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Eva Sage-Gavin, Senior Managing Director of Accenture’s Global Talent & Organization/Human Potential Practice: “The Workforce Has Changed Forever.”

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Eva Sage-Gavin, Senior Managing Director of Accenture's Global Talent & Organization/Human Potential Practice: “The Workforce Has Changed Forever.”


Workers are showing the strains of social isolation, disrupted work and family routines, and sustained anxiety for personal safety -- all induced by the pandemic. Fortunately, employers are taking note according to Eva Sage-Gavin, a former Fortune 500 executive who now advises C-suite leaders on talent strategy for Accenture. Sage-Gavin says employers are realizing they need to take a "whole human" approach to HR to navigate through this crisis of human resilience, and address employee needs for connection, relationship, and purpose if they are going to keep their workforce productive. In this revealing episode of WorkforceRx, Sage-Gavin and Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan – who first met a decade ago serving on President Obama’s Skills for America’s Future initiative – discuss a new global partnership to connect displaced workers to jobs, the worrisome “she-cession” as women drop out of the workforce, the enhanced impact of modern boards, and a key ingredient to helping employers solve problems in these extraordinary times.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused education, health care and workforce leaders explore new education to work approaches and innovations. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan CEO of Futuro Health. There’s an old saying that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. But times like these also call for extraordinary people to lead the charge in developing innovative solutions and in the area of workforce transformation, my guest today is one of those people. Eva Sage-Gavin has had a storied career as a senior executive at some of the world’s well known and most respected Fortune 500 companies, including The Gap, Pepsi and Disney. She also served as the first woman on public technology company boards and is recognized as one of the most influential leaders in corporate governance and in harnessing digital technologies in HR. She’s currently senior managing director of Accenture’s Global Talent and Organization Human Potential Practice and an executive in residence at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. We actually met at the White House a decade ago as corporate leaders who joined to launch President Obama’s Skill for America Initiative. I’m really looking forward to getting her insights on how we can work together and rise to the challenges we face or, as she describes it, hacking today’s unsolvable problems. Thank you so much for being with us today Eva.

Eva Sage-Gavin: Van it’s such a pleasure. I can’t believe it was 10 years ago in October we were together and here we are now.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: It’s a delight. I thought we could start with getting your sense of the challenge we’re facing at this moment with multiple major crises unfolding across the globe. Does this compare to anything else business leaders have confronted before?

Eva Sage-Gavin: You know, Van, I talk to CEOs and C-suite execs, and they often talk about the fact that we’re facing multiple societal challenges and multiple pandemics. So zooming out for a second, we all know the biological one and we know the last time we faced this was 1918. So certainly there aren’t leaders alive today that learned those lessons, but we’re certainly looking back to see what we can learn from each other. The second is the economic impact. If you think about three point five billion people of working age in the working world and that the economic impact can be as great as one point six billion people being underemployed and some of the most vulnerable losing employment. That’s a massive economic pandemic. The third, we talk about unrest and polarization, and that can be geopolitical. That can be financial or economic. So, a lot of today’s leaders are saying, “I can’t think one dimensionally just about the biological or the economic or the polarization. I have to think holistically and strategically.” And although many of us have trained for years in scenarios, this is in some ways multiple Black Swan events all at the same time and it’s challenging all of us to think in brand new ways.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: What do they say to you in private?

Eva Sage-Gavin: You know, a lot of the things that people have learned in management sciences, and we mentioned our love for education, are being challenged. So this whole idea of the “whole human” and the fact that we’re seeing the impact on families and communities. So in private, I hear things like I’m really worried about a “she-session”.  I’m losing dual career families and often the woman is the individual who’s taking the lead parent role if they have a two-career family all in one home with three little ones to school, Van, someone is having to take the lead role. The other thing I’m hearing is anyone who might have special care needs — could be academic or education special needs, could be an extended family member who might need some special care — many of those community and society supports are not as available because many care providers are impacted. This is a topic you know more about than anyone. And the third aspect they say to me in private is the mental health and wellness challenges. That people are struggling as this continues and some would say in a second surge, and that their capacity to go into in many parts of the world, a dark, difficult winter with additional sheltering is really straining our social systems, our community systems, but most of all, our health systems.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: What is so interesting about your comments is that instead of talking about profit and global competitiveness and sort of the normal issues that would come out of the mouths of CEOs, that they’re actually talking about the structure…our social fabric, our social infrastructure, and whether or not the social infrastructure is there for people to bring their talents to work. This is fascinating.

