The 2019 Culture First Conference held July 29 to 31 in San Francisco brought “people geeks” from organizations throughout the world together to explore the hottest topics in organizational culture. Sponsored by Culture Amp, the powerhouse agenda featured Simon Sinek, Josh Bersin, DeRay McKesson, Cleo Wade, Pamela Abalu and Chinedu Echeruo among a host of other inspiring keynote and breakout speakers talking about employee experience trends, diversity and inclusion, engagement and performance, change management and more.

So, what did we learn about the future of work? In the age of technology, service-based economy and heightened anxiety, what matters more than anything is humanity. In our tech-connected world, relational currency is of the utmost value. The denominations include the very human capabilities of curiosity, wisdom, empathy, intent, resilience, respect and belonging. Here are our top 10 takeaways:

1. Leaders as storytellers.

Culture Amp’s CEO Didier Elzinga described how storytelling is his way of making sense of the world. “The stories we tell sing our world into existence.” It reminds us of a recent Forbes article that declared, “Storytellers have always been the ones considered the best people to lead us into the future. We are a storytelling species. We think in story, talk in story, and admire those who keep and spread our stories.”

2. You are what you pay attention to.

Mindfulness can turn stress into energy. When we think about the most meaningful achievements in our life — as an employee, a leader, a parent, a person — they are intimately tied up with pressure. And that can be a good thing if we adapt our mindset to use stress as a power for good and let go of the “fight or flight” negativity. Artist Cleo Wade reminded us “remember not to care about the things you don’t even care about.”

3. The learning curve is the earning curve.

Josh Bersin talked about the continued shift to a service-based economy with the rise of AI. While economic growth must now be driven by productivity, we’re simply running out of people and the alternative workforce is now mainstream. People are learning to continuously re-skill, up-skill and reinvent themselves to meet new demands.

4. Lead teams by amplifying individuality.

Development isn’t about shaping people, it’s about amplifying their vision of themselves. The best teacher helps you access the gifts you already have. The best coach tells you what you might not want to hear so that you can become the person you want to be. The best leader doesn’t give 110%, they give 100%, leaving room for others to participate so they don’t diminish their opportunity. Simon Sinek challenged us to “stand up and be the leader you want to have.”

5. Shift from D&I to DEI.

Diversity & Inclusion has evolved to “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” and it’s for good reason. Diversity is about numbers, inclusion is about belonging, but equity is about giving everyone what they need and deserve by building programs and systems that enable inclusivity. Yet bias is inherent to our humanity and the struggle continues. DeRay McKesson (Pod Save the People and Black Lives Matter) said, “Never confuse a change in conversation with a change in outcomes.”

6. The new age of diversity.

Chip Conley, author and founder of Modern Elder Academy, pointed out that an aging workforce is one of the few natural resources that’s increasing. The average person born in 2007 will live to be 100 years old. People are looking at 50- to 70-year careers and the fastest growing segment in the labor market is 60+ with a 35% increase in this demographic in the last 5 years. Workplaces are being shared among five generations that can look like different countries on the same continent — speaking different dialects and practicing different customs. Fair trade of curiosity and wisdom among these groups can make possibilities a reality.

7. Employment as a platform for activism.

Bersin said, “We go to work to fulfill our destiny.” McKesson added, “The best workplaces help people see magic in themselves.” People trust their employers more than anyone right now (Edelman Trust Barometer). Employee engagement, while still relatively low, is as high as it has ever been. What matters most to employees today is meaningful work.

8. Culture is a manifestation of values.

And like culture, your values are not static, nor are they under your control. First, we shape our values, then our values shape us. Elzinga referenced the movie “As Good As It Gets” to say that our values should make us want to be a better version of ourselves. Documenting your values isn’t enough, you have to define and model behaviors that make your values actionable and observable. “If I have to search for your values, they’re not values. We have to be able to see them,” said McKesson.

9. Building a great culture—and a great customer relationship—starts with genuine care for people.

“Work is love made visible,” declared Chinedu Echeruo and Pamela Abalu (Love & Magic Company). Empathy is innovation. Meeting the unmet needs of your customer is the greatest innovation there is. McKesson reminded us that “people have experiences before they have the words to describe them.”

10. We’re playing an infinite game.

The infinite game is not won. It’s not about defeating your opponent. The infinite game is staying focused on your just cause, the reason for your work. As market conditions change, competitors rise and fall, but a just cause inspires your community with purpose and gives your organization staying power.

In the coming weeks, we will dig deeper into several of these trends by building on these insights and mapping out action plans that will impact our own agency culture and the experiences we create for our clients. Stay tuned!

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