Marie Unger of Emergenetics: “The power of purpose-driven work”

The power of purpose-driven work. When you create a meaningful, common purpose for your employees, you will see better results. While an inspiring vision is particularly important for Gen Z and millennials, it can resonate with the broader employee base as well. Think about the difference in motivation when you tell a new hire that […]

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The power of purpose-driven work. When you create a meaningful, common purpose for your employees, you will see better results. While an inspiring vision is particularly important for Gen Z and millennials, it can resonate with the broader employee base as well. Think about the difference in motivation when you tell a new hire that your goal is to drive shareholder value versus a vision like Google where they want to provide access to the world’s information in one click. When you have positive, motivating ambitions that put good out into the world, you will attract great people who are committed to realizing that vision.

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 Marie Unger.

As Chief Executive Officer, Marie Unger leads Emergenetics® International and its sister company, the Student/Teacher Emergenetics Program™ (STEP). Since 2013, she has conducted countless workshops and certifications for business leaders, educators and students around the world where she helps them apply Emergenetics theories and cognitive diversity to drive operational excellence. Marie empowers leaders to navigate the future of work through optimized communication, enhanced team dynamics, increased inclusion and improved employee retention — regardless of a worker’s location. Previously, Marie was a teacher, school principal, human resources director and director of elementary education. Marie is a classically trained pianist and avid sports fan who enjoys spending time with her family including her husband, daughters and grand dog.

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 and raised in Colorado. I started my career as a teacher and became a school principal. I then took on two district-level positions including serving as a human resources director for one of the largest school districts in Colorado.

While I was working in education, I had a colleague who spoke about how we were not just influencing kids, we were affecting the trajectory of their lives. The enormity of that statement stuck with me. It helped me to realize that what I want to do in my work is positively influence the lives of all people and help them to be their best selves.

In my district, we used Emergenetics theories and tools to understand the ways that students and staff preferred to think and behave. Those insights made me a more effective leader because I discovered how I could adjust the way I communicated and collaborated based on what would be most engaging for those around me. Weaving Emergenetics into my leadership also made me more aware of my own strengths, and it encouraged me to be even more inclusive of those who were different from me.

After applying Emergenetics in my school, I was invited to join the company in 2013. I became CEO in 2020.

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?

What a great question! Imagine being back in 2006. Could anyone have predicted where we’d be today?

I believe that technologies, known and those yet to be developed, will continue to disrupt organizations. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on so many that will have a great impact like Artificial Intelligence (AI). I know there’s fear about what this will do to employees and human resources in the future. While an impact is likely inevitable, I see so much opportunity for employers to think strategically about how AI and employees can coexist.

Many organizations are focused on integrating AI into work, and they may be overlooking a critical part of their infrastructure — their people. As machines do more “task-based” work that people do now, companies will need individuals who can focus on people-centric activities and innovation. To ensure businesses can navigate this disruption, leaders must prioritize workforce planning and employee development, so that individuals have essential skills like communication, collaboration, creativity and problem solving to do their jobs well. That will allow companies to take advantage of what AI can deliver while also engaging, retaining and attracting great talent.

Purpose-driven business is also going to cause disruptions. Most organizations, especially public companies, are driven by short-term earnings and shareholders rather than long-term strategies that support all of their stakeholders. With significant societal shifts and younger generations prioritizing inclusion and the planet, some employers will need to do some soul-searching and find a purpose beyond profits.

Shifting to a triple bottom line approach will shake up everything. To get started, companies need to identify their purpose and the positive impact they will have in the world.

A third disruption is continued momentum toward a global workforce. Throughout the pandemic, many “desk-job” individuals realized they could work from anywhere. Now, many businesses are hiring remote employees, and people can explore jobs that are location agnostic. I see that trend continuing where we will have organizations with team members from all across the globe, bringing more diverse ideas, backgrounds and ways of thinking into every company.

To prepare, businesses need to invest in training managers to effectively lead hybrid teams and create inclusive environments. It’s also important to train staff, so they understand and appreciate different viewpoints and can support company cultures that consider the entire workforce.

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?

