Earlier this month, myself, James Gherardi, and Gordon Whyte hosted a Senior Leaders Dinner at the Manor House, near Bristol. The event was attended by people from a diverse range of sectors, including high-tech engineering, product retail, high-end fashion retail, aviation, and professional services. We also had a great cross-section of people from CxOs, HRDs, MDs, and CPOs, to others in supply chain procurement, technology, and management consulting.

The biggest topic of conversation for the evening was mental health. It was a really emotive and open conversation, and one that probably wouldn’t have flowed so easily a few years ago. We also discussed the demands of the workforce today and what companies are doing to build their brand and improve retention, as well as what digital means to different sectors and the importance of making sure your business is prepared for the next piece of technology.

Here’s a more detailed rundown of the key takeaways.

People are talking more openly about mental health

The good news is that everyone in attendance had a strong awareness of the importance of mental health within their organisation. Not one person had not thought about it from a corporate perspective.

There was a feeling around the room that people are starting to have open conversations with transparency. There is no longer a bad association attached to mental health - it's seen as part of everyday life.

We talked about the importance of finding appropriate formulas and the ability to have the right conversations with people who might be struggling. People recognised that this could help reduce presenteeism, absenteeism, and staff turnover. What was really clear across the group was a desire to move towards a more thriving, engaged, and focused organisation - with mental health and wellbeing at the heart of it.

People shared some of the activity happening in their own organisation around supporting staff, from yoga and meditation to flexible and remote working. However, some talked about the challenges they’ve had getting CEOs or chairmen to understand the importance of talking about wellbeing. What’s clear is that if there are going to be initiatives around supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff, then it’s really got to come from the top.

The demands of today’s workforce are presenting new challenges

Another big theme of the evening was the demands of the workforce today and what organisations need to be offering to millennials and people coming through who are challenging what is perceived as the norm.

We talked about the ability to attract the right talent. Some of those in the high-tech, manufacturing, and engineering sectors certainly felt that the right talent just isn’t out there. What came out of this conversation was that although apprenticeships are great, it’s a big commitment for someone straight out of school to make. A couple of people talked about how their company had introduced apprentice schemes for people in their late 20s and 30s. They are focusing on a very different demographic where people are more settled, know what they want, and are focused on how they can drive their career forwards.

We also talked about the importance of building a workforce where people want to stay. A lot of companies don’t invest in succession planning, but those that do invest in and grow their own talent are demonstrably more successful.

As part of this, one person talked about how their company has invested heavily in HR. They’ve over-recruited on an HR Director, but part of their remit is to help the CEOs understand how to invest in people, drive succession planning, and build their capability to think about the long-term and the commercial capability of the business. It’s a gamble they are confident will pay off.

Digital means something different to every industry

In talking about technology and the world of digital, it became clear that ‘digital’ means something different to every industry. The world of digital for an aviation business is all about how people use smartphones to guide their end-to-end journeys. For retailers, it’s about giving people what they want, with minimal mistakes.

Yet, although from a functional perspective the approach to the use of technology is very different for an airline than it is for a retailer, in terms of the objectives, it's all the same. The central focus is always on customer centricity. Whatever your industry, your goal is to delight a customer through their experience to ultimately enhance loyalty and inform future buying decisions.

One interesting point made was that people invest huge amounts into technology, but they don’t give enough focus to what they want to do with it, how they want to engage people, and the effort involved in making sure everybody is trained appropriately.

What are you trying to get out of your investment? Have you got the appropriate infrastructure to take on this new piece of technology? By focusing on change management and getting the business to own the project rather than IT, organisations will be better able to deliver effective change into the world of AI technology.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with us about any of the themes we discussed? What are your company doing in the arena of mental health? What are your views on how to attract and retain the right talent? And what does digital mean for your business? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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