Being comfortable with feeling vulnerable, embracing ambiguity and charting the next ‘black swan’ event – key HR takeaways from the Unleash World conference

As delegates gathered at the Paris event this week, one thing was made clear: big change is coming and people professionals need to be prepared

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Former minister of labour with the French government and now board director and senior adviser at Bain Capital and Galileo Global Education, Muriel Pénicaud, began the conference by warning of “a huge tsunami of work” to come for the HR profession as it adapts to AI, talent shortages and changes to the ways of work.

And she was not the only one warning of big change. Throughout the two days at the Paris Convention Centre, delegates were told to prepare now.

Here are People Management’s key takeaways:

  1. Leaders need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable 

Afolabi Sonaike, head of leadership and teams at Lloyds Banking Group, warned that we are living in uncertain times and HR and other leaders need to be prepared to face the unknown. 

In a talk on leadership and growth strategies, he said: “There's so much change and nobody can see around the corner. And really, the corner comes closer and closer, quicker and quicker.

“I think for leaders, you’ve got to get far more comfortable knowing what to do when you don't know what to do. If you haven't seen the scenario before, it’s about what can you learn from the past to then apply that here and now, which fundamentally means the best leaders are constantly learning and constantly learning.

“So it’s that sense of curiosity, learning and being comfortable with being vulnerable, because we just don't know what's coming up. That's a really key mindset that we've got to get our leaders comfortable with.”

Rosaria Bonifacio, vice president and head of people partner customer experience at Nokia, agreed. She said: “It's very much about ambiguity. That is what I feel today. Every day I am really just dealing with not panicking and making sure that we can meet the situation anyway.”

  1. Make sure everyone is speaking the same language 

Antonio Bebba, Europe DEI lead at Pfizer, described how the organisation had established an initiative to employ refugees from across the world into its operations.

But he stressed a good equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy must be aligned with core business values and integrated throughout the business plan. 

“This has been the first initiative that has led us to understand that we have a role to play in society,” he said. A successful EDI strategy also requires “clear intentionality” and clear goals, he outlined.

“Without the clear intentionality and especially without the right endorsement from the leadership team all of this could not be possible. So the first step in the journey from culture to transformation is to try to speak the same language of the business. 

“Try to work closely with your key stakeholders across the business, HR, compliance, legal to make sure that everyone's speaking the same language and most importantly, you find potential opportunity to support the business through EDI and vice versa, and taking the expertise from the business also to increase EDI outcomes.”

  1. “Social cohesion” is needed to tackle AI

It would not be a HR conference without discussing the technological elephant in the room: AI.

HR should respond to AI in the same way that firms were forced to respond to the pandemic and the global ramifications of war in Ukraine, Gary Bolles, chair of the think tank Future of Work, said.

It should be like just another “black swan event”.

“You've been through a global pandemic. Then there's conflict that sends huge ripple effects throughout the world. And there's this AI tsunami that has enveloped HR. But what's the next black swan event?

“We never know what the next event will be. We just know that there will be one. How can we continually not just be buffeted by those waves of change, but how can we surf them?”

The answer, he said, is by building cohesion and community throughout your organisation. “HR’s superpower is connectivity. You are literally people people,” he told delegates. By fostering cohesion, it can create innovation and integrate AI to serve the company, rather than employees feeling threatened by it.

  1. Making the candidate experience positive is more important that ever

Catherine Gouw, head of employer branding international at Lidl, outlined how the supermarket has introduced candidate experience surveys after potential recruits have gone through the hiring process and can give feedback. The most important of these questions, she said, was whether candidates would reapply for a job at Lidl.

“We should always think about how a candidate can always be a customer and the customer can always be a potential candidate. And that's why when we lose a candidate to a negative experience in the application process, we could lose them as a customer as well. When we multiply that at large, we know how big the loss can be.”

Summer Baruth, head of global employer brand and talent attraction at AECOM, added that a positive recruitment experience is more important than ever, especially for Gen Z job hunters.

The accessibility of social media means that candidates are more vocal than ever about negative hiring processes, which can impact employer brands at a time when companies are battling it out to secure the best talent.

Read more coverage from the Unleash conference:

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