As a former educator, I see the value in college for personal and professional reasons. While it can teach students valuable competencies for the workplace, it offers just as many — if not more — life skills. Most importantly, I see the value in lifelong learning. When I think about what employers need in the future of work, it’s people who are willing to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Specific to college, I suggest that young adults think about what motivates them. Define what it is you want to learn about and how you want to make progress. For some, going to college right away makes sense. For others, it may be best to get a job, volunteer, travel or take some online courses in a field that interests them.

No matter what path a person takes, it’s essential that they build and maintain a growth mindset. By always thinking about how they can improve and what they want to learn next — and taking time to explore their options whether it’s an institution, mentor or experience — they can continue to develop capabilities that will serve them into the future.

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?

Where job seekers can set themselves apart is through self-awareness. Employees will be more motivated at work when they find a role that allows them to use their strengths and contribute to something they are passionate about. By strengthening their self-understanding, people gain clarity into what they want to do, what they naturally do well, and then they can position themselves more effectively in interviews.

As a leader, I see self-awareness as one of the most powerful skills a person can have. When I recognize that capability in someone who I’m interviewing, it’s exciting because I know that person will be mindful about where they can apply themselves fully, where they may have blind spots and when they need to get a second opinion. That’s a gift for employers!

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?

While digital literacy is important, employees can hedge their bets by focusing on people skills, adaptability and lifelong learning. I’ve read that Deloitte estimates that by the year 2030, more than two-thirds of jobs will be soft-skills intensive roles. When individuals develop aptitudes like empathy, emotional intelligence, communication and collaboration, they will be in a better position to succeed in the future of work.

Adaptability and being an active learner are also vital. The pace of change is only accelerating, which means that people need to be resilient and willing to put in the work to develop new capabilities. Having a growth mindset can make all the difference. It can empower you to keep working toward whatever talents you need to navigate whatever else the future of business sends our way.

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

I expect the next wave of work will be focused on striking a balance between remote and in-person operations. Employers and employees have seen the benefits in working from home. It tends to be more efficient. It opens up access to more talent. Most employees love having the flexibility. That said, face-to-face interactions have historically been better to build relationships and support complex problem solving. And many people like to be in person with their colleagues at least on occasion.

Within our own company, we had an advantage in the initial switch to remote work. Using our own offerings, we inherently understood how our team members preferred to work. That information helped us to communicate and stay connected despite the distance. While we’re working well together, we’re still searching for the right balance between in-person and digital interactions. For example, we want to replicate some of those spontaneous moments that you have through “water cooler talk” in a digital environment, and we want to give our team members time to collaborate in person. It’s really a balancing act of getting even better at virtual work while also honoring the value of in-person connection.

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

With more AI and greater access to data, individuals will need to do less task-based work and number crunching. Instead, they will be more focused on human-centered work. To support that shift, society needs to embrace social and emotional learning. We are seeing more of this sort of education in schools, and I think there is a lot of opportunity for people across all age groups to amplify their empathy and emotional intelligence skills.

When people understand themselves, appreciate the differences in others and know how to interact positively, that opens up so much more opportunity for innovation, critical thinking and productive problem-solving. That is the sort of world that Emergenetics is working to advance.

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?

In the pandemic, many businesses were so focused on just surviving. Coming out of the pandemic, employers may struggle with long-term thinking. Companies need to continue to innovate, and that requires looking beyond what’s around the corner and instead shifting their gaze toward the horizon. To build a sustainable, resilient organization, employers will need to define their purpose and prioritize their people, who will help them succeed.

In the near-term, it may be difficult for employees to accept automation. When something is seen as a threat to a person’s job, it’s natural to try to dismiss it or undermine it. If employers can help their staff recognize the benefits of automation and also invest in developing team members so that they build relevant, future-proof skills — like people skills — employees will overcome that obstacle.

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?

The pandemic shone not just a spotlight but a flood light on the importance of holistic wellness. In the past, businesses thought about wellbeing from the lens of a salary, healthcare benefits, life insurance and maybe some perks like a gym membership. After seeing the lack of a safety net that workers have as well as the abundance of employees experiencing burnout, I believe that organizations should make an effort to support their employees as whole people.

At our company, we make conscious effort to consider the mental, social and emotional wellbeing of everyone on the team. We start with cultivating a psychologically safe environment where team members can feel comfortable to share where they are at — professionally and personally. Our intentional efforts coupled with the financial and health benefits we offer are key to employee engagement and retention. At the core, employers need to build trust with their employees. When a person feels like they have a safety net at work, it gives them the space to lead more productive and fulfilled lives inside and outside of the workplace.

