Mark Shadle of Zeno Group: “Career mobility will emerge as the new metric to define a ‘best place to work”

Career mobility will emerge as the new metric to define a ‘best place to work.’ Our Zeno research study revealed workers now prioritize their growth and advancement, specifically for the impact it will have on their own family and future. There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of […]

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Career mobility will emerge as the new metric to define a ‘best place to work.’ Our Zeno research study revealed workers now prioritize their growth and advancement, specifically for the impact it will have on their own family and future.


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 Mark Shadle.

Mark Shadle leads Zeno’s global corporate affairs practice and advises the firm’s clients on strategies that define, defend and advance their reputations. He has deep experience in corporate communications, crisis and issues management, employee engagement, financial communications, corporate social responsibility and management strategy.

During his career, Mark has been recognized for developing new communications models to guide client strategy, including a framework for examining the role of momentum in corporate reputation building.

Earlier this year, Mark led development of a new global research study for Zeno called “A New Mindset at Work: Changing Workplace Expectations in 2021” that examined a new relationship emerging between employers and employees.

Beyond the office, Mark is involved in civic issues through board participation with the Civic Consulting Alliance, a Chicago public-private partnership initiative, and also with Lake Forest College, a Midwest liberal arts college gaining notoriety for its social mobility and innovative academic programs designed to prepare a new generation for the workforce.


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?

Growing up on Chicago’s Southwest side, I was surrounded by dedicated middle-class workers, the people who made things run and move. They were the railroad workers, truck drivers, utility crew members, grocery clerks, police officers and firefighters, carpenters, electricians. In my neighborhood, if someone said their father was an engineer, it meant he drove a locomotive, not that he designed one.

My father was in transportation sales — a suit and tie job — which made him proud since he didn’t have the chance to finish his freshman year of high school. I worked alongside butchers at the local grocery store as my high school job, all union men with families to support. Every one of them told me: go to college. They never had the chance. I didn’t really need the push, since it was already part of my plan, but I’ve never forgotten their message. When we advise our clients on employee or labor issues, I’m often thinking about these guys, the ones with the hopes and dreams, the ones on the receiving end.

I was fortunate to attend Lake Forest College, which helped me land my first public relations job with a small agency. I joined Edelman, where I worked for 25 years, and then moved to Zeno Group in 2010, where I lead a global corporate affairs team today.

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?

I have become fascinated by futurists and their work. I like the idea that they don’t predict the future, but instead construct a range of possible futures. They look at potential disruptions, vectors and signals of change. During the pandemic, everyone was focused on getting their company through the next week, then the next month, maybe the rest of the year. Many people view the long view as impractical during uncertain times, but I think it’s essential. Consider the workforce. Looking ahead 10–15 years, one clear disruption is the anticipated lack of enough skilled workers, the ones able to thrive in a workplace where AI, automation and analytic thinking are the norm. The second disruption is the pace of innovation and associated on the workforce. Type ‘digital transformation’ into your search engine and look at the results. It’s exciting and a bit terrifying at the same time. The anticipated level of change and cultural impact is enormous. It’s not simply a matter of hiring more engineers, as the demand will far exceed supply. In 10–15 years, we will see corporations move into the higher education sector, perhaps operating their own universities to give students the training they need to succeed at their companies. Not just technical training, but other skills, like communications, policy, environmental science, psychology, history, leadership. It’s a shift from training and development to education and advancement.

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?

I respect the arguments questioning the value of a college degree, but personally I still advise young adults to go to college. When I hear someone say ‘college is not right for me’ or ‘I can’t afford college or the debt,’ I tell them to check their assumptions. Often, they have a narrow view of what college is or have no real sense for the breadth of subjects or the variety of schools. I see this especially with potential first generation college students — which is what I was. Too often, someone else has told them college isn’t right for them. Go and see. Take a tour, even a virtual one. Ask questions.

On the cost issue, I can tell you with certainty that if a student’s grades are good, there are excellent colleges that want you to attend their school and often can be very generous in the amount of financial aid and merit scholarships they provide. They may not be ‘big brand’ state universities or the Ivy League, but they deliver a first-rate education, which is what you want. You do not have to take on crushing debt to go to college.

Put another way, it’s not a diploma, it’s a passport. In the U.S., a college degree is required for access to higher-paying, benefits-rich careers. If I hold a passport, there’s no guarantee I’ll get to travel, but if I don’t have one, it’s a certainty I won’t leave the country. Excellent research by the Brookings Institute shows many workers literally are trapped in low-wage jobs, lacking the skills or credentials to get ahead.

I do know college is not for everyone and I understand the financial hardship involved for many families. I hate to see young people assume the door to a diploma is closed to them.

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?

What works now for job seekers is clarity, purpose and alignment. At every level, it’s hard to place or help the generic, I can-do-it-all job applicant. Tell me the work you aspire to do, why you want to work here at this specific company, and why you are a fit with where the company is heading. If a hiring manager doesn’t have an opening, it’s likely he or she will send your resume to someone who does have that need. It’s gratifying to help someone who has a purpose and knows where they want to go. Also, our research showed that job seekers are considering their future jobs much like consumers shopping for brands they like. Job seekers should take care with this posture, however, since companies today are looking for candidates who have a genuine interest in staying for the long run.

