Business leaders will care less about being popular — managerial courage seems to be in shortage.

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 Samer Saab.

Samer Saab is the founder and CEO of Explorance, a leading provider of People Insight solutions. Founded in 2003, Explorance focuses on where people experiences converge with talent effectiveness, supporting the professional journey of purpose, growth, and impact of more than 20 million employees and students. Headquartered in Montreal with business units in Chicago, Chennai, Melbourne, Amman, and London, Explorance works with 25% of the Fortune 100 companies and the world’s top Higher Education institutions.

Before founding Explorance, Samer spent 10 years in the technology industry where he developed a broad perspective on leadership through various roles in diverse organizations, including Bombardier, Nortel, Sycamore Networks, and Nakisa. Through the lens of these experiences, Samer built a company that was organic, people-centric, and guided by leadership principles that looked beyond short-term achievements to a sustainable future.

He has led Explorance through two decades of growth and innovation with a mission of providing benefit to the larger society. Today, Samer participates in a wide range of philanthropic activities that focus on his two passions: entrepreneurship and lifelong learning. He provides grants and endowments, and acts as a mentor. Samer also sits on the Foundation Montréal Inc. Board of Directors, International Advisory Board for the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University and is a member of Quebec’s Regional Development Committee.

Samer holds a degree in Engineering and an MBA from McGill University.

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?

A life experience that deeply shaped much of my personal and business agility, resilience, and reflexes is one that also defined my youth: the Lebanese war. I experienced it firsthand, throughout its entirety from ages 5 to 20. In times of war, the only thing we can count on is today, as it is often that tomorrow brings a lot of chaos, and change. At war, one often becomes instinctively survivalist, and opportunistic, developing a sense of anti-fragility. Anti-fragility is what, I believe, set apart, those businesses that found their way to thrive during the disruption brought our way by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another life experience that paved the way for my entrepreneurship story, is when I thought I lost everything after the early 2000s bubble burst. I had just been let go from my last bubble-induced high-paying job and had to move back to Montreal with very little to show from my startups’ adventure. In desperation, I took a job in a small software company at less than a quarter of the last pay I had. But somehow, I found myself happier when Mondays came than I was on Fridays. It took me time to realize that this was because for the first time in my career, I had taken on a role that offered me a stronger sense of purpose. I was able to feel the difference I was making. I did not care much about how my manager treated me. I did not care much about my level of pay. I did not care much about what others were doing. All I cared about at that time was to realize the full extent of my capabilities: how great can Samer be? This is the experience that gave me the self-confidence and belief I needed to make one of the most significant leaps of faith in my productive life: to drop everything, risk it all, and invest the next 20+ years of my life in building, shaping, and leading Explorance.

Building off my previous life experiences, I learned that the journey to success matters a lot. To be happy and useful, those involved in a company need to do things that they believe in and are empowered by. While the outcome of work can be money, financial gain shouldn’t be the only end goal. You also need to enjoy the journey and opportunities to learn and sharpen skills that come along as well.

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?

Since the inception of Explorance, I have aspired to build a company where the ends never justify the means; a place where employees, customers, suppliers, and community all came together with a shared sense of purpose to make something happen. I chose to emphasize employee engagement and empowerment by instilling, early on, a strong culture of trust and reciprocity. We quickly became a community of passionate adults that are willing, and able, to improve continuously. Together, we eliminated the need for administrative management overhead, and HR rules, policies, and guidelines.

Nowadays, we live in a world of talent scarcity, and rising global competition, which has fast shifted the balance of power between employer and employee. This shift has forced companies to course correct, and in many cases to overcorrect, from performance-based to happiness-first cultures. The COVID pandemic, though perceived by many to have brought disruption to the workplace, has only accelerated the inevitable.

We live now in a highly competitive global community of employers that often compete for the same talent, and business. The current pandemic, and socio-economic/political landscape, are representations of the fast-changing times we live in. I predict that over the next 10–15 years, we will continue to witness the evolution of virtual connectivity in the workplace allowing organizations to tap into the global talent pool. We will also continue to witness the democratization and empowerment of teams, via trust, diversity, and inclusion. Agile teams will be engines for survival, innovation, and swift transformation, that companies need to navigate and adapt to constant winds of change.

The current state of HR may be more harmful today than it may be helpful. Leaders seem to be excessively obsessed with augmenting their talent pools, and their retention strategies, at the expense of decreased overall business effectiveness. We may have forgotten that our employees, first and foremost, need to develop a strong sense of purpose, have ample opportunity for growth, and make a difference. They must feel, and be, measurably useful to be truly happy in the workplace.