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

My source of optimism always comes from people. As we have had to navigate so much change and so many uncertainties since March of 2020, it’s people who make the difference. I believe that everyone has a desire to belong and contribute to something greater than themselves. When employers can inspire a sense of purpose and demonstrate their people are valued for who they are, team members are more motivated, engaged and willing to put in the effort to build a better organization for the future.

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?

To reduce the gap between job loss and job growth, businesses should prioritize workforce planning and employee development. When companies adopt a long-term view and assess what skillsets they will need to support their vision and objectives, they can create growth plans that help staff build those competencies, which will allow them to keep their jobs or move into new, needed functions.

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. The power of purpose-driven work. When you create a meaningful, common purpose for your employees, you will see better results. While an inspiring vision is particularly important for Gen Z and millennials, it can resonate with the broader employee base as well. Think about the difference in motivation when you tell a new hire that your goal is to drive shareholder value versus a vision like Google where they want to provide access to the world’s information in one click. When you have positive, motivating ambitions that put good out into the world, you will attract great people who are committed to realizing that vision.
  2. Resurgence through reskilling. More than 1 billion jobs are expected to be transformed by technology by 2030, and the pace of change is continuing to increase as automation and AI integrate into business practices. For companies to keep up and ensure that they have the capabilities needed to thrive in the future, reskilling and upskilling must be taken seriously. While competencies like digital literacy and data analysis will be important, I believe that technology will allow us to be more people-focused, not less. That means skill building in aptitudes like communication, collaboration and emotional intelligence will be essential to drive business forward.
  3. Employees are whole people. Gone are the days when staff were considered by Full-Time Employee (FTE) counts. As the Great Resignation has demonstrated, employees are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the future of work, and businesses need to change their approach to support their team members holistically. To retain staff and drive innovation, companies must support work-life integration and help their people find fulfillment. Identify how you will help staff build a financially stable future through benefits and training to support their job prospects. Boost their emotional wellbeing by creating a sense of community. Look after physical wellbeing through health insurance and fitness programs, and promote mental wellness with stress management tools and healthy vacation policies. When you demonstrate that you value the humanity of your workforce, your company will be more resilient.
  4. A commitment to inclusion. As companies integrate new technologies and strive to stay ahead of constant evolutions, they will need creative ideas. And, diversity drives innovation. Businesses at the forefront of the future of work will be the ones who promote inclusive practices, proactively seek out diverse perspectives and create psychologically safe environments where people are appreciated for who they are and encouraged to challenge the status quo. 
    We’ve seen the power of diversity in action with many of our customers. For example, when one of our hospitality clients used cognitive diversity to build a project team to relocate their headquarters, they managed to complete their project ahead of schedule and on budget, which had never happened before. That success came from both bringing together a cognitively diverse team and making sure each person respected the individual contributions of their colleagues.
  5. Globalizing the workforce. As hybrid work becomes the norm, businesses and employees are going to have an opportunity to work from a variety of locations. We are already seeing an increase in remote positions across the U.S., and I expect that trend to continue around the world. Smart companies will be proactive in preparing their managers and staff with hybrid work skills — like asynchronous collaboration and communication — so that they can effectively lead groups in multiple locations. Training staff on global business aptitudes and cultural awareness will also be critical to successfully navigate work.

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

I’ve always been inspired by a poem called “Dream Big.” While I love the whole poem, my favorite quotes are:

You owe it to yourself
To make your days count.
Have fun. Dig deep. Stretch.

Dream big.

Know, though,
That things worth doing
Seldom come easy.

This quote is a reminder to do work that I love as well as work that helps me grow and accomplish goals that are greater than myself. Great work is challenging, and it is worth persisting through the difficult parts because that’s when we learn the most.

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.

This is so hard! I would love to go to lunch with anyone who has disrupted an industry to learn what inspired them to turn things upside down. There are a lot of contenders, so it’s hard to pick. I am inspired by Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. He is a visionary thinker who focused on the triple bottom line before just about anyone, so I would love to connect with him.

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

If you’d like to keep tabs on what my team and I are working on and see how we’re influencing communication, collaboration and workplace cultures around the globe, you can always visit our social media channels on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. If you’d like to follow me directly, you can find me on LinkedIn.

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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