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Dealing with Disruption: An Interview with Sanyin Siang

Sanyin Siang is a true blue “Dukie.” She earned both her M.B.A. and a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Duke University. She’s now the executive director of the University’s Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at the Fuqua School of Business and a professor at its Pratt School of Engineering.  

So, when you consider her academic pedigree, it makes sense that she uses a basketball analogy to illustrate a point about disruptions shaking up the workplace.  

Mike Krzyzewski has overseen the building of a men’s basketball powerhouse since arriving on the Durham, N.C. campus as the program’s new coach in 1980. In that time, Krzyzewski has steered Duke to five NCAA national championships, 12 ACC regular season crowns, and 14 ACC tournament titles.  

The first NCAA Division I men’s coach to reach 1,000 wins, Krzyzewski has seen scores of All-Americans pass through his program. He’s watched more than 60 of his players go on to play in the NBA. He’s a three-time national men’s basketball coach of the year. For crying out loud, the court at Duke’s renowned, raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium was renamed for him in 2000. And that was 18 years and three national titles ago.  

One big reason why he’s achieved such staggering and sustained success? He’s been able to adjust in an environment that has changed drastically in his nearly 40 years at Duke, says Siang, who is among the speakers slated for the i4cp 2019 Next Practices Now Conference, to be held March 11 – 14 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  

“Not that long ago—10, 15, 20 years ago—a coach like Coach K had four years to mold players,” she says. “Today he has one or two years.” 

To Siang’s point, today’s elite collegiate basketball players just don’t stick around to be seniors. College coaches—even those with basketball courts named after them—count themselves lucky if a top talent spends one or two years on campus before bolting for the NBA.  

“Coach K isn’t fighting that reality,” says Siang, whose talk at the 2019 i4cp conference will concentrate on similar talent shifts occurring in the workplace. “He’s adapting to it. He recruits great players knowing he’ll only have them for a brief time. And he knows that each year he’s going to have to go out and find more great players and repeat the cycle. He has to reload, so to speak, and adapt how he builds a strong team culture in this new reality.” 

Employers now see the same scenario play out, says Siang, a CEO coach and author.  

“Twenty years ago, if you were a Goldman Sachs or an Apple, you basically controlled how long a person stayed with the company, because the assumption was that employees wanted to be there forever.” 

That’s no longer the case, of course. The average employee tenure gets shorter and shorter, and companies must work harder to keep talented employees who have plenty of other employment options.  

This is just one example of the many new challenges employers and HR leaders have had to face in recent years. At the i4cp 2019 Conference, Siang will talk about some of the biggest factors disrupting the workplace right now, the developments that figure to have the greatest impact on work in the future, and how leaders, including CHROs, can overcome these challenges.  

Increasing organizational self-awareness

Of course, the disruptive effect that technology has on how work gets done can’t be overstated.  

Artificial intelligence, for example, has the potential to perform myriad tasks and thus free-up human employees to focus on more strategic and/or creative-minded tasks. That said, AI also has many workers worried that they will eventually lose their jobs to robots—maybe sooner than later. 

“We’ve thought a lot about automation, but not as much about intelligent automation,” says Siang. “So, what are the responsibilities associated with implementing AI? How does the human/robot interface work?” 

Faced with this scenario, organizations must find a way to incorporate AI into the workplace, while allaying the fears of employees anxious about being displaced.  

CEOs and their executive teams must frequently assess their organization’s readiness for factors such as AI, says Siang, adding that high-performance organizations have mechanisms in place to constantly gauge the company’s culture.  

These processes can include doing simple tests within the organization. 

For instance, ask 10 different employees to describe the organization’s top three values. The goal is to receive consistent answers from these employees, who should represent different ranks and roles with the company, says Siang. 

She posed this question to employees of the San Antonio Spurs, an NBA franchise frequently regarded as the gold standard for culture within the league.  

“The answers all came back the same,” she says, “regardless of position, title, or the person answering: pounding the rock, character, and selflessness.” 

Of course, there are other ways to provide employees with a voice, and in turn foster organizational self-awareness, such as surveys and regular townhall meetings that turn over significant time to employees.  

“The idea for building organizational self-awareness is not very different from the foundation for building individual self-awareness,” says Siang. “That is, communicating and establishing a feedback loop where we can constantly access the perceptions of those we are trying to influence and lead. In a company’s case, it’s both employees and customers.”  

See Sanyin Siang at the i4cp 2019 Next Practices Now Conference – sign up by December 15, 2018 to save $500.