Getting Ready to Weather the Coming Workforce Shift

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Imagine something for me: you’re a manager in an organization, and it could be a conglomerate spanning continents or a “mom and pop” shop or a start-up.

The where doesn’t matter, so much as this — you have to get things done. There’s only one of you and this means you need a team to help payroll get processed, benefits administrated, employees acquired (and then ideally developed and retained), and more, if you’re an HR professional.

For a lot of talent leaders, it is one thing to find the best people to fill the roles an organization needs, and another entirely when it comes to building their own function to support the needs of their organization.

Getting back to basics

This isn’t a place to get into the nuts and bolts of talent sourcing (there are other articles for that) and this isn’t a discussion of social media strategies or migrating your talent systems to the cloud. Those are all things that I personally find interesting.

No, what this is is a back to basics, a figurative punch in the gut – something that I’m finding more and more leaders, be they in human resources or elsewhere, are in need of.

We face an interesting paradigm shift in the workforce – the nation is getting older, more people are becoming retirement eligible, and we are fast approaching a point where we’ll have more seats to fill than we reasonably have people to fill them. It’s a frightening notion, and one that we need to get in front of if we’re going to not just effectively manage it but create positive and lasting change to how we work and find the people to do that work.

So here’s the dilemma:

Decreasing Workforce + Increasing Demands x Calls for Innovation / Evolving Culture Expectations = ?

The answer? Well that’s not so simple. I’m not sure there’s an option that’s one size fits all, but there is a clear starting point to determining what the solution is for your organization.

It begins with looking at your current roster of talent, assessing both your needs and wants, and then developing a strategy that builds on your organization’s strengths and attacks its weaknesses. Now, there are organizations that have been preparing for this change in demographics in degrees varying from proactive talent reviews to approaches mirroring crazed survivalists gathering their supplies and building shelters to withstand nuclear fallout. If your place of work fits anywhere in that spectrum, the following may not be a surprise.

At the heart of most workforces there are three types of employees, with some variance of degrees between each one: zombies, ninjas, and workhorses.

Workhorses: The foundation of any good company

Workhorses are the foundation of any successful company. They do their job; they meet expectations, if asked they are more than obliging to take on new challenges.

Workhorses are the employees you need. They keep the doors open, they’re the people that show up on time, get products and services out the door, and keep your customers happy. Workhorses stick around if you treat them right, if they see room to develop, or have an opportunity for a career path.

Workhorses want to feel like they’re getting back a fair return for their investment of time and effort. If you have workhorses in your organization, congratulations. If you need them in your organization, I have good news for you… many organizations fail to keep up their end of the unspoken agreement to treat their workhorses with the respect they crave for the quality work they’re performing, and workhorses who feel mistreated soon become active job seekers.

Need workhorses? Post a job, they’ll find you, and when they do, make sure you keep up your end of the bargain. Workhorses keep the engines running and when they leave it hurts, but the impact is almost always immediate and through some pre-planning and strong management the effects can be minimized or avoided all together.

Ninjas: the game changers you want

Ninjas are the employees you want. They are innovators, game changers; they come disguised as managers and individual contributors. Ninjas want to use their knowledge, skills, and abilities to create organizational change – they want to lead projects and people, they hunger to take on not just the challenges your organization knows it needs to address but also the ones it hasn’t even recognized (but they have).

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Without question, ninjas will provide quality contributions, but they grow restless easily. If your organization fails to provide interesting challenges, regular promotions, and market competitive salaries, it’s going to have a hard time retaining this group.

That said, ninjas aren’t as easily sourced as workhorses, whereas many companies might not follow through for the people simply doing their job day-in-day-out, there are few that don’t take a crack at keeping their high-potentials in their good graces (but for some organizations, keeping a ninja satisfied can pose a challenge in and of itself).

So how do you find ninjas? If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll see a posting and jump on it if they’re part of an organization that’s failed to provide them the opportunities they crave. More likely though, it’s going to be through networking, a shared acquaintance or some other non-job ad related method.

Ninjas are either ridiculously passive job seekers or insanely aggressive; they can help right ships and turn the course of a department. They’re also slippery, hard to retain, and when they leave the impact isn’t always immediate (though, they’re almost always profound).

Zombies: they sap the brains of your organization

Zombies … if you have an abundance of zombies in your organization, my heart goes out to you. The name says it all; this group saps the brains (intelligence, drive, ability) of your organization and their co-workers.

Zombies are the types of employees content to collect a paycheck based on the notion of doing as little as possible so as not to get fired. They are the people we refer to when we say things like “we need butts in seats” – zombies provide no organizational value other than keeping a census or meeting a headcount number.

Their work is typically inferior and their slack is picked up by others in your organization – an issue that contributes to deteriorating relations with workhorses and creates negative impacts on your ninjas’ ability to evoke value-adding impact.

Let me be clear here: you don’t want zombies in your organization, and yet I suspect you have more than you can reasonably handle. Like any good horror movie hero(ine), you need to take on the hordes and put them down (i.e. manage performance, address issues, and eliminate those that can’t contribute).

When zombies leave of their own accord, which rarely happens, it’s positive attrition. Be thankful for it and then go out and find someone more capable of meeting your company’s needs — needs that were likely getting ignored during the zombie’s tenure.

3 ways to weather the coming workforce shift

Now take a look at your organization and figure out what you have, what you need, and what you want and start the process of shaping it to weather the coming workforce shift by:

  • Reviewing your organization’s structure and identifying potential strategic gaps that are impacting it now and possibly in the future.
  • Assessing your current talent roster and determine if it meets your needs, if it’s effective, and where there are holes. Identify areas of strength and weakness; consider creating succession plans, high-potential identification programs, and leadership development initiatives.
  • Develop strategically aligned performance measures; measure and manage performance, and reward where appropriate and address deficiencies when necessary (and yes, it is going to be both appropriate and necessary).

Erik Smetana is an HR strategist and talent leader with extensive experience working in and fostering teams and innovation for an eclectic mix of organizations including Fortune 500 companies, international not-for-profits, and institutions of higher education and research. His thoughts and opinions related to all things "employee experience" (and occasionally other topics) can be found online at