The President of Asia Pacific for Korn Ferry and member of the firm’s Global Operating Committee, Michael Distefano sat down with AmCham China In the lead up to his keynote speech at the 2019 AmCham China HR Conference to discuss the future of work.

How did you arrive at Korn Ferry and can you describe your career to date?

Michael Distefano: I joined Korn Ferry 18 years ago in March 2001. I was in Silicon Valley, where I was part of a team that had just sold a dot-com business to a bank. As fate would have it, I was introduced to a very persuasive headhunter named Richard Ferry, who had an online company called Futurestep, which matched candidates to jobs. He offered me an opportunity to use some of my newly formed dot-com skills in a job search environment in Los Angeles instead of in the financial arena in San Francisco. I joined as Head of Marketing for Futurestep and a couple of years later moved over to international marketing for Korn Ferry, later becoming the Chief Marketing Officer. I then had the opportunity to start the Korn Ferry Institute, which is our think tank and a repository for all of our IP, where we have 50 scientists, statisticians, econometricians, and analysts. Two years ago, I was asked by our CEO and the Board if I would come over to Asia Pacific and help look after our businesses over here, and it’s been an incredible adventure thus far.

Mike Distefano

What is the “talent crunch” and how can companies prepare for it?

Michael Distefano: The Korn Ferry Institute has come to the conclusion that we will be massively underemployed in terms of the number of skilled workers to fill job openings. It’s not necessarily that there aren’t enough people in the world, it’s that there aren’t enough of the right people. Korn Ferry is predicting that by 2030, there will be 47 million unfilled and open jobs around the world that will cost us trillions in unrealized GDP. You see the greatest gap in terms of demand for talent and available supply in the more developed countries, but this is a global phenomenon that is pretty pronounced in China, as well.

What do you recommend companies should be doing to guard against this?

Michael Distefano: First, companies should have a plan. It’s the old boy scout adage – “Those that fail to plan, plan to fail”. Are you looking around the corner, in terms of where the business is going? What’s your vision and strategy for the business, and who are the people that you’ll need to get you there? Second, not all talent is created equal, but that doesn’t mean that everybody in the organization has to be the top 1%. Obviously that can’t be possible, but you need to understand how much A-level talent you need, and how many B-level and C-level employees. Third, am I building the right pipeline and network so that I’ve got ready talent, whether it’s full time or part time?

The smartest companies don’t merely compare themselves to their direct competitors. They ask who is the most disruptive and transformative? How do they set strategy and execute it? How can we emulate those best practices? Self-disruptive companies consider the new unicorn startups as much as they do those they’ve been competing against for the last 100 years.

What is a self-disruptive leader?

Michael Distefano: Our research has told us that there’s a massive talent crunch looming on the horizon, but what got us here won’t get us there. We have assessed and surveyed the people who are leading massive transformation agendas, in terms of how they think and lead, their experiences, competencies, personalities, and how agile they are. Through big data analysis, our algorithms can tell us what the most successful people on the planet look like, in terms of their experiences, leadership style, personal drivers and motivators and how competent they are. And, the picture changes quite extensively by geography, industry and role function.

Out of millions of executives in the database, the analysis found that only 15% of us have the most disruptive, open-to-change leadership profiles that will be required for successful leadership in the future. We have entered into an era of continual learning, being comfortable with ambiguity and at ease with constant change. These are some of the requirements that self-disruptive leaders, and organizations embody.

Are these self-disruptive qualities learned or natural?

Michael Distefano: The easiest stuff is often the hardest to learn. For example, we can teach you how to program in Python. What’s far harder to teach, however, is agility, or how to cope when you need to make a 180-degree strategy shift quickly and mobilize it on a global basis. Although difficult to teach, there’s definitely a best practice that companies can follow so that their current and future leaders can start to get comfortable with what we called the five dimensions of self-disruptive leadership. Clearly, the more you practice, the more you have a plan, the more you put people in these positions – not only to succeed, but to fail and to learn from failure – the better off they will be inside your organization, as you develop them and build their commitment back to you in return.

