All Articles Leadership Workforce Are your people "issues," or are they a priority?

Are your people “issues,” or are they a priority?

Forward-looking leaders take people issues seriously and seek to hire not just for vacancies but for the future, writes Larry Robertson.

5 min read


people issues

SewcreamStudio/Getty Images

Ask virtually any CEO if their people are important to their organization’s success, and odds are their answer would be, yes. Those are their words. But the gap between word and deed is wide and troublesome. Why people are important, in what ways and how, are questions far too few senior leaders seem to ask. In no small way, it’s why everything from employee loyalty, to the clarity and durability of organizational culture so often go sideways, or worse backwards. Uncertain times such as these only make the gap and the threat to success worse. 

What are your priorities in hiring?

larry robertson headshot

Consider a pair of recent studies conducted by McKinsey & Co. While not the intent of either study, within each lie powerful indicators of leaders’ lack of appreciation for the criticality of people assets in their work and not just their words. For the first study, McKinsey interviewed more than 100 senior executives. Each was asked to consider what McKinsey called “10 timeless questions,” ones they believe leaders ought to ask across the life cycle of attracting and developing talent, maximizing performance and fortifying culture across their teams. But their answers to questions two through 10 matter less than the striking tone set by their answer to the very first question. “Are you hiring critical talent ahead of demand, or to fill vacancies?” The question wasn’t asked in a “right now, just in this moment” context, but in general, as a matter of hiring practice, regardless of time or circumstances. To this question, a staggering 79% of leaders said they hired to fill vacancies.

Perhaps your first reaction is, what’s the big deal? But pause for a moment, and give their response added thought. Anyone who has ever worked inside a company knows that there is a difference between vacancies and new openings. The former concerns roles that have always been there, from the time when the rationale for why those roles even needed to exist was clear versus convention. We all know that regardless of where they fall on the organizational hierarchy, over time many positions slip into a status where their most important function is simply to be filled. 

But recall that the first part of the question posed the possibility that leaders might instead hire based on anticipated demand — demand of the market, for example, or demand based on internal needs for new skills and perspectives. Such a hiring mindset suggests a forward-thinking leader, one who looks ahead and asks, “Who and what do we need to meet the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities coming our way?” It’s puzzling when three-quarters of senior leaders dismiss this line of thinking for investing in their people assets. 

The query about hiring ahead of demand also implies a well-accepted belief about leadership and how work gets done: that good leadership is situational. When you believe that, it follows that people ought not just be hired to fill a vacancy, but hired, retrained or regrouped to reflect a changing work environment. It’s an ever more pressing truth in a rapidly changing world, yet it’s hard to see how the leaders in this study reflect that.

Why your people should be your biggest concern

Perhaps the results of the first study were just an aberration. However, a separate study by McKinsey in the same timeframe suggested not. In McKinsey’s 2023 annual CEO Survey, the researchers sought insight into senior leaders’ biggest opportunities and concerns for the coming year, and, out of these, their key priorities. For the majority, three things topped the list: the rise of disruptive technologies, the risks of prolonged inflation and economic downturn, and the further escalation in geopolitical risks.

Strikingly, people issues didn’t begin to show up until fourth and fifth on the priority list — specifically, these two items: “the war for talent” and “shifts in the way we work.” Less than a third of leaders even listed these as top concerns. This ought to have us asking, just exactly who do leaders think will come up with solutions for dealing with disruptions in technology, economics or other risk areas threatening their companies? If they already knew how to solve these challenges within their existing teams, would they need to shift the way they worked, or even fight a war for new talent as they suggest they must? And if new talent is part of what they need, one wonders how they will win what they call the “war” for that talent simply by hiring to fill old slots in an old way of working, one they acknowledge must change.

Pointing out these findings isn’t meant to beat up on leaders. It instead suggests it’s time for them to question their inconsistencies when it comes to prioritizing versus simply paying lip service to their most important asset: people. These studies and others suggest a pressing need to pan back to the macro picture. If people really matter, and if they are as important to a leader’s success as so many leaders claim, why do the people issues only rise to the top in crises? Why don’t those challenges come ahead of everything else, especially when everything else ultimately comes back to people? Maybe it’s not a timeless question, but it’s about time leaders asked it seriously. 


Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


Take advantage of SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletters on leadership and business transformation, among the company’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.