Eva Sage-Gavin: 2019: A look back at the leaders’ agenda

As 2019 winds down, it may feel like this very short holiday season is racing by. We try to carve out time for friends and family, but many C-suite leaders and board directors are pulled in other directions, closing the books on their fiscal year as well as their calendar year.

Before we welcome the start of a new year and a new decade, let’s look back at the human resources trends that defined 2019. I always say that you can better plan where you’re headed when you reflect on where you’ve been.

While many trends impacted CHROs and our teams in 2019, I see three areas that point to major mindset shifts. These priorities and challenges came up again and again this year in my conversations with leaders around the world.

1. Creating Learners for Life

Lifelong learning has found its way to the short list of priorities for C-suite leaders and boards of directors. Some call this workforce readiness, others resiliency, but the key is that new skilling and a market-relevant workforce is as important as other business priorities. I’m not saying that every organization is fully on board, but 2019 marked a turning point in leaders’ awareness that the “lifelong-learning” mantra their CHROs espouse for all employees also applies to them. The National Association of Corporate Directors issued its 2019 Blue Ribbon report, Fit for the Future: An Urgent Imperative for Board Leadership, highlighting the fostering of continuous learning as a key imperative.

Sometimes, as leaders, we unwittingly issue mandates for “our people,” without challenging ourselves to lead from the front and to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Lifelong learning is essential at C-suite and board levels because it keeps our thinking and our connection with stakeholders fresh and relevant. The NACD recommends that companies develop and maintain a “targeted, continuous learning agenda for the board.” Who better to help design that learning agenda than a company’s chief HR or learning officer?

Continuous learning isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a competitive necessity. For example, a recent Information Age article highlights that a majority of boards are being left behind because they lack the skills for one of their company’s key goals–digital transformation.

The NACD report mentions that leaders should stay “constantly curious,” assisted by experiential learning and site visits. It also encourages executives to take board positions with companies that are not competitors to keep their perspective current.

CHROs need to be front and center as boards and fellow C-suite members embrace continuous learning. Our expertise can mean the difference between a vital, well-designed learning experience for senior company leaders–or a missed opportunity.

2. Embracing Responsibility to Humans in an Age of Machines

In 2019, the employability of humans, and the sustainability of individuals, communities and businesses, came to the fore. The Business Roundtable issued a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation in the U.S. to promote “an economy that serves all.”

Tricia Griffith, president and CEO of Progressive Corp., put it well: “CEOs work to generate profits and return value to shareholders, but the best-run companies do more. They put the customer first and invest in their employees and communities. In the end, it’s the most promising way to build long-term value.” It’s no coincidence that Griffith sees the value in lifelong learning. In her words: “I love learning something every day.”

CHROs can be at the center of the strategy to invest in employees. They are best placed to ensure employees are elevated by technology, rather than displaced by it. In an age where machines can exponentially boost productivity and innovation, it’s important to remember that humans can do so as well. And when we tap into the best of both, in a sustainable “Human+” workforce, everyone wins. Employees believe in a positive future; almost three out of four (73%) believe a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.

3. Fostering and Maintaining Employee Trust

Participants in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, a trust and credibility survey of more than 33,000 people in 27 markets globally, said their employer was the most trusted institutional relationship they held–beating business, government, media and NGOs. And 78% said that how a company treats its employees is one of the best indicators of its level of trustworthiness.

Trust has always been important, but in today’s uncertain world, it’s more critical than ever. Many employees fear job loss and the impact on their future employability.


Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, 2019

Employers who partner with their people for lifelong learning and an empowering partnership that uses technology to free people’s time for more fulfilling work–these are the successful employers of today and tomorrow. Employees are now weighing these types of considerations, choosing not to work for companies that don’t foster trust across the board.


Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, 2019

Taking Stock

These three major areas of change made 2019 a very interesting year to be in the human resources field. Board education, elevating humans in an age of technology, making trust the cornerstone–these are not to be taken lightly. They’re also closely connected and will likely flow into the areas of focus that 2020 and the next decade will bring.

One thread ties them all together: people. As Rear Admiral Grace Hopper used to say: “You manage things; you lead people.” None of the challenging issues leadership will face in the year ahead will be solved through good management alone. They will require the kind of strategic thinking many CHROs already champion. Brave leadership. Strong leadership. And, perhaps most important of all, fair and inclusive leadership. I do think there is a place to grow together inclusively, inviting ourselves and our teams to continuously learn and to bring our best selves to work in the decade ahead.

Wishing you a wonderful end to your year, with time for relaxation and reflection.

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected]