thought leaders, and get everyone to see ‘being a trainer’ as a badge of honor, you find that communication flows fast and your workplace becomes an activist community. This has to be led from the front — everyone should train, including the boss.
What changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
Once business leaders accept the value of training, they then need to adapt their approach. There are practical steps companies can take to establish a training culture. My approach is to build ‘learning platforms’ that exist within companies. These are internal platforms, cultural institutions with proper frameworks, that encourage everyone to train — and give them the opportunities to do so — containing ways everyone can feel the benefits of other’s training.
To set them up and make them effective, treat these ‘learning platforms’ like a product release. That means first obtaining cultural permission — i.e. getting the green light from the working community to launch the ‘learning platform’ and bring together like-minded people from across the business who will help you run it. These won’t just be people from HR, or the leadership team — they should be the people from all across the business (including the most senior leadership) who can help you get it right. Also, just like a product, you should gather data, understand your customers and continually, ruthlessly improve the platform. Branding your learning platform in a way that helps staff understand your concept is the next step before you nail down the process, structure, and responsibilities of those involved. Combining active sponsorship at the highest level with grassroots activism across the whole company is essential.
For example, we set up what we called the ‘Learn Something Different’ platform in a previous company. This was a regular get-together, often at a defined time and place — with compulsory pizza — where staff would present to wider teams something they’d learned in their jobs. They could also use it to explain what their job involves, or pitch a private beta of a forthcoming product launch. We would invite ‘special guests’ from other parts of the group and beyond to come and talk and meet with us in short but regular sessions, even recruiting ‘roving reporters’ to dial in by video, doing walkabouts in far-flung locations. Like all good habits, it requires some effort to get it going and real persistence to keep it meaningful, but it’s a huge amount of fun and really powerful.
Our set-up killed the idea that training was something that “just happened”. Different people contributed at different points — with their input requirements clearly defined — and in the end, everyone benefited from each other’s learning exercise. As a leader, your responsibility is to give it the permission and momentum to succeed, to lead by example in doing training yourself and, sometimes most importantly, to remove obstacles, often even just paying for the pizza or asking the first question in a Q&A when everyone else is still finding the courage.
Are you optimistic about this happening more widely?
I’m seeing more companies adopt this kind of approach, which is positive because there is a tonne of added benefits. It encourages staff to learn beyond just their own function, enabling the kind of multidisciplinary experience that is invaluable in a world of work that is being disrupted by hyper-transformation and that demands people able to network across teams and think beyond the confines of one particular role and skill-set.
It’s also a regular outlet for staff to communicate with each other about what they’re working on, publicize the challenges they face, and ask for help. Stronger communication breeds trust between teams, trust that will enable those teams to move faster on projects together.
Personally, I think this approach to training gives me the most optimism because it’s going to help make training more effective in the future. Employees have the chance to consolidate their knowledge because they have to ‘teach’ it to others — to quote the great Richard Feynman, “if you want to master something, teach it”. In pulling together the blog, presentation, or handout that they’ll share through the learning platform, they have the chance to consider what from their learning experience really stuck, and what they need to go over again.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce, and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
The last couple of years has, understandably, been all about remote and hybrid working, and how digital technology can support that — answering questions like, how do we establish a more immediate connection? What are the best connective platforms?
At the forefront, we’re already seeing the first fully-remote first, asynchronous workplaces, that already understand that the heavy investment in real estate, office hours, and facetime, were less important to productivity, creativity, and general business than they had previously believed.
These are places that are posting job openings that won’t specify where the role is based, who have no ‘in person’ requirements, because they’ve realized prioritizing attracting, developing, and retaining talent will lead to faster growth.
I expect that, on the whole, people will go back to offices but they will see them truly differently; as hubs for ad hoc and serendipitous meetings, all-hands get-togethers and ‘brown-paper sessions’; not a place they clock on and clock off.
These are the start of irreversible trends — what’s up in the air is which of these trends becomes ‘the norm’ first.
How will this experience influence the future of work?
Working from home provided the constraints we all need sometimes to be creative. Before 2020, plenty of people were guilty of saying “there’s no way we can have an entirely remote workforce”, or in my industry of e-commerce, “there’s no way that people are ever gonna buy cars fully online”. And yet, here we are.
