The Search For Relevance In A Time Of Change

I just finished a series of meetings with CEOs and top HR leaders and it’s a puzzling time. Companies are growing and seeing tremendous demand, yet they’re finding it harder than ever to attract, hire, and retain people.

One of these companies is a highly respected company: Glassdoor ratings over 4.8, winner of every “best place to work list,” and one of the most well-known brands in financial services. But the CEO looked me in the eye and said “I don’t get it. Why is our turnover going up like this?”

The answer is something profound: the never-ending search for relevance. Now, like never before, people are struggling. Mercer’s new research shows that 81% of employees are “burned out,” and the combination of the pandemic, inflation, and war has taken its toll. Our work, perhaps the most meaningful part of our lives, is losing relevance. We’re too busy thinking about everything else.

And this impacts iconic brands too. Amazon and Starbucks face unions. Netflix is losing subscribers. And CNN just cancelled its streaming service days after its launch. Why? In many cases, these brands have slipped in “relevance.” Yes, they’re great companies with amazing products and services. But when we, as consumers or employees, feel burned out and upset, we ask ourselves “why should I care?”

And that’s the ultimate question. Why should people care about your company? Why should they care about the job you’re offering them? Why should they care about your mission, your purpose, and your brand?

Unfortunately staying relevant is a never-ending journey. Companies that were very relevant in the 1980s (IBM, my alma mater) now seem kind of “irrelevant” to many. Banks may feel irrelevant when compared to Fintech or Crypto companies. Hotels and hospitality chains feel somewhat less relevant when we have Airbnb. And auto companies feel irrelevant if they don’t have electric vehicles.

Every business is struggling to ramp up its “relevance” index right now. And it’s an important and healthy exercise.

For the people side of the business, relevance comes down to some basic things.

First, are you paying people fairly given the inflation we all feel? Companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Cisco, and many others are simply raising wages. They’re doing away with fancy stock options or bonus plans and giving people a healthy raise. Why? In a period of inflation like we see today, raw pay level is a highly relevant factor in people’s lives.

Second, are you giving people a real opportunity to grow? My research shows that people who feel a sense of growth are almost 5-times more likely to say they are “happy at work” and feel “highly productive” in their jobs. That’s an amazing statistic, but it’s true. And this applies to front-line hourly workers too, not just white-collar professionals.

Third, are you doing something important? Healthcare workers, the most stressed of all, tend to come back into healthcare after they take a break. Why? Because they love their patients. They love the “relevance” of what they do. If you’re a consulting company, a tech company, or a manufacturer are you “relevant” in today’s market? I remember when the CHRO of Sainsbury’s in the UK told me “We are feeding the nation. That’s our relevance during the pandemic.” What are you doing that’s relevant to people?

Fourth, are you impacting people’s personal lives? People are stressed about their families, their health, their wellbeing, and their safety. They want to feel that work is a “plus” to their lives, not a drain. Topics like improving family leave, focusing on wellbeing, or accommodating illness or family transitions are huge parts of being “relevant.” I will never forget my old boss at IBM who took me aside one day when I was particularly upset and told me “you’re going to have a great career here. I’m going to give you a special assignment to get you out of the job you don’t like.” I never forgot his kindness, to be honest.

Finally, are you relevant to society? Topics like ESG and DEI are so antiseptic in a way. Yes of course we want to be inclusive and take care of the environment. And yes we want to give money to the right causes and contribute to our community. But is your company relevant to the big things in the world? Tesla, which is not an easy place to work, continues to attract great engineers because they really are transforming the world for the better. What is your company doing to make the world a better place?


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