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leadership advice

Businessman holding a crystal ball.George Doyle/Getty Images

Unemployment remains stubbornly high, and yet employers complain that they can't find the people with the skills they need. It's time for a transformation of the way leaders develop and employ talent, advised Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director of Towers Watson's talent management practice, at this week's Canada's Top 100 Employers Summit.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail's Wallace Immen, the co-author of Transformative HR gave his advice:

What's the problem in a nutshell?

The technical skills in the work force today were in many respects built for a bygone era. A big reason we have shortages of skills is that companies have been extrapolating from the past or been too focused on the present and are not looking into the future and investing in building technical and managerial competence.

So you've got high unemployment, yet virtually all industries have the same shortage of talent or gaps in skills needed to do the work. It's particularly true in the energy sector in Western Canada.

What should heads-up leaders be doing to ensure they have the talent they'll need to stay competitive?

I'll give you a good example. I've got a client that's an electric utility moving away from a traditional transmission system onto a more smart-grid approach that depends more on computers to monitor, meter and bill for power. They're realizing the old skills of meter-readers and people who worked on the nuts and bolts of the transmission grid are becoming obsolete and they need more people with software and technology skills. But there's a shortage because a great number of companies also need software experts.

If you look at it through a talent lens, it's the converging of skill sets that used to be applicable in one industry that now are the underpinnings of multiple industries. This raises a fundamental question for organizations that are fighting for a tight resource pool: Do you always have to buy a particular skill set or are there options that borrow or perhaps share skills?

As I see it, one of the defining features of the employment market going forward will be the notion of talent in a cloud. You may never be able to compete for software engineers with Microsoft, so an alternative strategy would be for utilities to pool their resources and share technical talent needed for a smart grid.

How is that different from the offshoring that organizations have been doing in the past 10 years?

I think it's an evolution. Offshoring was a great first step in taking a more segmented view of the work force and asking: what work is truly essential to our business model and what work could we conceivably pass off to someone else because it costs less or they could do it better? Now, it's becoming an issue of getting the resources you need to get things done at all.

It has now gone from being offshoring of what were peripheral transactions and customer service to building outside relationships to do even the most mission-critical work. Even the biggest companies are already having multi-year projects done in this form outside the walls of their organization. So organizations are going to have to think about how they will manage those relationships.

How about redeveloping the existing talent pool?

Organizations must ask: what are the pivotal roles and where can we redeploy talent? We have, for instance, a great shortage of petroleum engineers in the oil patch, but are there people with adjacent skills we can call on: perhaps chemical engineers, which are in greater supply, could be re-skilled.

Another approach is looking upstream and taking on more of an apprenticeship mindset to develop new sources of talent by encouraging students to get into certain fields. That approach is not just fixing the problem for tomorrow or next year, but five or 10 years from now.

Isn't that what recruiters now do in career fairs?

There is a certain amount of that at college and university job fairs, but I can see organizations becoming more interventionist and partnering with colleges and universities and sponsoring scholarships, and going into high schools to interest students in careers and provide internships. Companies are doing that already in the energy sector and technical disciplines and training airline pilots, where there is a shortage even though the retirement ages for commercial pilots are being raised from 60 to 65. Airlines are developing relationships with flight schools and offering tuition assistance and the offer of further training and employment once students graduate.

What should leaders be doing to prepare for a transformed future?

Companies need to assess whether the leadership skills that we developed five years ago are still as relevant today and whether there are new skills that leaders have to acquire. There are clearly things that will be more necessary in the future:

The first is agility, the ability to change course in response to innovations and shifts in the labour and capital market. The pace of innovation means product cycles will be shorter and competition will increase.

Leaders will also need to learn when good enough is indeed good enough: How much information is enough basis to take action without waiting until all the data is in.

Third, leaders will need more ability to see discontinuity and not look at the future as an extension of the past. In a fast-changing economy, it's easy to get caught in the trap of extrapolating as opposed to stepping back and looking for the differences, the breaking points and tipping points that fundamentally change the assumptions.

What's your advice for someone aspiring to be a future top leader?

Truly innovative leaders aren't bound by what they know and what they've succeeded in doing in the past, but are able to look at what other leaders in and outside their field are achieving and be willing to make changes accordingly. It's going to be even more important to have your own broad network to be able to tap into expertise and create connections to what your organization is doing.

Success is going to be marked by the ability to see where the business model is going and where you are seeing discontinuities and the ability to ask what roles are most pivotal. The questions to ask yourself regularly are: Do I have the skill sets I will need to be relevant to the new situation the organization will be in the future? If I don't, how am I going to get them?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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