Everyone wonders how their lives might be different had they made different decisions. Whether studying a different discipline, taking another job or making a career pivot, these moves shape our futures. However, personal choices are only one part of the equation. We all have different human potential, which theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming defines as “what we could all create if we had the same opportunities.” 

The problem, of course, is that factors outside of our control have a profound impact on realizing this potential. For example, a person’s potential might be constrained by encountering discrimination or a lack of economic opportunity, leading them down a very different path than someone without similar experiences. And this reverberates across the world of work.

Ming is passionate about solving these problems, with an eye to how employers can help. She has built a career as a successful researcher, entrepreneur and author, but her life could have been much different. Ming dropped out of college and even experienced homelessness, but a decade later, she had the opportunity to return — ultimately earning a PhD and founding multiple companies. 

Indeed is delighted to welcome Ming as a keynote speaker at Interactive 2021: Hire Potential, our one-day virtual event for leaders in talent and hiring. With a background in education, hiring and artificial intelligence (AI), Ming brings her unique experience, training and passion for helping others to all of her projects. To gear up for the big event, we spoke with Ming to learn about the role of technology at work, why diverse teams are crucial for creativity and how employers can help workers reach their full potential. 

Technology is a tool — workers are the craftspeople

Ming might be an expert in AI, but she doesn’t think automation and other technologies will replace human workers. Instead, Ming says, these are merely tools in our toolkit, enabling human craftspeople to work in new ways and tackle new problems. 

AI is great for automating routine tasks for workers of all skill levels — for example, manufacturing duties for factory workers or preliminary job screenings for recruiters. However, this technology is no match for people when it comes to soft skills such as creativity, curiosity and critical thinking, and these uniquely human abilities will continue to be crucial in the workplace.

In fact, Ming believes that creative labor will become the dominant currency in tomorrow’s world of work. As AI frees workers to devote more time to their development, she says, soft skills will flourish, increasingly setting people apart from the bots. For employers, this means the time is now to start recruiting with an emphasis on these skills. 

Diverse teams use differences to build innovation

Creativity might be uniquely human, but that doesn’t make it easy to harness. While it’s necessary for innovation, employers often struggle to assemble teams that push each other to think in exciting new ways. 

A great hire combines soft skills such as resilience and communication with the technical abilities needed for the job — but Ming’s research shows it’s impossible for companies to create a template for the perfect worker. What’s more, trying to find that elusive ideal can lead to bias, such as hiring people from a select handful of universities or excluding candidates with less traditional career paths. Such practices create homogeneous teams less prone to innovation, says Ming, since people from similar backgrounds tend to think along the same lines. 

Recruiters can help break this pattern. Ming suggests focusing on candidates’ distinctive knowledge and abilities, such as expertise in a particular subject or with a new technological tool, and asking how they might utilize these in the role or team in question. For instance, multigenerational teams often offer a variety of perspectives when developing a new product or tackling a client problem. 

“The best solutions are always found by highly diverse teams. They bring their unique mixture of expertise together, come up with some new idea and bring it to the broader world,” she says. “When you bring in someone who is different to a team, innovation goes up, intelligence goes up, … [and] productivity goes up.” Once again, we see that diversity in hiring isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s good for business.

To prepare for the future, harness human potential now

Despite the benefits of a diverse workplace, many employers still struggle to hire and retain people with different experiences. For Ming, this doesn’t just lead companies to miss out on untapped talent, it also keeps individuals from full realization.

“[Human potential] is the idea that every person has not just the potential, but a genuine existing ability to contribute,” she explains, “but most of us really never have the opportunity.”

For Ming, it’s crucial for all people to have role models they can relate to, and the world of work is no exception. This is informed by her own struggles to find role models who shared her experiences.

“When I was growing up [in the 1970s] as someone who went through gender transition, the ... ‘best’ possible representation … was [being] a punchline in a sitcom,” she recalls, and she didn’t have any managers or company leaders who could relate to this part of her background. 

In Ming’s view, employers have the power to alter people’s lives tremendously by ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences are represented at every job level. 

For example, “when a woman becomes a leader at a company, younger women at that company actually invest more hours and have better career outcomes because now they have a reason to believe that it will pay off,” Ming says.

This means companies need to take a closer look at how they hire and raise awareness about the dangers of unconscious bias. We all have them, Ming says; the trick is recognizing these tendencies so we can correct them, and it starts with people in hiring roles. By combining a greater self-awareness with a more intentional approach to connecting with job seekers, recruiters can get to know candidates beyond their resumes.

This is where small steps can make a big difference: employers might remove candidates’ names from their resumes, for instance, or ensure greater diversity on their hiring panels. The trick, she says, is to find people who are different yet complement one another — which requires taking the time to get to know each hire and determine where in the organization they might fit best.

“The best recruiters I've ever met,” she says, “are the ones that really went out there and built relationships, found people, … took the time to get to know them and found the right spot for them.”

The future will look different, but we can prepare for it now

Drawing on her unique personal, intellectual and professional background, Ming’s work sheds new light on how employers and job seekers can build a better future. While technologies will continue to transform our lives, Ming assures us that they will not replace humans; instead, workers will be the craftspeople who use their unique skills to apply tools like AI. This means that distinctly human soft skills, such as creativity, will become even more prized in the years to come.

Ming believes that building diverse workforces and teams is crucial for innovation. When workers bring different skills, experiences and perspectives to the table, the end products are better. 

Finally, Ming’s passion for human potential is a call to action for employers. A job can change a person’s life, and recruiters have a responsibility to wisely wield that power. By focusing more closely on their own biases and slowing down to ensure that each candidate gets proper consideration, they can help employers harness human potential one job at a time.