I predict that the thriving companies of tomorrow are the ones that find the perfect balance in distance vs. presence, experience vs. effectiveness, and diversity of thought vs. consistency in purpose. Furthermore, they will succeed to instill (or re-instill) the notion of reciprocity in their relationship with their employees. This can be supported via a solid investment in their employees through education and development, and the implementation of robust listening strategies where everyone sees their rich and diverse ideas translated into organization-wide change or innovation.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

Offer a differentiated culture, develop a growth mindset, and give aggressive targets across all areas of your business. I have found that there is a correlation between the inputs and outputs of an organization. Appreciating and making the most out of those around you will help cultivate the same attitude amongst those people. Your biggest assets are your employees. Those who will thrive and stay for the long-term are the ones who understand and exhibit a common interest in their organization. Employers who optimize an organization’s sense of purpose, inclusion and capability will come out on top.

One important idea to keep in mind is the necessity of ongoing growth and development. Reskilling, upskilling, practice and learning can take many shapes and forms. It may support keeping tech skills sharp or helping team members grow into management roles. But at the heart of all learning is the need to ensure that it is useful for the business, useful for personal growth and being implemented into daily operations. Employers have a role to play in supporting learning, unlearning, and creating an agile environment for those times you must do more with less or react to situations out of your control.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

In recent years, there has been a shift, giving more power to employees. The COVID pandemic put every company into survival mode for a time and fundamentally changed the way work is done across many industries. Leaders continue to experiment with different pandemic induced workforce models. Many are raving about the effectiveness of a fully remote, or hybrid, workforce. Others are reminiscing about the intangible power of connection, collaboration, and innovation that an at-the-office culture brought to the table. And a few are further experimenting with augmented benefits such as shorter work weeks, more perks, and unlimited PTO.

A key notion that has emerged is that many employees will no longer sacrifice everything for their company. Nobody wants to work in forced ways and rigid environments that don’t match their passion and expectations. Employees are trying to rebalance the demands on their personal time with their contributions to their jobs. This has been a time for new self-discovery, and many are asking themselves questions about their purpose in career advancement. While in the past, jobs were seen as just places to go and make money, now it’s not just about financial gain, but also about a more meaningful calling for impact on oneself and the world around you. That quest for self-discovery, that life course-correction, in my opinion is most possibly the biggest driver for The Great Resignation.

The average person spends about a third of their productive life working. Don’t they owe it to themselves to make sure that time is a meaningful experience? And when it is truly a meaningful experience, it won’t seem like work.

I have a deep passion for watching and playing soccer. You will never catch me complaining about a 2-hour total commute to a playing field, just for a 45-minute game. Even when I play poorly, or when I don’t enjoy my game, it still has meaning for me. Ironically, I even pay to play, renting time on a field and playing in a league.

This sums up the actual challenge that organizations face and will continue to face. This is the main gap between employer and employee that needs to be bridged. Let us make work more meaningful. Let us make work more valuable. Let us make work a great place to grow. And everyone will make the effort to be wherever “there” needs to be to contribute to the collective best.

To help employees find their purpose in making a living, employers need to strengthen their sense of differentiated culture. They need to dive into their organization and find a common sense of purpose and fit that will inspire their employees. If employers offer fair compensation, and build upon that with passion, growth, and outcomes, the rest follows naturally.

No leader has a crystal ball. Nobody today knows what “way of work” is best. But we all can agree that if work mattered deeply for an employee, the “way of work” would matter much less to them. Companies that successfully bridge the employer-employee perception gap, will continuously assess, quantify, and identify the opportunities to make their workplace a better place for all. Robust systems need to be put in place to support organization-wide listening to employees’ needs and expectations, and to implement methodologies that augment talent skills, knowledge, competency, and overall effectiveness.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

I agree that calling “Working From Home” a global experiment is an accurate framing since it is still yet to be seen if this will end up remaining our new reality. I think some curtains were pulled back throughout recent disruptive times and we have learned that nobody truly has a clue about what works, and what doesn’t.

One thing that still rings true is that there is always a trade-off. Those working from home gain additional flexibility but may miss the connection, and camaraderie they once had with office peers. And those still commuting into an office many days a week may sometimes get frustrated at the time, effort and expense their daily travel takes. But I’ll go back to my consistent message, that work must be done with purpose. No matter where you are working from, if you have a shared mission with your colleagues, you’ll find better connection and a stronger output.

