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Heather McGowan

The Solutions Exchange

By: Megan Schneider

Why is a car’s windshield so much bigger than its rearview mirror? “Because we need to focus much more on what lies ahead than what is behind us,” says Heather E. McGowan, co-author of The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work (Wiley, April 2020). A future of work strategist, McGowan helps organizations rethink their business structures and models amid changing markets. While COVID-19 forced entire school systems and many higher education institutions to transform essentially overnight, emerging opportunities for innovation can only be realized if leaders are open to adapt in the face of rapid and disruptive change, argues McGowan. What follows is a preview of the insights she will share as one of three NACUBO 2021 Annual Meeting keynote speakers.

Hit the Gas

While many economists and workforce strategists would agree the pandemic accelerated certain transitions already underway—like the rapid move to digital transactions and all online learning—McGowan is impressed not only by the abruptness of the transformation but how superbly most adapted. Within academia, the conversation for years has been about whether a particular course or a program could really move online, and whether certain instructors would actually be willing to teach online, notes McGowan. “Almost overnight it all happened—and largely successfully. Inside of two weeks to a month, essentially everyone who could work and learn online was doing so, and we decided to put our trust in remote teams.”

When you stop and think about it, no new tools came out that made it possible for those who were able work from home or to learn online to do so, notes McGowan. “The only thing that changed was human behavior. There was no longer a reluctance to use these tools and technologies.” Something else this forced social experiment of a global health pandemic has underscored for McGowan is what she proclaims is the new work future encompassing the who, what, where, why, and how of work and workers.

Rewrite the Roadmap

As we emerge from the pandemic, most are concerned with the major factor that got disrupted during the pandemic, notes McGowan. Place. Where we work has come under scrutiny because that is what is most acutely ahead of us in our decision framework, says McGowan. “Now essentially all the conversations are about remaining remote, calling everyone back to the office, or considering hybrid options.” While we can and should question the where of work, there are other equally pressing concerns, notes McGowan.

The pandemic likewise accelerated our willingness to hand some tasks off to technology and to automate routine and predictable tasks as a way to reduce risk and scale solutions, notes McGowan. The what of work can now shift to thinking more about the ways workers should spend their time.

How we work also deserves a fresh look, suggests McGowan. The eight-hour day got its roots more than 100 years ago when Henry Ford determined that all the accidents on the production line were occurring in hours 9, 10, and 11. While there is still a need for defined shift work in some industries, many more workers today are engaged in cognitive work that thrives under different work time increments, but is also not as time bound, notes McGowan.

Assess the Landscape

Among the most enlightening revelations of the pandemic is who has been most impacted, suggests McGowan. “We have learned much more about racial, income, and gender inequities that exist in our systems and society that we need to fix.” The pandemic likewise highlighted how the workplace has been designed primarily for men with no caregiving responsibilities, notes McGowan. When you consider that somewhere between 2.3 and 3 million women—mostly moms—left the workforce because of the need to care for a family member, you can better understand that our soft infrastructure is pretty badly broken, notes McGowan. “This has not only moral but economic implications.”

Finally, why we work is undergoing a shift toward greater emphasis on a person’s sense of purpose, says McGowan. “If you have a sense of what motivates you, and then try to marry that with market needs, it may take you longer to find the right job but you will be happier if you can ultimately align work with your self-expression”—what McGowan calls being self-propelled.

She suggests we are now entering a human capital era when the vast majority of companies today are no longer making tangible stuff but are creating value. “To match these times, we need humble curious learners who can help teams and team members become self-propelled learners, not leaders who are unquestioned experts who drive productivity top down,” says McGowan. “To take advantage of opportunities, we need leaders comfortable with vulnerability and ambiguity.” More broadly, we need to shift from treating humans like a cost to contain rather than an asset to develop, argues McGowan. This will require investing more in how we recruit, train, and take care of employees.

Adjust Course

The transition to a human capital economy also requires higher education leaders to recalibrate their thinking about what colleges and universities produce. “For so long higher education has been graduating students with predetermined skills, existing knowledge, and fixed occupational identities. That singular focus is killing higher education,” suggests McGowan. Instead, institutions must place greater focus on developing students who can explore what drives them and promote a transdisciplinary mindset so that graduates can better adapt between opportunities.

To accomplish this, higher education institutions have to think of themselves more as startups, says McGowan. “It has never been better time to be in the learning business if you can define that learning business as broadly as possible.” Even pre-pandemic, IBM was projecting 120 million workers worldwide (approximately 12 million in the US) would need to be reskilled or upskilled within the next three years, notes McGowan. “That number has tripled since the pandemic in part because of changes in occupations now in demand.”*

To be solely in the degree-granting business or the credentialing business may work for some institutions with large endowments or state funding, notes McGowan. The most agile will launch experiments continuously to address the exploding demand for learning, which today is a moving target.

“We no longer have time to follow the standard formula for creating a new bachelor’s degree from scratch, which can take a decade from the time you identify a market need to when you get your first student credentialed,” notes McGowan. “Higher education must adapt to a world coming at it much more quickly and must look through that windshield beyond what you can immediately see on the horizon.”

Megan Schneider is senior director, government affairs, at NACUBO and can be reached at



Liz Clark

Vice President, Policy and Research


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