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Patterns and People: Predicting Disruption of Talent

Disruption. Do you lean toward or away from it? Here are some reasons why you'll want to say yes to it if you want to thrive in the 21st-century talent world.

Have you ever heard of the term “early adopter”? These are people up for trying a new product or service before it becomes mainstream. 

I’m not talking about the people who buy every latest-cool-thing. The early adopters I’m talking about are those who say yes to the thing before it’s even fully functional. Where others mainly see flaws, early adopters see the opportunity to build with. They thrive on the chance to give feedback to the makers and help shape what the thing will become.

It turns out this early adopter concept doesn’t just apply to products and services. It also applies to talent. 

Rollback to 1995 with me. If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I was running a high-end swimsuit store in Austin, Texas, back then. One day, my neighbor asked if I’d join a startup involved in the digital advertising industry.

Three things you should know:

  • I’d never heard of a “startup” before this conversation.
  • The term “digital advertising industry” didn’t exist yet (Fun fact: the very first digital ad was for AT&T on the website HotWired. It had gone live just six months earlier.) 
  • I said, yes.

There were twelve other IBAs (Internet Business Advisors – brilliant title, right?) in my onboarding class. We all graduated, but I don’t think any of us had a clue what we were getting ourselves into. Around the country, startups like the one I joined were hiring people to help build things that hadn’t existed before. 

We were early adopters of an emerging ad industry, sacrificing infrastructure and security to be part of building something new and different. 

So I dove in. And I began noticing a trend that continues to this day.

When I worked alongside newspapers to shift their classifieds online, some team members ran to join me on calls to learn about this new medium. Many others stood back. They shook their heads and said, “Well, this isn’t how it’s done.”

During my brief stint at Opentable, I saw two kinds of front-of-house staff: those who rubbed their hands together with glee, and those who looked disparagingly at the new technology.

On my team at Pandora, the number of former radio people who saw the writing on the wall grew so large I eventually lost count.

Across industries, I watched as people who were known experts in their field either step into the early adopter camp or stand back camp. Those that stood back would wait for things to get sorted-out, safer, and more secure. They waited for job descriptions that made sense.

SOME OF THEM ARE STILL WAITING. 

The early adopters, on the other hand, would get their foot on the rug of the new industry, platform, or technology. Then they started climbing a ladder that was precarious at first but got stronger and more stable the higher they climbed.

Ok. I’m not suggesting that leaping to a “disrupting” industry and company is a guaranteed win for all (don’t get me started about the WeWork situation, for example.), but I am saying that being an early adopter in the world of talent has higher time investment rewards. Meaning, it often pays off not just in job satisfaction, but also in earnings and salaries. 

High risk can lead to high rewards. But it’s not just about financial gain. I think there’s a bigger shift at hand.

People, I’m making a prediction. The future of work will belong to those with an early adopter mindset.  

There are virtually no industries unfazed by innovation, especially technical innovation. So I don’t see much future payoff in being part of the stand back camp.

Take a look at this article from the Brookings Institute. The message reads that  “Artificial intelligence is not only poised to disrupt blue-collar work, but it will also upend white-collar jobs, as well.” One caveat: the article takes an alarmist approach that I’m not a fan of. The way I see it, these roles—from radiologists to legal and marketing professionals—aren’t getting diminished. Technology is forcing the roles to evolve WITH technology.

So back to the early adopters. 

Were we right all the time? No. But what I saw them ask each and every time was how they could play with the emerging technologies and innovations in their industry, rather than playing against. They approached change with curiosity rather than fear. 

Every industry is shifting. Some faster than others but shifting they are. Heck, I think the fundamental economics of talent is going to shift. The signs are all there. I’m going to keep watching and asking questions. Meanwhile, I think it’s time for us humans to rethink how we prepare for the future of work. The what, where, when and how of work is changing — and so is the who. 

Whether you’re an employer or employee, I ask you this. What are the early adopters doing in your industry? Are you prepared for your industry’s big leap into the future? I think it’s time you did.

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