Dave Liu of Jefferies: “Work Will Become Even More Episodic”

Work Will Become Even More Episodic: If we are no longer tethered to a specific employer or opportunity solely because of physical location, I believe employees will have much more choice in terms of opportunities. We already saw the days of “lifetime employment” go by the wayside and so I believe tenures and dedication to […]

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Work Will Become Even More Episodic: If we are no longer tethered to a specific employer or opportunity solely because of physical location, I believe employees will have much more choice in terms of opportunities. We already saw the days of “lifetime employment” go by the wayside and so I believe tenures and dedication to a job will become even more ephemeral. I already know many people who much prefer a consultative or 1099 role with companies and clients rather than a full time or W-2 relationship. I believe this will accelerate.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Dave Liu.

Dave is a 30-year veteran of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Dave started his investment banking career working for Goldman Sachs and then joined the fledgling investment bank, Jefferies, when it had less than 200 employees. Today, Jefferies is a multi-billion dollar public company and one of the world’s leading investment banks. During his 25-year career at Jefferies, Dave progressed from the entry level of Analyst to Managing Director co-running all Digital Media and Internet investment banking activities. As one of Jefferies’ only Managing Directors of color, and among its youngest, Dave successfully rose the ranks by not only working his tail off but also playing the corporate game. He has managed, mentored, and trained hundreds of bankers, many of whom have gone on to some of the best business schools in the world or achieved great career success on Main Street and Wall Street. He has completed over 15 billion dollars of transactions for hundreds of clients including IBM, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Yahoo!, and Yelp.

After retiring from Wall Street in his early 40s, Dave became an entrepreneur, starting four companies, and an active investor. He has been an active board member and shareholder in many multi-billion dollar “unicorn” companies including Internet Brands/WebMD, an Internet technology company, Vobile, a video software company, and MobilityWare, one of the world’s largest mobile gaming companies. He is involved with Capacity, an artificial intelligence platform, Stampede, a film production company, TEG Live, a GRAMMY and Tony Awards winning live production company, and Philz Coffee, an iconic coffee retailer. He was also CEO advisor to ProSiebenSat.1 Media, one of the largest media companies in Europe. You can find out more about him on his website: www.liucrative.com.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I was born in the USA but grew up in Hong Kong, China. I spent a third of my life in Asia and two-thirds here in the USA. Since I was an adolescent I’ve always worked. From assembling electronics in factories, to cleaning bathrooms at Safeway, to manning the food lines in cafeterias, I’ve had plenty of menial jobs! I suppose that prepared me well for Wall Street and Silicon Valley!

The most impactful experience that shaped me was being born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. This birth difference left a hole in my face which was repaired after almost two decades of surgeries and treatment. It made me more empathetic towards others and gave me the resiliency and grit to be successful in the corporate world.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

The biggest disruption I see for employers is the rise of technology and its impact on business. This will cause the cycle of creation and destruction to accelerate and winning companies will grab an increasing share of the economics leaving crumbs for the second or third tier competitors. The winner-take-most elements of capitalism will be even more pronounced because success begets success. The winners will have the lowest cost of capital, hire the best people, and, as long as they don’t get in their own way, will have the biggest pool of customers to mine.

This means that in order to success, businesses need to focus their resources on what they are truly good at. They need to be differentiated in a “low-barrier-to-start” but “massive-barriers-to-scale” world. With much easier movement of labor and ability for companies to replicate each other’s products and services, I believe employers will need to develop more home grown technologies and expertise. This will require more in house development, home grown talent, and cultivation of employee “farm leagues.”

As an example, the recent announcement by Amazon to pay for the college education of its employees is just the beginning. I foresee a world where companies hold onto their best people by not only dominating their work but also giving them access to things that previously were not part of the employer-employee relationship (e.g., housing, education, healthcare). We are already seeing this with the larger tech companies!

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

College is a means to an end; it is not the goal. As a young adult, I would ask myself two key questions:

  1. What can I be good at? What talents do I have or can develop where I can be among the best, or at least differentiated, in this world?
  2. What does society value? Where are the areas that appear to have the most scarcity and society demands more of those people with those talents?

In an ideal world, the answers to #1 and #2 overlap and that is where I would focus. Find a talent or career where you can be differentiated and society values that skill or talent. That is how you will build meaning, purpose, and hopefully wealth. If college is required to achieve that, then by all means go. If college isn’t required then there is no need to saddle yourself with debt to have an education that will have no value.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

In this day of massive data being available on the Internet, I think the process is actually much easier than it was in the pre-Internet age. Using the old adage of “follow the money,” I would start by looking on sites like LinkedIn for those companies and industries that have raised substantial amounts of capital. This typically precedes large increases in hiring which is also easily identifiable on LinkedIn by researching headcount growth.

Using this simple approach, you will have a great starting point to determine the ponds in which to fish. Then segment the market further by culture, location, product or service, and you now have the makings of a good target list to start cold calling.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

I believe the march of technology is inevitable. We are not going to turn back the clock or put Pandora back in its box. So if you can’t beat them, join them. Think of the rise of AI and automation as yet another technological revolution that will require a lot of human help to achieve. It will be a Gold Rush where massive fortunes will be made and lost.

So much like the Gold Rush of the 19th century, the way to benefit is to be the suppliers of picks, shovels, and other services needed by the gold miners. There will be the latter day equivalent of jeans makers (i.e., Levi Strausses) and financiers (i.e., Wells Fargos) who will make a killing in this AI Gold Rush.

