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Leaders, You Can't Achieve Agility in the Workplace Without Transparency

John Boudreau

Professor, USC Marshall School of Business

In my July ReWork column, I described agile work as perpetually upgraded work, constantly "becoming" something new. Every day, work becomes a little more automated, the source of talent becomes a little more boundless, the rewards become a little more immediate and non-monetary and learning becomes a little more virtual and community-led.

An Accenture report asserted that "HR will fundamentally reshape itself so that the function becomes a critical driver of agility. In this role, HR will enable a new type of organization—one designed around highly nimble and responsive talent." I agree. But while it's important for HR to be agile, leaders and workers have a more significant challenge (and opportunity): rethinking the very nature of their relationship.

Agility Lessons from 1999: Closing Kellogg's Battle Creek Plant

At a recent panel sponsored by Viridis Learning, I spoke with former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who observed that a competitive and agile U.S. economy depends on a competitive and agile workforce. Perpetual agility rests upon an important, but often overlooked leadership challenge: transparency. Secretary Gutierrez was the CEO of the Kellogg company in 1999, facing one of the toughest decisions of his career: whether or not to close the Battle Creek manufacturing plant. It was the original plant, and an icon of the company, but its manufacturing processes had become obsolete.

Kellogg leaders informed the workers shortly after they made the decision. Yet, the forces requiring the closure were known much earlier to Kellogg leaders, and I suspect to the plant workers as well. Gutierrez and the Kellogg team did what they could to treat workers humanely, but future employment opportunities were limited, particularly for workers who were unable or unwilling to relocate.

Today, workers faced with a plant closing have more options, including living in Battle Creek but using virtual tools and freelance platforms to find new opportunities. Future events like a plant closing can be less "shocking" because of new agile work pathways, but it also requires a new mindset. Workers and leaders must perpetually prepare.

Secretary Gutierrez suggested that even today's leaders will instinctively wait to engage workers until after making a tough decision: "Looking back, my team and I had a choice about how early and transparently we would share our knowledge that the plant would soon change drastically."

Agility and Transparency Go Hand-in-hand

Leaders assume that if they reveal disruption too early, it will produce worker stress, contentious labor union or community reactions and departures of key employees. Why risk such things to start an unpleasant conversation earlier than necessary?

This assumption must be questioned for leaders and workers to embrace agile work.

Every day, your leaders and your workers choose how transparently they share knowledge about how work is changing. Are your leaders and workers driven by old assumptions to keep quiet until disruptive change is unavoidable? Or is HR equipping leaders and workers to perpetually and transparently perceive, discuss and prepare for inevitable work changes?

It's time for candid and honest conversations about the perpetual upgrade of work—it will provide both parties time and opportunity to adjust to the future of work, even if it's painful.

Photo: Creative Commons

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