Eva Sage-Gavin: You’re absolutely right. And we recently did some research on that and learned some brand-new insights from execs and from workers.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Tell us more about that. Accenture recently issued the report, Care to do Better, thanks to your leadership, and the report outlines six things people want from work, no longer just employment and finances. Can you tell us more about this report and give us some new approaches being taken by employers, for example?

Eva Sage-Gavin: Well, absolutely. And it goes back to your question of what are people saying in private? And the concept is that if you think of whole individuals and all of their needs and attend to those in new ways, you’re going to have your employees and your network do better, but you’re also going to have your business do better. We looked at this idea of can you leave people net better off by having them choose to associate with you? And to get right to the point, what we learned was pretty breakthrough. In the past as leaders, we’re often thinking about financial — are we giving them the right remuneration for the roles that they’re performing; employable — are we giving the right skills to do their job well and be productive? But the other four that have come in, and COVID has brought them into such stark relief, is this whole idea of relational, the idea of a sense of belonging, inclusion and having strong connected relationships, especially since many of us are now connected digitally. A physical connection. People want to be safe. They want to make sure that if they’re required to perform their role, or that they need to come back into work spaces, that their safety is top of mind. They want to have emotional and mental positive emotions and they want to have mental wellness. So that feeling of isolation that’s creeping in by living in digital all day, every day, and not having these normal connections needs to be attended to. But the really big one is the idea of purpose and purposeful. And this idea that, you know, I make a difference, that people recognize the difference I make and that my life has meaning and the work that I do is bigger than just the employable or the financial. What we learned from 15,000 workers and 3,200 C-suite execs is that 64 percent of a person’s potential is explained by these six dimensions. And so we’ve been out with executives and leaders saying in the past, you didn’t always walk into those areas. You stopped at the door of “if I pay correctly and if I train people, that’s good enough,” but it’s not anymore. And so we’re helping people think with that whole-brain leadership of “what can I put in place, what do people need and how can they be more resilient?” And so we found there’s five C-suite practices that leaders can do. Out of 20, there were only five that were statistically significant, and that’s helping a lot.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I wonder, Eva, if you could give an example of maybe a practice that can bring a company into this more whole-person approach?

Eva Sage-Gavin: Well, this is one you and I can totally relate to because, as you mentioned, our passion for lifelong learning and skills through our past work with Skills for America’s Future and Aspen Institute and Upskill America, that’s the number one C-suite practice that can get people through this period. This idea of continuous learning and a future ready workforce. What do I mean by that? It means that one’s always looking ahead for the skills that you’re going to need. Sometimes we call them “hot skills” and a lot of companies now are trying to look at — whether it’s digital-ready, future-ready, cross-industry — and point people in the right direction to get the skills they need. In fact, I’ll talk in a minute about how we’re doing a pretty innovative cross-organization global initiative called People + Work Connect. And as people, Van, are affected in industries like hospitality and retail in what we call impacted tourism industries, others are surging. Like essential retailers that have to get goods and services to homes need more workers. Health needs more workers. And so a lot of us are playing these strategic partners roles saying “how can we find someone who has the core skill set, transfer them cross-industry and then train them with a fast track so they can replant and meet these unmet needs.” It’s a great big social innovation going on with networks like you and I are involved in.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, let’s jump to that question. You have a novel new global platform for companies that are trying to match workers who are being dislocated to be able to find work in other areas and vice versa. It’s so novel that corporations are taking on this responsibility. Can you can you talk more about People + Work Connect?