With regards to steering the ship, I think the future of work will rely on leaders showing audacity and a willingness to take bold risks. I find the most effective leaders state what they want with integrity instead of seeking to be liked and popular.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

Since businesses feed from, and back into, community and society, I believe that they should learn to live in harmony with both. Those organizations that have a stronger commitment to giving back, giving forward, and social responsibility will be most appealing for the up-and-coming generations of employees. Ironically, when a company balances equally giving and taking, it is set to achieve a higher level of aspirational purpose, and inherently becomes more appealing to its employees and customers alike. Furthermore, it would naturally contribute to a more sustainable and fair future, that will indirectly boost its business performance.

The other big societal shift that we see stemming from the overall shortage of global skilled workers is the tightening of the relationship between academia and business. A key solution to the talent shortage resides in the educational system as it has not traditionally been able to keep up with the global demand for skilled workers. We expect the disruption of the higher education segment to continue throughout the next decade, and beyond. A recent study from HolonIQ deemed that the global education market is set to reach at least $10T by 2030 as population growth in developing markets fuels a massive expansion and technology drives unprecedented reskilling and upskilling in developed economies.

At Explorance, we are taking a key role in bringing those two worlds closer together. We believe that if we are partnering with organizations in supporting their employees throughout their professional journey of purpose, growth, and impact; we might as well start early when future workers are getting their education. We strive to make a difference in the path they take from “K-to-Gray.”

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

To me, trust is a given. It is a culture we have committed to and instilled early on after I founded Explorance. But for years, this approach has set us apart as an employer. These days, I have noticed that the speed in which companies trust their employees is higher than ever. Companies have started removing strict performance management policies and PTO limits and are trusting employees to do their work. This level of trust has led to a higher notion of inclusion. We are now making sure every person and every manager in our company feels like they can make a difference, thus creating an army of agile managers who empower everyone to stay ahead. If we keep moving like this, businesses will be more resilient.

I realize that many businesses are implementing these approaches as ends-to-a-mean, but it will fast become second nature, because they will fast reap the business rewards that come from trust and empowerment.

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 way I have seen employers working to improve employee mental health and wellbeing is by giving them a sense of purpose and empowering them. By doing this, employees feel the impact they can put into a business, and it helps them grow. In general, people who find a sense of accomplishment, learning and growth in their work will have a more positive outlook, even when times get stressful. Employees who are recognized for their work while being given autonomy to succeed often find that purpose more easily than others, because it gives them the freedom to balance their work responsibilities and life in more personal ways.

Generally speaking, and as business leader, I have struggled to clearly understand the delimiting factors between where an employer starts, and where they stop, when it comes to supporting wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as today’s highly charged and polarized socio-political-economic landscape, are bringing a wide array of challenges to people, affecting their overall emotional and mental states. Employers must continue to find innovative ways, in empathy and partnership, and with strong indirect and inferred listening strategies, to support their employees. At the risk of sounding repetitive, at the heart of a company’s commitment and effectiveness in supporting employee wellbeing is a culture of trust and reciprocity.

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?

I often catch myself reminding our people leaders that we should spend much less time worrying about the people that leave, and much more time celebrating those that choose to stay.

Business leaders need to aim to be the best employer and business out there. The Great Resignation really is just a moment of course correction. It forced companies to wake up, break away from static traditions and learn from the past. Company cultures need to evolve from this moment and focus on the current employees investing success into a business. Business leaders need to focus on becoming the employer of choice that offers the most growth and allows for the biggest opportunities for employee impact and success.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

While observing other businesses, I have come across some trends that are present across industries:

  1. Be an agile employer.
  • By this I mean you need to be resilient and take advantage of times of instability. Those who can quickly learn how to thrive in uncertain times come out stronger. Thinking back to the height of the pandemic, the demand for delivery services grew. As everyone was forced to stay home, food delivery and internet shopping skyrocketed. Companies like Amazon, Grubhub and even local restaurants needed to increase their teams of delivery drivers. As the demand for using shared ride services such as Uber and Lyft decreased, delivery businesses hired those drivers to ferry food and goods instead of people.

