Learning and development have become one of the cornerstones of many companies’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as organizations seek to arm their employees with the skills needed to navigate the frequent change and disruptions, while also preparing them for ongoing digital transformation. In order for such efforts to be sustainable, companies must have a true commitment to fostering a learning culture, says Joe Whittinghill, corporate vice president of talent, learning and insights at Microsoft.
Whittinghill has spent more than two decades with the tech giant, including the last five helming its learning initiatives. His work was influential in the development of the Microsoft Learning Center and the creation of Microsoft’s Leadership Principles—a driving force in the company’s cultural transformation. Whittinghill recently sat down with HRE to talk about the role of learning in culture, particularly at a time of rapid reinvention.
HRE: What were L&D leaders at Microsoft spending most of their energy on prior to the pandemic? And how did the pandemic shift those priorities?
Whittinghill: At Microsoft, we have long been focused on creating a culture of “learn-it-alls” by developing a personalized learning journey with cutting-edge learning and development, content, platforms and services. Our approach to learning has moved rapidly to be grounded in neuroscience, and more fully understanding how the brain functions, to truly enable our best work and best lives. While the pandemic hasn’t drastically changed our overall approach, it has certainly accelerated it. What has changed is the move to fully virtual, both real-time and asynchronous, and the development and optimization of these durable capabilities within our portfolio of available learning methods. Now more than ever, we’re looking at bringing new ways of learning to our employees and ensuring that we continue to prioritize a learning culture by offering time and space for learning.
After being bombarded with disruption in 2020, executives can better prepare for the next crisis by considering new perspectives.
It was the year we saw it all. And 2020 was also the year we didn’t see it all coming. Wildfires. Floods. So many storms in the Atlantic that meteorologists had to resort to the Greek alphabet to name them. Global protests over racial and economic inequality. And, of course, the pandemic.
What is surprising is that we were surprised. In a recent PwC study, 69 percent of responding organizations had experienced a crisis in the past five years and 95 percent expected to face one. We all watched Australia aflame in the months before the pandemic. California, too. It was only three years ago that multiple storms rattled the Gulf Coast in the United States in rapid succession. And climate watchers had been predicting that there will be more of these severe weather events in the future.
And the pandemic? Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H1N1 influenza in 2009–10, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first reported in 2012, and the Ebola outbreak in 2014–16 foreshadowed that a deadly, global, infectious disease outbreak was overdue. I warned about MERS, and public health risks in general, in this publication in 2013. It was not the most shared article of that year. Not by a long shot.
For the past ten years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work remotely and managed teams who do the same for over two decades. As a result I was prepared for 2020’s exodus from the office. I made the important decision to live in Northern California, away from the major tech hubs of San Francisco and not once did I feel like my career path was stifled. In fact, I was promoted to my current role as CMO while working from home. Based on my experience, I’ve outlined three key things for other business leaders to consider as we approach this post-pandemic economy.
Successfully running hybrid teams
While we’re all remote now, the New Year is expected to usher in a more hybrid work setting. Many employees will remain at home, some in the office, and others will choose to do a bit of both. Either way, the office won’t look like it did in February. My team has discovered new ways of working this year, especially as parents are dealing with challenges we never thought possible. Solutions involve offering flexible hours or a part-time schedule for parents, while they assist their children who are distance learning. No matter the situation, being flexible and empathetic is critical.
Supporting the personal growth of your employees is also one way to ensure the longevity of your team. There’s no reason that career-path exercises of the past can’t remain intact while everyone is remote. Make sure you’re still facilitating career development discussions on a regular basis. Share clear feedback, kudos and areas for growth the way you would in person. In the end, everyone involved will feel more excited, rewarded and challenged in their roles.
Last month, I wrote an article about quirky interview questions—you know, the random queries that interviewers sometimes ask to see how well you think on your feet. The article generated a fair amount of buzz and many exchanges on social media. In a LinkedIn Asia survey, nearly 60% of respondents said they’d like to see an end to these off-the-wall questions. Some called them stress-inducing, and others felt they have little to do with the job.
Unfortunately, these quirky questions are here to stay. Interviewers who responded to the survey say they use them “to test out-of-the-box thinking” and “show how someone responds to a situation that hasn’t been planned.” They are used to assess a candidate’s mental agility—a quality in hot demand. Below are questions that several interviewees I’ve corresponded with said they have been asked, and some suggested answers. Keep them in mind at your next job interview.
1. IF YOU WERE AN ANIMAL, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU BE?
This common question is designed to reveal the job seeker’s personality and suitability for the role. Have some fun with it and choose an animal whose characteristics align with your prospective role.
In a post-pandemic world, companies undoubtedly will turn increasingly to advanced technologies — artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and automation — to accelerate growth and improve profit margins. Such an arms race, however, will not be sustainable as even the latest technology will eventually become commoditized. Instead, the true point of differentiation will be well-educated human capital deployed dynamically to tackle challenges so complex that AI and automation will come up short.
To be clear, technology will be the foundation of digital transformation. As two experts from the World Bank wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Increases in efficiency brought about by digital technology can help businesses expand. Digital platforms can create entirely new occupations and jobs.” Yet that opportunity will not be realized unless people are well-educated, not only when it comes to job-specific technical competencies, but also in 21st century skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, as well as character traits of leadership, ethics, citizenship, and grit.
Based on conversations I’m having with business leaders across multiple industries, and even what I see in our own company, I believe the key to future success — through this decade and beyond — lies in learning engineering. Essentially, that means offering the right learning opportunities to build relevant skills and ensuring that people take advantage of learning and development (L&D). As a chief learning officer (CLO) told me recently, “The pandemic has exposed the fact that L&D is not a ‘nice to have’; it is a ‘need to have.’”