Eva Sage-Gavin: Van, thank you so much for asking. In late March, a number of chief H.R. officers got together cross-industry to talk about the crisis with our CEO, Julie Sweet. At the end of the call, one of the CHROs said she was going to be sending some people out who had recently come on board and some of them were heading to shelters, and she asked if there was anything we could do to address the crisis of unemployment and need. Long story short, 14 days later, 14 business days later, four CHROs and an incredible connected community, we stood up a platform.  Really simply, Van, people who have jobs load them up on the platform. People who have workforce impact load them up on the platform. We’re now in 95 countries. 257 organizations have signed-up. There’s over 400,000 roles loaded. 130,000 thousand of those have workforce that’s needed and then 270,000 have workforce available. A couple of examples of workforces on there, just to make it real, would be Mariott who in the hospitality industry has had tremendous impact and had to furlough workers. Another example would be, we call them essential retailers like Wal-Mart who have been public about needing to hire over 500,000 people and they have exceeded that goal. And so you can imagine if you’re in a city like Las Vegas and you have hospitality shutting down, but we found we had whole cadres of trained sanitation workers, many of the supermarkets and any of the institutions that had to physically remain open, didn’t have those skills, didn’t have those crews. So we started to see people switching over in places of need in large groups versus one at a time. This is employer to employer, not one to one. In fact, it became so successful that it was adopted by two of our countries in our Asia-Pacific region as the country talent exchange because you can see by zip or postal code, “where are all my open roles? What are all the employers who are posted?” And we’re starting to do analytics about how agile these skill sets can be. If you’re a marketing professional in consumer goods that’s impacted, you might be able to be a marketing professional in a surging industry. Same for finance. Same for engineering. And so we’re really learning a lot about getting people back to work faster across the world.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: That’s an amazing example of innovation, and the innovation is led by the human resources leaders. This is an example of how H.R. is no longer a backseat role. As a matter of fact, in this moment of crisis, it’s really, as you’ve talked about, it’s a talent strategy that is going to shape our ability to bounce back. Now, you’ve been recognized as a national leader in shaping the future of H.R. Do you think we should be positive or anxious about the relevance of humans in the future of work, Eva?

Eva Sage-Gavin: If you think about the one constant, Van, the whole idea of human technology, artificial intelligence, especially at a time when everyone is facing this incredible biological challenge. So I think we should be positive about humans. I think we should be unleashing and unlocking individual potential and think about the idea of how different it was the last time humanity faced this in 1918. And today we have tech to enable things like a vaccine, fast development.  Look at the ability to do contact tracing and how tech-enabled that can be. Look at what we’re learning about just all the different biological information. And it’s just a fascinating time to see if we can get the help that people need. But again, it’s not one dimensional. It’s not just biological. You know, I want to go back to something you and I talked about a minute ago, the idea of living a purposeful life. Back to old Maslow’s Hierarchy, you know if you don’t have your basics, right — and we talk about this in elastic digital — if you’re down in a place to live, you don’t have food and you don’t have continued employment, maybe your value realization is focused on that. Having said that, once you get to those things, there’s a lot of migration going on, Van, where people are leaving urban areas to go to suburban areas. Some are leaving suburban areas to go to more rural areas. This workforce has changed forever. And so social innovations – not just the platform we created to connect people across industry and geography — it’s also about, if you can work from anywhere, where do you want to be? Where do you want to raise your family? Where do you want to be connected from and what needs do you have in those six dimensions? Then how do you get and keep the skills that you need to stay relevant and to stay ahead of any challenges that might come? What if this isn’t the last pandemic? What if they don’t come every hundred years? So, we’re working hard to look at scenarios that say “the one constant is human ingenuity.” Change is a constant, and if we can create more resiliencies — resiliency as a human, as a family and as a society — these will be the lessons born out of crisis that will be with us forever.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m so glad you’re at the helm of Accenture, helping our CEOs think about how to unlock human ingenuity. You are also so active on the social impact front, which I’m grateful for. Let’s talk about something that you mentioned earlier, which is the mental health and well-being of employees. You know, we hear a lot about the disruptions caused by COVID and its impact on employee mental health. I think many are worried about perhaps another wave, that this will be a mental health pandemic following the COVID pandemic. How should company leaders respond to these new stresses that their employees are facing?