2. More employers will follow the notion of creating a culture of happiness and usefulness.

  • Employers have had to put a greater focus on employee happiness and optimizing employee time so they are useful. By creating a work environment with employees who are armed with the highest skills, these employees will feel happy and motivated to help their company succeed. Companies are now trying to help everyone achieve the collective goals of an organization.
  • We have worked with many leading organizations that have suffered, but also benefited, from the great resignation (hence why we often catch ourselves referring to it as the great reshuffle). Over the last year or so, we have run more ‘360 reviews’ than ever for our customers, and at scale. We have uncovered, by comparing the results from those competency assessments with pre-pandemic ones, that the average company seems to have lost at least 4 years of leadership-bench capability. This is a major skill gap that will lead to decreased business performance over time. This comes as no surprise to me because I believe that most organizations have, in desperation, obsessed about employee happiness, and talent counts to address the challenge. Instead, they should have instilled robust reskilling and upskilling strategies for existing employees, while upping their recruitment game to ensure that overall organizational capability is enhanced with each newcomer.

3. All companies will need to create a differentiated culture of purpose.

  • The pandemic taught us that no one wants to run in a direction that doesn’t match their purpose and employers have noticed that mental health is considered collateral for the future of work. Employers are now left to create a culture of purpose, so employees feel empowered and like a pivotal part of a business. In many ways, the pandemic shifted the balance of power to the employees. In North America, there was a new realization for better work/life balance and many re-evaluated how much they were sacrificing for their job. To keep smart talent, in addition to better pay, employers must create a culture of purpose that inspires employees to want to help and work towards the greater goals of an organization. Because that often requires more hours of work, and higher levels of personal investment.

4. Business leaders will care less about being popular — managerial courage seems to be in shortage.

  • I have been monitoring from afar the reactions of many political and business leaders, and I have found that they often seem to be more concerned about how they are perceived, instead of what it takes to make the right decisions. I have grown to value and appreciate those leaders that seem to have risen throughout the pandemic and seldom hesitated to express their unfiltered opinions, no matter how unpopular and untrendy they may have been.
  • We cannot just bunker up and wait for a pandemic, a threat, a trend, or a challenge to pass us by. Many times, people need guidance and purpose, even when they may not fully agree with the decision leading them there.
  • I have noticed strong leaders are not those who are trying to be popular, but those who focus on making the right choices rather than the choices that make them the most liked. For example, look at Elon Musk. He has made some bold statements and moves in recent history that may have vilified him. To me, whether I agree with his management theory or not, he is indeed a rare breed of leader: an accomplished and audacious one that is willing to take bold risks in the name of innovation and growth.

5. Organizations need to measure leadership capability, team effectiveness, and employee engagement and inclusion to a higher degree.

  • As churn from The Great Resignation continues, businesses cannot afford to lose their talent in the current labor environment. People leaders need to strategically reassess their retention and upskilling strategies by quickly redefining their hierarchy of employee needs.
  1. At the foundation of the hierarchy are the notions of trust, diversity, and wellbeing. Without this, it is impossible to build a viable business today.
  2. Second is purpose and growth: where is one going, and are they growing their skill, knowledge, and competency base over time?
  3. Third is a clear organizational commitment and strategy to foster higher levels of employee engagement, belonging, and inclusion. It is great to have a diverse set of talented individuals, but they also need to work effectively together, in a committed fashion, while fully contributing their rich ideas. This is how companies achieve organizational agility.
  4. Fourth is commitment to a positive overall employee experience. Ensuring that everyone is enjoying taking part of every aspect of their professional journey.

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?

  • One of my favorite quotes is from the American memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
  • I have allowed myself to modify the quote a little to suit how I see things, and it now looks like this: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, liking how you do it, and most importantly liking why you do it.”
  • This quote has shaped my life because it taught me that not only must you feel good about yourself, but you must also like what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. The “why” is a critical component in employee engagement theory. If we succeed to explain to someone why they need to get something done, they will get it done flawlessly, wholeheartedly, and with very little overhead. This helps create the foundation for your purpose, which creates the foundation for your business.

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 would love to sit down with Elon Musk. He may be a controversial figure, but I respect how he has rapidly grown multiple businesses across different industries. He’s a forward thinker and a futurist who does not accept the status quo just because that’s the easy thing to do. Right now, I run a company of about 350 employees and can’t help but wonder, how do I become a CEO of a company with over 100,000 employees? While Elon Musk can be polarizing, he has seen all aspects of business and I could learn growth and leadership tips from him.

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?

I welcome the opportunity to connect and engage with others. My LinkedIn profile is a great place to find me.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.