As part of a series on “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Bersin, a prolific thinker and speaker on the future of the workplace and of HR.
Josh is an analyst, author, educator, and thought leader specializing in the global talent market and the challenges and trends affecting business workforces around the world.
He founded Bersin & Associates in 2001 to provide associated research and advisory services — a business he later sold to Deloitte. In 2019, he launched the Josh Bersin Academy, the world’s first global development academy for HR and talent professionals, which has seen membership soar during the pandemic.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started out in the IT industry, in the early 1980s, in business development roles. I worked for IBM and database company Sybase before joining a startup and being introduced to the world of knowledge and talent management. That’s when my path changed forever.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I wouldn’t say it’s a funny story, or really a mistake exactly, but there was definitely a realization that I had latent entrepreneurial mentality. My dad was an entrepreneur, so I probably grew up with that mindset. But I spent the first 20+ years of my career working for large companies — most notably IBM and Sybase, a big database company. For a long time I waited for more experienced people around me to take the lead. Then it dawned on me that sometimes you just have to do what needs to be done and be prepared to learn in the process.
I left Sybase, to join a new startup — an e-learning software company called Arista Knowledge Systems, founded by the creator of the hugely successful game, SimCity. I was blown away by the demo and immediately saw the potential for a breakthrough in corporate training through the use of gaming techniques. The catch was Arista didn’t actually have a market-ready product! So my job was to create a real product and bring it to market.
That experience taught me the importance of trial and error and continual improvement. We kept refining the product, based on feedback, and learned to be comfortable in making mistakes. This agile principle — the concept of creating a minimally viable product and continuously improving it — is well understood today.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive has probably affected me the most. It’s about how and where to focus your time as a leader. Drucker talks a lot about empowering and trusting people, knowing when to get involved and when not to, how to use incentives, and holding people accountable. As a leader you must learn very quickly how to hire and manage people effectively, as no business can succeed without engaged people who are right for their roles.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I started Bersin & Associates, I had a very clear goal to discover what makes companies successful. So many companies have tried to emulate companies such as GE, Starbucks, and Google believing that if they used the same template, they’d achieve the same results. But that doesn’t work. When it comes to the ‘people’ side of business, there is no single, perfect way to do anything. So I wanted to dig deeper. The findings were so fascinating, I had to share them.
I am now even more passionate about the human side of business success, as well as the importance of defining a clear sense of purpose. I firmly believe that if you can create a company with a sense of purpose that’s meaningful (beyond making money) and empower people to strive toward that purpose, it will be successful.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The importance of adding value. Peter Drucker wrote that the only goal of a business is to create and keep a customer. If you don’t add value in customers’ eyes, they won’t buy or renew with you. The challenge is how to continue to do that, as needs and appetites change. The answer is to keep listening. As long as your business is value-oriented, you’ll never run out of customers.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Back in February, I was exposed to the virus at a big business event. I didn’t get ill but I was quite freaked out. I’ve been home ever since: a stark contrast to the 250,000 miles I traveled last year. And it’s been great actually. I love my home, and it’s been fantastic to spend so much more time with my wife and kids.
The negative has been the incredible anxiety. My kids have been very worried about getting sick. And, although my son is married, my daughter isn’t and she hasn’t been able to meet people while stuck in her San Francisco apartment. Probably the least cautious of us has been my elderly mother!
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest is probably pacing myself. Although, ordinarily, I would be out on the road a lot, my business is now completely digital and virtual. I’ve actually been talking to scores of company executives each week since the lockdown began. Some days I can be at a screen from 5.30 am until 7 pm, but the time passes quickly because all of the conversations are so fascinating. The last few months have been the greatest learning experience of my life. The implications for organizational culture, leadership, and wider business transformation are immense, especially compared to normal economic times.
I try to counter long work hours with regular exercise. I think we all need to be careful about our health and wellbeing. Issues such as sore backs, mental stress, juggling work with kids at home have taken their toll on people over the last few months.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The secret is turning off the TV, Twitter, the news, and doing something fun. Martin Seligman, who writes about positive psychology, talks about the importance of finding meaning and joy in any situation. My son recently got a dog, Archie, and he brings us simple but genuine joy. I think taking a break, reconnecting with people in whatever way is possible, and exercising are very important.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There has been a lot of talk about inevitable unemployment, but the economy hasn’t “stopped.” While physical premises have been closed for varying periods, people are still eating, looking for entertainment and recreation, and buying things. So a lot of the same products and services are still needed; they’re just being consumed in different ways.
The successful companies will be those that find a way to serve customers remotely, digitally, or using alternative delivery models. And it’s worth considering some of the surprise benefits of the lockdown, including the sharp drop in pollution. I hope that a lot of the positive transformation seen during the COVID pandemic will endure and that the public health crisis is actually fostering an economic transformation.
How do you think the Covid pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I hope it has normalized flexible working, the prioritization of mental health and physical exercise, — and the need for financial security, safety, equality, and trust in the workplace.
I talk a lot about this in the context of the “Big Reset,” and I hope that these changes will be long lasting. By contrast, a poor post-COVID response is a big business risk for organizations — not just in lost business, but also in the potential for reputational damage and reduced ability to attract and retain desirable talent if employees don’t feel safe and well cared for at work.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As a digital business, we’re very well positioned for what comes next. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road, but doubt I’ll resume travel at previous levels. I don’t trust the airlines to prioritize safety over profits, so I won’t feel comfortable getting back on a plane any time soon. And there’s plenty of consulting and research I can continue to do virtually.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
If people have been furloughed and are worried about their jobs returning, I would encourage them to be flexible in thinking about their careers and the roles they could take on. I’ve heard lots of people saying they plan to retire or switch careers, having had the time and breathing space to take stock. And pausing to reevaluate is a healthy thing.
I’d also recommend using this time to learn as much as you can. Freed from commuting and meetings, many have more time than ever before to read, learn, talk, and take courses. We’ll miss this as the lockdown continues to be eased, so we should all make the most of free time now for self-reflection and personal development.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is my personal mantra: “If you go through your life as a curious person, your experiences will be positive, and you will continually learn and grow.” The point being that whenever you can, at any point in your career, rekindle your childish curiosity, you’ll have better outcomes.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My main writing can be found on joshbersin.com. I am a regular contributor at Forbes and also write a monthly column for HR Executive magazine, do many virtual presentations, and post on LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter. Members of the Josh Bersin Academy also have access to my work. I often hang out in the Academy’s community and get drawn into conversations.