Eva Sage-Gavin: You’re absolutely right, Van, and as you said, I have the privilege of being part of lots of networks and all of them are signaling an increase. We can see it in claims for benefits going towards needs for mental wellness or mental illness and health. We also see it, though, in what we call workforce sensing and stress points. It can be overlapping needs for schedule changes. It can be family support needs. So a group of leaders has banded together to come up with best practices in those six areas I mentioned. One of the ones I’m leaning in on heavily is with the founder of Thrive Global. Arianna Huffington has developed a portfolio of resources and solutions from Thriving Minds to help for first responders and some of these are available at no cost, particularly the first responder program. A lot of them are based in great work with Stanford and this idea of micro steps, about how to calm oneself with breathing, different ways to frame the stress, how to access additional resources. We’re testing on ourself at Accenture.  We had 130,000 employees voluntarily elect to go through Thriving Minds in the first few months. So this idea that there’s a whole toolkit that can help you…we’re pursuing these types of approaches with other companies saying it’s not enough to just have an Employee Assistance Program or a hotline. Our services are completely overwhelmed. No one is more expert than you on this. There have to be community solutions. I’ll give you one more and then I want to ask you a question, if you don’t mind. I recently had the privilege of listening to Rhonda Morris, who’s the CHRO of Chevron, and she was on LinkedIn Live with Adam Grant talking about how Employee Resource Groups have formed at Chevron under “Chevron Cares”. They are often what we call need groups — parents with special children who don’t have the school system full capability enabled, those who are now providing elder care in the home where that care provider may not have been as available in the relative’s home due to COVID restrictions. These incredible innovations are coming and people are posting them and sharing them with each other and we’re capturing a lot of this through our partnership with Josh Bersin and the Josh Bersin Academy. So, there’s a big meta theme here that will be very familiar to you and I, these public-private partnerships with stakeholders who are literally leaning-in to say we have got to fix these issues. Everybody has to bring their best innovation, and from Thrive Global and their services for first responders, to major corporations, the World Economic Forum is doing some very interesting work leaning-in as they always have. We’re part of all those things. But let me stop for a second because I feel like I’m talking to the expert of the experts. And can I ask you a question? You know, we do hear so much about these disruptions and how they are having a major impact on mental health and employee mental health. Have you seen anything to deal with the crisis — whether it’s physical health, mental health — and bring new entrants to the workforce to address these challenges?

Van Ton-Quinlivan: The pandemic has actually caused us to even pivot as well, even though we’re brand new. The first pivot had to do with the telehealth. Since everyone became sheltered in place, health care shifted over to the virtual version, and many community clinics for example, needed to build those skill sets in order to deliver care sessions virtually or by doing virtual rooming. With regards to mental health, I wanted to announce that our board just approved a big investment in 2021 to develop a workforce that supports mental health needs in our communities, especially our underserved communities. We’re going to focus on creating community health workers with a behavioral health emphasis. In behavioral health, stress and mental health issues can manifest in terms of substance abuse and depression and many other symptoms and issues. We want to be there with a workforce that is grounded in the community, that is bilingual as well as culturally competent, ready to support the needs of patients as we see an increase in mental health issues. In addition, we’re expecting that even existing health care professionals — for example, medical assistants, licensed vocational or practical nurses – – who are already providing health care, they’re going to need to add behavioral health skill sets to their existing toolkit.  We want to get the curriculum, the coursework, to develop these skills out to the health care workforce in order to ready them to deal with the increase in issues brought about by this pandemic. So, we’re delighted that we’re going to be able to work in this area and be of help.