It’s been good to see companies let go of feeling they need at least some physical presence in an office for everyone, all the time. We’re seeing businesses get better at avoiding that horrible situation where six or seven people are in a room with a big TV, with another four people dialing in. They’re realizing people are more comfortable if they’re all allowed to be a part of meetings remotely, even if some of them are physically in the office. In my book you have everyone in the room, where they can all see each other’s eyes and body language and you get the benefit of in-person communication, or you have nobody in the room. The blended alternative is actually the worst of all worlds and that’s something a lot of companies are wrestling with right now. The best I’ve seen is ‘remote-first’ where you enable everyone to be ‘remote’ even if they’re in the office. It requires considerable thought and time investment but repays incredibly. GitLabs are a great example of a company doing this really well.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
One of the advantages of being able to offer remote working is that it takes away so many of the barriers to entry for a lot of people with physical, mental health, economic or geographic constraints. If the base level requirements for work are reduced to just broadband access and an entry-level device, then that opens doors for more people from more backgrounds to enter the workplace. This benefits those people in terms of finding work and strengthens companies because greater diversity of employees with a wider range of experiences will drive the company forward.
That’s not to say it’s all straightforward. Like all new technologies and new ways of working, there’s an adoption curve and challenges along the way. For example, at the start of the pandemic, remote working left some overworked and some feeling isolated. Companies will have to figure out how to deal with those things along the way.
Whatever the progression, I hope managers are deliberate and conscious in their actions. Don’t just let the change happen — if you decide fully remote is the route you’re going to take, make sure you have a roadmap, make sure your people have a platform on which they can meet and talk about things that are not to do with work, for example. Understand the value of ‘single version of the truth’ and documentation, which are so much more important in remote and hybrid work. That’s really the core of my business philosophy. Good business is often about relatively easy, straightforward stuff that often gets overlooked — whether that’s training or communication, or learning how to be a good manager.
Mental health is drastically overlooked and poorly understood in the workplace. In many business cultures it’s still treated like a taboo. If your colleague’s arm was in a cast, you’d walk over and ask them what happened. People still aren’t given what they need to support their colleagues’ mental health in a similar way. We can begin to tackle this by talking about it, by training and appointing mental health first-aiders, by celebrating Mental Health Awareness Week (9–15 May this year in the UK, 2–8 October in the US) and by weaving mental health topics into our training platforms.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
I’ll give you two that I’m really focused on at the moment.
- “The war for talent is over. The talent won”. It’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s a trend that’s going to continue as employees realize the leverage they have over employers — see the panic caused by the ‘great resignation’ as proof of this. Companies will have to deal with this by giving employees more of what they need — whether that’s letting them choose how they engage with work, or how they learn and develop in their role — all of which should be a no-brainer, as developing your people can only help your business. In a world where specific skills are increasingly valuable, a power shift is unavoidable.
- Hyper-transformation will increase the value of multi-disciplinary experience. Rapid business transformation has dissolved the traditional compartmentalization of roles, meaning having a deep but narrow experience of one particular function is far less important than having a deep and broad experience of effecting change. The people best equipped to cope with this change are ones who are able to network across teams and think beyond the confines of one particular role and skill-set. There are no longer jobs for life. The pace of change constantly accelerates, and the people who’ve experienced and driven change first-hand will be crucial to business success.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
When it comes to training, I always go by this: “If you really want to know whether you’ve understood something, explain it to someone who has no knowledge of the subject.” It’s an adaptation of a perhaps apocryphal Albert Einstein quote: “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself”.
You can use the way they understand what you’ve said, and the questions they’ve asked, to improve your own understanding of the subject, and finesse the way you present the key information.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I read a lot and really appreciate great communicators. One of my go-to authors is Ben Horowitz, who I think is one of the smartest writers on how to build great businesses, as well as being a successful CEO and VC and contributing to society in so many ways. Another slightly left-field option would be Howard Marks, founder of Oak Tree Capital. He takes a big picture approach to investment, and I really like how he puts out regular memos to all of Oak Tree’s investors to share his thinking on the world and its markets. Again, it shows great communication — reminds you of Alexander Pope: “What was oft thought but ne’er so well expressed”.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
Check out my LinkedIn here.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.