If you are planning your career, ask yourself who are the enablers of A.I. and automation? Which companies and industries will benefit most in making this future a reality? As an example, data is needed to teach A.I. models and is the oil needed to fuel automation. As such, a great vocation to consider is anything in the data stack. From data scientists, to statisticians, to data software engineers. These will be bonanza fields in the decades to come.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

Absolutely! The pandemic has shown that many of the growing industries actually accelerated their growth during the pandemic because they were technologically enabled businesses. These businesses didn’t miss a beat because they were largely able to function remotely with workers working from home. Given that many workers were actually more productive, I see this trend continuing.

However, I do think there is a role for face to face interactions. Particularly for complex team based problem solving tasks. As such, there will still be a need to meet in real life from time to time. So I foresee a hybrid office-home approach to work becoming the norm.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

The main societal change is education. There will be new industries and new norms established that will require new skill sets and new ways to doing things. This will require massive retraining and education of the workforce — particularly for new industries yet to be identified.

If this training does not occur, then I fear even more inequality. Those with the necessary skills will work for companies and industries that will get an even more disproportionate share of the economic pie. And those that do not have the skills and work in older, less innovative companies, will be left behind.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

The biggest change that employers will need to accept is the constant need to reinvent themselves. There is already a lot of literature and teachings on the need to disrupt your business from within with concepts such as the Innovators’ Dilemma but I believe the pace will just accelerate as the pace of innovation increases. This will be very difficult for employers because it we are naturally wired to not welcome change and if something has been successful for us, why change it?

However employers will need to focus on a dynamic and constantly evolving workforce. It will mean massive investments in employee education as well as an infrastructure with “early warning” systems to indicate when to adapt the current business.

For employees, change is also very difficult. Lifetime employment went out the window a generation ago, and this generation is more attuned to work being a “tour of duty” but the next generation will see even more upheaval and volatility. I envision an environment where employees need to develop strong cross functional skills that are adaptable in multiple industries and yet be known for some special skills or expertise. This will be the ultimate balancing act for one’s career.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

Absolutely. This needs to be addressed for the capitalist system to survive and be sustainable. Otherwise as the rich get richer, and the poor get left behind, we could have a revolution! To mitigate these dynamics, we need to cover the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for everyone. This means we need to ensure that all Americans have access to healthcare, a roof over their head, and some basic level of income so they don’t have to worry about starving. However, this can’t be done as a pure handout because I believe that people need to feel they are contributing to society to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. So I would require people to do something in order to garner these benefits. It could be as simple as picking up trash or serving as neighborhood watchdog. It just needs to be earned in some capacity.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Technology gives me hope. It is a blessing and a curse and despite all of our complaining, life is better. Even though we are all subject to hedonic adaptation, where we have a tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive life changes, the data shows that life is actually getting better for humanity. In the last 160 years, life expectancy in the US has increased more than 100% to almost 80 years old and the poverty rate has been cut by more than half in that time. So life is getting better for most and its largely due to technological advances that have improved our way of life.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

Education. This is the only way to reduce the gap. We need to have programs that smooth the transition of people working in these industries in secular decline to those that are growing. Society benefits as a whole if this happens so I would be in favor of government sponsorship to make this happen.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Climbing the Corporate Ladder Will Be the Same: Some things never change and to get ahead in any company will still require the same level of inherent skill as well as gamesmanship. Corporations all have unique cultures and to navigate your way up, you need to figure out the culture and what is necessary to get promoted. I liken it to a game where the rules are fluid and what gets you hired is never what gets you promoted. You may get hired for your mastery of Checkers but to rise to the top you need to become a grandmaster in Chess.

2. Remote and Hybrid Work is Here to Stay: Employers have seen the benefits from productivity and employee morale from having hybrid work environments. One of the biggest laments for working on site is the commute which for many Americans is one to two hours wasted in the car every day. Employers now realize employees don’t need to always be in the office. However, for teamwork and morale building, nothing replaces the in person interactions. So I believe the hybrid model will be the go-forward model.

3. Work Will No Longer Be Confined to “9–5”: With the advent of hybrid or remote work, I believe the lines between “work hours” and “life hours” will continue to blur. If employees are working at home or not in the office, their bosses (and their clients) will not view any specific time of the day as off limits. We already saw this with weekend and evening work for many but I think this will accelerate.

4. Face-to-Face Interactions Will Be More Highly Valued: Much like how email and SMS made voice and in person interactions more meaningful and impactful, I believe that Face-to-Face interactions will result in deeper connections and more appreciation by all parties. This will be even more so for interactions that require significant travel and could go a long way in expressing interest in a client or importance of a meeting with co-workers. In corporate America where the difference between winning a client or getting a promotion can be measured as a game of inches, I believe F2F interactions will become a key differentiator.

5. Work Will Become Even More Episodic: If we are no longer tethered to a specific employer or opportunity solely because of physical location, I believe employees will have much more choice in terms of opportunities. We already saw the days of “lifetime employment” go by the wayside and so I believe tenures and dedication to a job will become even more ephemeral. I already know many people who much prefer a consultative or 1099 role with companies and clients rather than a full time or W-2 relationship. I believe this will accelerate.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

I love this quote by Albert Einstein because it shows that what you learn from books or reading is rarely what helps you in real life! You really only learn by doing!

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. I am a diehard Houston Rockets fan and I’ve always admired Hakeem’s humility, greatness, and dedication to hard work.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

You can follow me on my website: www.liucrative.com. I write a career blog called “Breaking Bamboo” focused on helping Asian Americans break through the bamboo ceiling, and I also publish cartoons on my site. In addition, I wrote a humorous career book called The Way of the Wall Street Warrior: Conquer the Corporate Game Using Tips, Trick, and Smartcuts to help anyone who feels disadvantaged. All net proceeds will go to charity. You can read more about it on www.TheWallStreetWarrior.com.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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