Everything was a tech company a few years ago. Then everything became a media company. And now, finally, we unite under a business function that seems poised to remain essential and more difficult than ever to do well: managing talent.

That’s the finding of new research from Accenture, provided exclusively to Time and Charter before its release this morning during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. The survey of 1,140 global CEOs and heads of human resources concludes that while talent plays a vital role in unlocking a company’s growth, reinvention, innovation, and productivity, most leaders feel their companies have been ill-equipped to shift to the new realities of work. While nearly 90% of the CEOs surveyed agreed that CHROs play a key role in ensuring an organization’s profitable growth, less than half indicated they are creating the conditions for CHROs to do so.

“There’s a gap between understanding and action. This gap is concerning for two reasons,” says Accenture’s chief leadership and human resources officer Ellyn Shook. “Every business must put their people first—an expectation that is set by the CEO, shared across the c-suite, and embraced by the board. Second, there needs to be boundaryless collaboration across the enterprise…to uncover new streams of value.”

Accessing top talent was among the most urgent priorities for CEOs surveyed, with 38% identifying it as a main area of focus; the same percentage said that using artificial intelligence and data to enhance performance was of chief concern, compared to the 34% who said they were focused on enhancing the company’s digital core. These priorities may be a reflection of fast-changing digital trends, and leaders’ realization that they need strong systems and talent to meet the constant barrage of change, versus pivoting an entire company’s strategy to meet the latest tool or platform.

“As many organizations look to reinvent their business, their focus is often on technology and data. Yet we know the real difference-maker is people,” Shook says. “Especially in a constrained labor market, investing in people and their skills is a key source of competitive differentiation.”

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The questions Shook advises leaders ask to allow talent to meet potential:

  • Does our culture enable, recognize, and reward leaders to think and act beyond their title to drive growth in new ways?
  • Do all our leaders possess the right data and technology skills (supported by the right processes and tools) to accelerate change together, in a frictionless way?
  • Do we have differentiated strategies to access talent, create talent, and unlock people’s potential?
  • Are people “net better off” for working at our company, and do all leaders take accountability for this commitment?

Accenture’s research is in line with similar findings from other studies of a workforce and economy transformed by a global pandemic, rapid technological change, and more public grappling with companies’ roles in perpetuating racism and economic injustice. Last week, a new Deloitte study found bosses to be completely overwhelmed by the changes they need to make to effectively meet this moment. Some 87% of those surveyed said finding the right workplace model is important to their organization’s success, but only a quarter felt their organizations are ready to make those changes.

And yet those changes must be made in order to be an employer of choice: The Deloitte study also found 40% of Gen Z and Millennial respondents have turned down a job or an assignment because it did not align with their values.

“Workers today have more influence than ever before and have demonstrated a willingness to use it to shape the work their organizations take on, as well as how they do it,” says Steve Hatfield, principal and global future of work leader at Deloitte. “To be successful in this new world of work, organizations must abandon the idea of complete control and co-create with workers to shape the new rules and boundaries that will define how they operate.”

A few months ago, I met with Aneesh Raman, LinkedIn vice president and head of the Opportunity Project, and he framed the challenge (and opportunity) as thus: “HR is core business now. It’s everything.”

This week, I asked him for clarity in light of these recent studies.

“Companies are now realizing that business needs are changing on them even if they’re not changing business strategies,” he says. “At the heart of that is the fact that workers are changing on them even if they’re not changing workers. Workers are more and more interested not just in greater diversity and flexibility in work, but also in being seen by the skills they have so that they can have greater mobility in their career.”

So what do employees want? In the Accenture survey, the four factors cited among those being “net better off” are:

  • They are healthy and well.
  • They are connected with a strong sense of trust and belonging.
  • Their work has purpose.
  • They have marketable skills.

That top priority is another that employers concede they struggle with most. In a recent Charter survey of business leaders, most said professional development and employee wellbeing remain unresolved priorities. And two-thirds agreed they would be well serviced if their human resources leader operated more strategically.

Getting this calculus right is key to a business’ bottom line; Shook connects the “net better off” concept to a 5% boost in revenue. “Our past research shows that meeting these fundamental human needs unlocks two-thirds of a person’s potential at work,” she says. “When you take care of people and they work at their full potential, productivity follows.”

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