Is this going to revolutionize education and the way that we’re teaching our children, even before they start to think about the workplace?

Michael Distefano: I would hope so. We’ve seen a number of universities who are assessing students at the MBA level for their leadership profiles, and giving them some work throughout the course of their schooling and then reassessing them at graduation and seeing demonstrable change. You don’t really change your personality throughout your life, but you definitely change and adapt your leadership style, so I do think that there is a huge opportunity for education to implement some of this. All too often, kids come out of school with a solid education, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you how to be successful in the work world. We always say, you get hired for what you know and you get fired for who you are, so I think being self-disruptive, adaptive, and being able to fit into a variety of cultures is what’s going to drive success for people going forward.

Outside of leadership, what other dimensions will be most pivotal for employee success in the future?

Michael Distefano: We’re seeing this multi-generational workforce today. You have Generation X’s who have a lot of institutional knowledge, but, on the other hand, you have millennials who are much more technologically inclined and adaptive. It’s not about replacing one with the other, it’s about finding a blend and a balance. We always have a client-centric focus – what do they need and what are they struggling with? To use the Wayne Gretzky hockey analogy, think about where the puck is going, not where it is at the moment. If you have people who are passionately in pursuit of that destination, those are companies that are going to be successful.

If there is one piece of advice with respect to the workforce, it’s hire the agile, because they are hard to find, but they will outperform. Large corporations have a challenge because it’s a lot harder to rotate the aircraft carrier than it is the rowboat, so its harder to be nimble, but you have to have an eye towards the future. You have to have one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow. You’re not betting the ranch on an innovative strategy, but you’re looking for small projects that could turn into pilots that could turn into scalable solutions for the future. That’s going to be what dictates the winners and the losers. It’s not whether you’re big and small, it’s whether you have a certain risk appetite, and whether you have a pragmatic strategy for developing initiatives, as well as not overcommitting – if it doesn’t work, get rid of it and try something else.

Where do you see the future of HR? Are there any exciting technologies you see now or anticipate that will disrupt HR?

Michael Distefano: There are some really interesting things happening in predictive analytics in terms of knowing when somebody is burnt out, or forecasting your attrition levels based on social media activity. They will help us to have a better sense of where employees are in terms of how they’re feeling, their engagement, productivity, and satisfaction throughout the workday, but beyond that, I really like the ability to use big data to help people on their leadership journeys.

People are trying to achieve different things in their own careers, so we can have a very personalized conversation and use the science and the data to set them off on their leadership and learning journeys, and do it in a customized fashion. People don’t leave companies because they can make ten dollars more across the street at the competition. They generally leave because they don’t feel fulfilled or satisfied, or not enough boxes are being checked in terms of their career aspirations. Using data to create a roadmap both to guide us and to warn us where to watch out is a wonderful thing both for the organization and the individual. That’s what I’m really inspired by.

From an executive perspective, what are the biggest HR pain points for today’s companies?

Michael Distefano: Executives don’t know where to get the best talent. They don’t know where to onboard or assimilate their employees, or how to keep them. It’s very hard, because you have to look at ways to do HR at scale. If you have 10,000 people that work inside the organization, you can’t possibly sit down with each of them every day to assess them. You have to leverage technology to make those inferences in an automated fashion. If you can do that and show that you are recruiting better people faster, that you are creating incentive and reward systems that encourage the right behavior and also excite people, that you are putting them into jobs that inspire them, and that they are growing with the organization – that’s the winning combination.

Time and research has proven over and over again that companies that do take a pragmatic view on talent and do align their talent strategy to their business strategy outperform in the public arena by about 25% compared with their peers. You then become a magnet for talent, people come sooner in their careers, they stay for longer, contribute more, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that you outperform your competitors. Just like on the football field, the team with the best talent generally wins.

This article first appeared on AmCham Quarterly, China.

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About Contributor

Michael Distefano, based in Shanghai, is Korn Ferry's President, Asia Pacific and also a member of Korn Ferry’s Global Operating Committee. He is passionate about the importance of people in boosting organisational performance and is the driving force behind many of the firm's research projects.

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