The global economy is brimming with new competitors and new challenges. As soon as we think we've mastered one aspect of doing business in this new environment, another, unexpected issue becomes an all-consuming priority, as we're seeing with the current economic crisis. Right now, the issues of gender, a high-performing workforce, the skills gap, demographics, and the growing confidence of emerging-market multinationals are all converging at a time of great uncertainty. This translates into increased opportunity for emerging markets -- and increased pressure for established ones.
Indeed, the current financial crisis has underscored just how interconnected the global economy is. To achieve both long-term success and high performance, management must anticipate the motivations and concerns of every sector of tomorrow's workforce and plan accordingly. To better understand how prepared women and men feel to meet the coming challenges, Accenture (NYSE:ACN - News) conducted a major study, One Step Ahead of 2011: A New Horizon for Working Women. Interviews with 4,000 women and men in 17 countries at the end of 2007 produced a surprising conclusion: 68% of businesswomen in India, 63% in South Africa, 61% in China, and 52% in Brazil feel confident about their ability to succeed in a global business world. By contrast, only 46% of U.S. women -- and men -- feel that they're ready to compete in the larger international talent pool.
A Talent Strategy Is Imperative
We know that many emerging-market multinationals focus on talent management and offer a wide array of inventive educational and training programs that no doubt boost their employees' self-confidence. As a result, employers in the traditional powerhouse economies will have to address significant gaps in skills readiness so that their employees can match the confident outlook of those in up-and-coming economies. Additionally, women told our researchers that a willingness to use technology, such as blogs and social networks, will be critical to business success in the next four years. They believe that any future success will come from a combination of ambition and drive, passion for their chosen careers. and family support.
At Accenture, we are taking these concerns very seriously. We offer arrangements such as flex-time, "future leave," and telecommuting that make it possible for employees to balance work/life demands -- and we encourage clients to do likewise. We counsel our employees to develop successful talent strategies in the same way they build marketing or financial strategies. Finding ways to attract and retain the widest array of high performers -- both men and women -- is as much an imperative for us as it is for our clients.
Increasingly, I believe, women are now taking stock of their own abilities and are actively seeking the training, the networking opportunities, and the stretch assignments that will broaden their prospects for 2011 and beyond. For the businesses that employ them, this is the time to assess gaps in current training and leadership development and to pursue workforce innovations and collaborations that will attract and retain tomorrow's brightest talent. Technology and pro-active, agile career-path management tools top the list.
A Disparity in Professional Networking
Although Accenture's study found that women are developing the skills and the confidence to succeed in the global marketplace, there are several areas in which women are not achieving parity with their male counterparts. The study found that more men than women cite technical capabilities and fostering professional relationships as having helped their career advancement. More than one-quarter of all respondents said that men are more effective than women at building those professional networks.
One explanation for that disparity may be the different attitudes that men and women have toward competition. A study, conducted by Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh and Muriel Niederle of Stanford University, found that too many high-ability women chose not to compete at work tasks, while too many low-ability men did. The explanations were twofold: Men were found to be vastly more overconfident than women, and men seemed to embrace competition while women shied away from it.
Armed with that knowledge, women must find ways to become comfortable asking for what they want. One solution: mentoring. Says Roxanne Taylor, Accenture's chief marketing and communications officer, "I've looked for mentors who could teach me something or help me understand a new area. But you learn just as much when you serve as a mentor. Developing relationships based on trust with people who are both senior and junior to you is a two-way street."
Notable Demographic Developments
Another important issue for Western companies is demographics. True, a decade ago organizational behavior experts were aware of the aging Baby Boom generation and declining birth rates in the West. But they did not anticipate two developments that would exacerbate the skills-gap crisis.
First, many emerging markets haven't experienced the same declines in birth rate. In fact, most of them have been enjoying their demographic advantage. Additionally, many of their young people earn advanced degrees outside of their home countries. While, traditionally, large numbers of these highly trained graduates stayed in the West to work, many are now returning home, particularly to China and India, taking their skills with them.
And second, there are now three different generations working side-by-side. Baby boomers (born between 1940 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1964 and 1979) and Generation Y (born between 1979 and 2000) all have distinct values, expectations, and attitudes toward work -- and motivational factors also differ significantly. In Accenture's study, baby boomers in India, China, and Brazil were as confident about succeeding in a global economy as their younger peers. In the U.S., however, while Generations X and Y were confident, baby boomers were particularly pessimistic. Only 34% of the boomers were confident about their ability to compete in the global economy of the future. In the European Union countries, boomers and Generation X were both gloomy, and only the youngest -- Generation Y -- respondents viewed the future with confidence.
The results are significant for corporations, because only those that understand the generations' differing values and develop appropriate leadership training and meaningful career experiences for each group will have a competitive edge in maximizing innovation, creativity, and productivity.
Stepping Out of a Comfort Zone
Women -- particularly Western women -- must strive to develop the critical skills necessary for career success in the globalized marketplace. At the same time, they must stretch out of their comfort zones and learn to speak up. Companies that recognize the training, coaching, and opportunities that women need -- and act accordingly -- will have a competitive advantage. So, too, will those companies that welcome a diverse workforce, creating global networks of expert resources that include people, knowledge, and tools.
Talent management -- attracting, developing, and retaining the right women (and yes, men, too) for today's business imperatives and meeting or anticipating their cultural, career, and life needs -- has truly become a global issue. The best senior business leaders in both developed and developing economies have placed this complicated, complex calculus at the top of their agendas, and more than ever in the current economic climate, this capability will be a highly differentiated asset for tomorrow.