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?

Every previous industrial revolution has resulted in a net increase in the number of jobs, not a reduction. That’s the good news. The downside is the innovation or technology advancement eliminated some roles while creating new ones. Companies will still need employees amid automation and artificial intelligence who can design, program, evaluate, maintain and monitor them. In planning their careers, people should be assuming these technologies will be part of the workplace and start accruing the familiarity and skills now that will help them stand apart from their peers. Employers will be eager for employees who are willing to embrace new technologies and a changed workplace. Employers have a responsibility in this transition to openly share their plans to adopt these technologies, to create paths for current employees and provide training for them to move into new roles.

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

Our Zeno research says that employees want the flexibility they experienced during the pandemic to continue. For those that have been able to work remotely, they want that model to be permanent. They don’t want a full-time remote scenario, since they’ve become aware of the downsides, like the toll on mental health, the isolation from colleagues and the lack of collaboration. Workers said they do appreciate certain aspects that accompanied work from home, like the opportunity to spend more time with family, a renewed focus on physical and mental health, and support for parents with young children. The research findings sent a clear signal — workers have no intention of returning to the pre-pandemic workplace. They expect a new workplace, hybrid where possible, on their terms.

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

At the core, a new workplace model requires greater trust between employees and employers, with both sides committed to do what is best for the business and for workers. Business and government will need to adopt a shared responsibility to enable people to succeed in hybrid and remote settings, including changes to education and infrastructure. Our research revealed that employees now expect greater opportunities to advance in their roles, moving forward on two tracks — career mobility and economic mobility. Employees want more than a fair wage; they expect their employer to give them opportunities to get ahead, for themselves and for their families.

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?

Right now, many sectors are facing a labor shortage. Employers are having difficulty filling job openings. Workers have more options and job switching costs are relatively low. Employees feel they’ve proven that location doesn’t matter, that they can work anywhere they want. It’s unprecedented leverage for the labor force. It’s unrealistic to think this will last. Ultimately, economic realities will force employers to draw harder boundaries. Consider the economic impact of vacant office buildings, abandoned storefronts and empty restaurants in central business districts, as well as evaporating tax revenues from local businesses. These economic factors will drive employers to call for a return to the workplace that many employees will not want to answer.

Employers will have the hardest time accepting that their efforts to be a great place to work are not sufficient to attract and retain workers. Even their happiest employees are willing to leave. Management will be puzzled by a new environment in which they spend as much time and attention marketing to their own employees as they do to their customers. They will need to acknowledge a new set of worker values and expectations.

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?

Business and government both have responded to the challenges facing their communities, and separately each has demonstrated an interest in addressing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on minority communities. The efforts lack coordination. Business and government need to collaborate on public-private partnerships that address worker shortage and surplus, skills gaps, education curriculum, economic development and systemic inequity in a holistic way.

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

First, our Zeno study showed workers globally are very optimistic about this next new chapter of the workplace. They think now is actually a great time for companies to make changes. At the same time, in almost every client engagement, I hear company management excited to use innovation to accelerate their business and their industries. They are leaning forward into opportunities. The good news is these leaders are emphatic about how important employees are to the company’s plans. Employees are at the top of the stakeholder list now.

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?

Re-skilling and up-skilling takes time to design and implement, but the biggest challenge facing management is deciding how to signal change and set a timeline that enables employees to transition from old roles to new ones. A tighter collaboration between companies and educational institutions, aligned around a new skill set, would help to smooth the transition and enhance employee readiness. Many employees fear this change. Our research shows employers avoiding the topic, which only increases worker anxiety.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?”

  1. Career mobility will emerge as the new metric to define a ‘best place to work.’ Our Zeno research study revealed workers now prioritize their growth and advancement, specifically for the impact it will have on their own family and future.
  2. Companies will adopt new compensation models to incentivize retention at all levels. Retention bonuses, vesting over years will encourage loyalty. Today nearly 50 percent of happy, contented employees are willing to change jobs if they see a better future.
  3. A heightened demand for reskilling will prompt a redefinition of the higher education curriculum. Specialized classes now will become part of the core.
  4. The hybrid work week will become the norm for many sectors, where it’s possible. Roughly 70% of workers say they don’t want a pre-COVID workplace.
  5. Mental health and wellness benefits packages will become formalized offerings for employees. Changing values will prompt employers to address mental health in a meaningful and proactive way.

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

Steve Jobs once remarked “I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.” I love that quote because it spotlights the lasting power of choice and decision making, but also focus and fortitude. Staying the course, taking the long view, saying no when necessary, ignoring the noise — that’s hard work, maybe the hardest. It applies to both business and life. In business, strategy all comes down to intention and choices. I find his quote to be a good reminder.

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.

I’m working now on an initiative that would apply futurist thinking approaches to corporate reputation strategy. Jane McGonigal at the Institute for the Future always has these incredible insights and provocative questions, so I’d love to meet her. At her TED Talk she suggested we all need to tap into a “collective sense of urgent optimism to make the future.” That feels so important right now, not only for the future of work, but for all parts of our society.

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

On Twitter: @Shadlemark

On LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/markshadle

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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