Eva Sage-Gavin: It’s funny you mention boards, and it was wonderful that you did that. One of the things that we took a look at is not just leadership on this multi-stakeholder view that we’re hearing so much about from the C-suite, but we’re seeing the emergence of “modern boards”. And we recently did some research on that and found out that modern boards have about five key characteristics and they’re emerging with new forms of leadership, new forms of governance, and there’s tremendous opportunity to outperform others in innovation and in business benefits in this multi-stakeholder assessment. So I’m glad you mentioned that. It sounds like you’re personally experiencing that as well. Imagine if another outcome of this difficult time we’re in is that boards can see an evolution to the full power and impact they can have. We’re going to see lots of new innovation unleashed.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I wonder Eva if you could just mention what those five characteristics are…

Eva Sage-Gavin: I’d be happy to. I’m going to keep it super simple. We call it the “Five M’s,” it’s mind set, mission metrics, muscle and makeup of the board. Just real quickly, mindset is — you said it so beautifully a minute ago — workforce topics at the boardroom is a top priority, and looking strategically with all of the C-suite, spending time with the CHRO but holding the full C-suite accountable for workforce, that’s mindset. Mission is responsiveness. Many boards are now meeting much more regularly to these multiple pandemics, and the boards we surveyed, most of them held emergency meetings in response to social unrest, the pandemic, and continue to do so. Metrics: brand new scorecards are emerging that are either predictive where you can begin to look at workforce stresses. You and I chatted about the mental wellness, but not just lagging indicators, leading indicators that are starting to show signs of burnout. You know, people used to talk about productivity metrics. Now they’re seeing people digitally connected, 12 plus hours – it’s not healthy. So looking for areas where there might be a chance to use metrics, data and artificial intelligence, find hotspots, address it and have alternatives for a more balanced workforce outcome. Muscle: the idea that you need leaders who are trained, who are skilled and who are recognized to lead through these really difficult times and look at a holistic strategy. And then, this won’t be a surprise to you, strong board diversity is an aspect of a modern board, and boards with that strength of varying viewpoints can often best serve patients, clients, and customers. We’re finding again that they’re outperforming. So this is not a “nice to do”. These five will deliver increases in innovation one and a half times.

Van Ton-Quinlivan:  Wow. One and a half times. Thank you for continuing to push the envelope on this research. Can you wrap-up with any additional historical perspective or any call to action on what we can do now?

Eva Sage-Gavin: Well, I think today’s call is a great example. This idea of partnerships across networks and ecosystems…I mentioned People + Work Connect and the four chief H.R. officers who still meet every Wednesday night, Van, and take it to the next level. Our association with organizations that are helping to skill people — Aspen Institute has Upskill America, and I just talked to the team last week as part of the leadership circle. The work we see at the World Economic Forum. I don’t know if you just saw, but a new recommendation on a metrics report came out with 21 factors on people, planet, prosperity and principles of governance. This idea, that all of us have ability to tap resources from around the world and to learn from each other — especially as some of us go through waves of various challenges at different times and others may be able to give the team going through the next some advance information about coping. There’s no question that out of this crisis, these levels of new networks, partnerships, multi-stakeholder and thinking about whole humans, families, communities and societies hopefully will be with us forever. Most of the execs I’m talking to are talking about balanced scorecards that lead in new ways, solve problems in new ways, and we can’t, none of us can do it alone. So that’s my hope. I know we’re heading into a really tough time, but look at the fact that you and I are connected 10 years later and it was from this multi-stakeholder coalition that we wouldn’t have met but for that, on Skills for America’s Future. Now we’re working on new skilling across the world and it’s really exciting because tech is bringing access to so many – not to everyone that’s a problem — but to so many to learn in brand new and different ways and stay relevant. Stay employable. Stay healthy. Those are the things I see in the future, if I put a bit of a positive view on maybe a little bit further out than the months ahead.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, certainly we are living these principles of collective action, of public private partnerships, of new networks as we’re all navigating through these anxious, anxious times. I want to thank Eva Sage-Gavin very much for being with us today.

Eva Sage-Gavin: Van, what a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of Workforce Rx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.