Future mindsets are more important than skill sets
These days the discussion about sustainability can no longer be avoided. But what skill sets do companies need to become sustainable? Too heavy a focus on skills is not always a good thing.
Interest in the issue of sustainability has been consistently high for several years and continues to grow. Google Trends provides a clear picture of the “sustainability development goals”. Fun fact: interest in the issue always drops sharply at Christmas and during the summer holidays. Despite the continued interest, real answers have been postponed in many countries. There is no other explanation why the average car in Switzerland still emits 120 g CO2/km or why 75 percent of Swiss buildings are still heated with oil or natural gas. At least, in Switzerland, electricity is clean in terms of CO2 emissions. Despite the energy revolution, the situation in Germany is even more absurd. Almost 40 percent of electricity is still generated from coal or natural gas, and it is still considered fine to drive on the autobahn at 200 km/h and burn 20 liters per kilometer. Going green might be cool, but let the neighbors worry about that! This is true not only for Switzerland and Germany but throughout Europe – except perhaps in Denmark, but more on that later. What has always been missing insustainability is a real incentive.
The situation around sustainability is similar that of another issue – digitisation. In an example from HR, countless companies operated with expensive, inefficient processes and a high level of variation, but nobody really cared because the costs were hidden somewhere in overheads. Then COVID-19 arrived, and companies worried that they couldn’t simply send employees home, but they had to. Suddenly, digital investments began to pay off. For those that hadn‘t already digitised, processes were digitised in knee-jerk responses and nobody asked whether employees in HR and beyond had the necessary skills. The consequences had to be accepted: high project costs, less than optimal purchase decisions, excessive demands and more. Yet none of that should have been necessary because it had been clear for a long time that something needed to be done.
It is even more difficult to guess what the trigger or incentive will be when it comes to sustainability. It probably won’t be one single incentive like COVID-19, but different ones, depending on the industry. Nevertheless, the incentives will come. There are a lot of examples we can list, e.g. a ban on the sale of combustion engines, oil heating systems or plastic packaging, or massive price increases. It is already clear that these incentive events will be powerful and turn entire sectors of industry on their head. So we have to ask ourselves: what can we do now to prepare for it? It would be arrogant to try to answer for the company as a whole. However, from an HR perspective the answer is relatively clear: bet on the right employees and prepare them. Make sure that they have the proper mindset and skill set. Note that mindset describes a person‘s way of thinking, their beliefs and attitudes (e.g. openness to new things) while skill set describes an employee’s competency profile (e.g. specialist knowledge of internal combustion engines).
It is very difficult to answer which skill set exactly will be required in which industry and company. If I were the CEO of VW, the most important question for me would be how to hire to the best software developers in the world as quickly as possible. Yesterday, so to speak. But the nice thing for the CEO is that you can learn skills or, in some cases, buy them almost like goods. This is a little more difficult with mindset. In Switzerland, for example, a nursing initiative was underway last summer to improve the work situation of nurses in hospitals. This is actually very welcome. But it is almost sad to read the mindset in which half the industry is trapped. A sentence from the initiative text reads: “Federal government and cantons [...] must ensure that a sufficient number of qualified nursing professionals is available for the increasing demand and that the people working in nursing are deployed according to their training and their skills.” This calls for resource planning through to a mindset in which employees are planned and deployed like production material. This attitude is omnipresent in Switzerland. With this mindset, it is unlikely that anything will improve for these employees. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this whole system of rigid resource planning and strict hierarchies completely collapsed in many areas. With a different mindset – the sharing of employees across hospitals, self-organization, appreciation of employees and much more – one could at least have cushioned certain effects.
Focusing too much on skills in order to make a company sustainable is, therefore, not necessarily productive. Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of VW, could have hired countless electrical engineers when in charge. But with a management mindset that boasted of “gasoline in the blood”, those engineers would have had absolutely no chance against Tesla. That has changed with Herbert Diess, the new CEO. He is also a mechanical engineer in terms of skill set. But in terms of mindset, he is a rebuilder and not a hurdle to change. He’s someone who wants to move away from the combustion engine. Shareholders can only be happy about this (+55 percent in five years), even if there is still a long way to go to catch up with Tesla. At BMW, a different wind is blowing from the very top. People still rely on platforms that are designed for all types of drives. Shareholders can be less happy about that (+9 percent in five years), even if Oliver Zipse, the current CEO of BMW, is actually a trained computer scientist and should, therefore, have the right skill set.
Now, back to Denmark again. The culture or mindset in this country seems to be making a real difference. Denmark has come through the pandemic quite lightly, especially in terms of the low death rate. A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation that compared countries’ hospital structures during COVID-19 supports this fact: “It should be emphasized that the definition of specialization in the Danish health system is not static, but adapts to technological change, and the knowledge acquired by the staff.” We are familiar with the results. Denmark was able to quickly expand capacities and later quickly return to regular operations, which helped to quickly reduce the “operational backlog”. Denmark is also pushing ahead when it comes to climate change and is even making it a business model. Gigantic wind farms are being built in the North Sea for 28 billion to satisfy the hunger for energy from the country’s neighbors to the south. Perhaps we say this with our tongue in cheek, but it might not be so far-fetched – one way to prepare your employees for change would be to send them to Denmark on holiday!
Published: 12. April 2022