Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The most in-demand skill: the ability to unlearn and relearn at a rapid pace

A ‘growth mindset’ thrives on challenge and sees failure as an opportunity to grow

On 11 June, 2016, a customer service agent named Steven Weinstein was on call at the Las Vegas headquarters of Amazon-owned online shoe retailer Zappos. Two and a half hours into the conversation with a customer, Weinstein took his first, and only, break to go to the bathroom. As the session progressed, he was provided with food and water by a colleague. Although it was a routine call with someone who needed help with ordering some items, Weinstein stayed on and continued to chat with the customer. The call lasted a whopping 10 hours and 43 minutes. At the end of the conversation, Weinstein reflected that the connection was amazing, and although he hadn’t spoken to the customer before, it felt he had known her for years. Weinstein broke the record for the longest customer service call, previously held by Shaea Labus, another Zappos employee (9 hours and 37 minutes).

Why does Zappos encourage such outrageously long telephone conversations between their agents and customers? Tony Hsieh, the chief executive officer of Zappos, was clear from the beginning that customer service, and not selling shoes and apparel, would be the company’s main product. Call centre employees at Zappos are trained to build relationships with customers and not make a sale. Unlike typical centres focused on improving operational efficiencies, Zappos executives are allowed long calls, even during busy hours. In fact, if long-winded calls happen during busy times, it is the responsibility of the centre-in-charge to assign more people to calls than discourage such lengthy conversations. Small wonder then, “providing above and beyond-WOW-service, while helping customers with their shopping needs" is part of Weinstein’s job description on his LinkedIn profile.

If the industrial era was anchored around working for compliance, the digital age calls for encouraging both creativity and productivity among employees. This means that where leaders would once provide direction and discourage risk-taking, they are now required to encourage autonomy and a “fail-fast" work environment. The industrial age valued knowledge and know-how, whereas the digital era places a premium on learning agility (an ability to unlearn and relearn at a rapid pace, thereby staying relevant and productive at work). Employees are required to work with what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset: “People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment."

The four pillars of agility

For many, agility is synonymous with speed and quick decision-making. However, when looked at as a new way of working, agility can be unlocked by focusing on four connecting pillars: customer centricity; a continuous learning approach; the ability to drive change by focusing at both the “now" and the “next"; and an adaptive leadership style that fits the situation at hand.

Let’s unpack each characteristic in detail.

Customer centricity: Truly agile work begins with keeping the customer at the centre of every decision made by employees in an organization. Like Zappos, customer-first organizations encourage and reward employees when they sincerely work towards building strong customer relationships. The result is a win-win for both the firm as well as the client.

Continuous learning: In a fast-changing business environment, where upstarts can disrupt entire industries in a matter of months, a college degree does not guarantee high performance. In such a scenario, what one learns on campus may prove to be rapidly passe at work. A growth mindset, which is an inherent belief that one’s basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, helps develop interest for learning among executives. This can be the difference between staying relevant or falling out of favour with peers as well as leaders.

Driving change: Uber is managing the “now" by strategically expanding its fleet size and is soon likely to introduce driverless cars. The firm is also preparing for the “next" by experimenting with flying taxis that enable shared air transportation. If the pilots are successful, and Uber successfully launches aerial ride-sharing, it will in a way disrupt its existing business model. Such self-disruption calls for courage and visionary thinking that helps drive real change.

Adaptive leadership: An agile approach to work calls for an adaptive style of leadership. This requires being able to flex one’s leadership style depending on the context and current needs of the stakeholders. It also means being comfortable with doing away with grand strategic plans and instead working flexibly towards achieving the vision of the organization.

An organizational culture that encourages such agile ways of working stands to reap the rewards of the digital era, which is characterized by rapid change and an opportunity for exponential growth.

Rajiv Jayaraman is the founder-CEO of learning and assessments platform KNOLSKAPE, and the author of Clearing the Digital Blur, and Subramanian Kalpathi is senior director at KNOLSKAPE and author of The Millennials: Exploring The World Of The Largest Living Generation.

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