January 24, 2019

What does it (actually) take to succeed at work today?

In 1899, in his “Principles of Scientific Management,” Frederick Winslow Taylor explained the ideal behavior of a highly productive employee: “A high price man does just what he’s told to do, and no back talk.” Taylor is also known as the originator of industrial efficiency thinking and spearheaded the development of modern productivity. His key assumption was that managers would do the thinking and prioritizing required for a business to perform well.

Needless to say, we’re in a very different time today. Technology has changed the way companies work in profound ways, has enabled a globalized economy, and is driving ever-faster innovation cycles. In a recent blog post, the Boston Consulting Group summarized 12 forces that will change how companies work going forward in profound ways.They include big data and advanced analytics, agile innovation processes, and distributed real-time decision making, among others. Today, Taylor’s perspective on valuable employees couldn’t be more off the mark.

Think for a moment about traditional education, from elementary school through college. Taylor’s perspective, while sounding quaint, isn’t that far off the mark: behaving appropriately for hours of sitting still in artificially lit classrooms, absorbing content, taking quizzes and tests on a weekly basis, and studying material with limited (if any) relevance to students. How will students learning to “do as they are told” succeed at work in a data-driven, agile, and innovative global economy?

In a recent interview, Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture North America, described the two traits she looks for in hiring people:

“Today there are two main characteristics that we look for with people coming in. The first is curiosity. The new normal is continuous learning, and we look for people who demonstrate lots of different interests and really demonstrate curiosity.

The second piece is leadership. I don’t care what level you are, there is the need to offer straight talk when you’re working with clients. You have to have the courage to deliver tough messages. We’re living in a world where clients constantly are saying to me, “The most important thing you can do is to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear.”

Succeeding at work in today’s world requires different habits and skills than Taylor would have prioritized. In our work with students worldwide, we enable them to practice curiosity, problem solving, collaboration, and other habits that will help them succeed now and in the future. In fact, our Six Essential Habits, which are at the core of our high school program, enable academic success and provide a foundation so that young people can contribute meaningfully to their communities throughout their lives.

For more on this topic, check out this post on the Six Essential Habits by my colleague Jolene Zywica, PhD, Opportunity Education’s Director of Research & Evaluation.

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