Jobs and the Future of Work

Jobs and skills: 3 essential talent traits for tumultuous times

A candidate is interviewed for a job.

Companies with professionals who possess all-round strengths will be best able to navigate the changes ahead. Image: Unsplash/Van Tay Media

David Maya
Partner, Oliver Wyman
Tim Xu
Partner, Oliver Wyman
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  • Unpredictable business conditions around the world are creating a need for more versatile “athletes” to complement specialized “role players” across organizations.
  • When the economic environment changes quickly, role players can find themselves stuck in their ways, while athletes quickly recognize new patterns and figure out how to respond.
  • Adding more athletes alongside role players can give organizations the best of both worlds.

For more than two decades, starting in the early 1990s, free trade and open markets allowed companies to hyperspecialize their workforces to gain efficiencies and operational effectiveness in complex industries. We call these specialist workers “role players.”

The rise of role players was appropriate, even optimal, in that complicated but relatively stable period of economic history. But it is no longer sufficient — and perhaps even counterproductive — in an uncertain business environment like today’s.

Some prominent thinkers believe the world has entered a long period of instability, marked by debt crises, international conflict, worsening climate conditions and disruptions led by artificial intelligence. “Let’s consider the possibility that the 2020s could actually be worse than the 1970s,” said economic historian Niall Ferguson last year.

In such an environment, companies with professionals who possess all-round strengths are best able to navigate the changes ahead. Welcome to the era of the “athlete.”

The case for more athletes

Cognitive research shows that deep expertise works through pattern recognition. Chess masters, for example, have near-instant recognition of more than 50,000 patterns they draw on for decision-making. In stable environments like a chess match, role players excel: their ability to recognize patterns enables fast, accurate decisions.

But when the rules change, role players can find themselves stuck or, worse, making wrong decisions by applying old solutions to new problems.

Athletes, on the other hand, quickly recognize when the rules have changed and how the team can respond. They also draw from a library of past patterns and experiences, but their pattern set is significantly broader.

Balanced teams with a mix of athletes and role players are a sight to see. They are fluid, well integrated and innovative, and they tend to discover systematic edges that lead to long periods of success.

Have you read?

In our consulting work for major global corporations, we have seen three “athlete” attributes that have been particularly helpful amid the volatility of the past few years: broad perception, generalizable expertise and adaptability.

Broad perception

Role players with narrow scopes don’t always recognize changes quickly enough. Worse, they are more likely to be overconfident, believing in their intuition derived from deep expertise even when conditions don’t suit them.

Athletes, on the other hand, are able to quickly understand how disruptions threaten their assumptions, and then work with the experts to develop necessary adjustments.

One major US airline has built its talent model around finding people with broad perception and placing them in rotational programmes that satisfy their curiosity, build skillsets, and put their broad perception to work. Such traits are essential in an industry that must get equipment, people, fuel and cargo in precisely the right place at the right time in order for each of its thousands of flights per day to take off on schedule.

Last year, amid difficult weather patterns, strong travel demand and severe labour shortages, US airlines posted their worst on-time performance since 2014. Customer complaints more than tripled in 2022 compared with 2019. But this airline has survived and, by some metrics, thrived during the turbulence. A decade ago, it set out to increase customer satisfaction (as measured by Net Promoter Score, a measure of the likelihood of a customer recommending the company to others) from less than 20% to at least 50%. It not only achieved that goal in 2019, it managed to soar even higher in 2022, despite the industry’s many challenges.

Generalizable expertise

Specialists excel at doing one thing well. For athletes, their main expertise is in reasoning, problem solving, learning and recombining knowledge. In essence, they are experts at becoming experts — an especially useful trait in unstable and changing environments.

One financial information and technology firm, for example, faced extreme pressure during the global financial crisis. Its solution: amass more generalizable expertise.

First, it brought in a new CEO who had limited experience in its businesses but was well-regarded for his leadership and stakeholder management skills. The CEO, in turn, filled his executive management team with similar athletes: a CFO who led transformations in the food and beverage industry, a technology chief experienced in banking and payments, the CEO of a key but troubled division who had been an effective and strategic human resources executive.

These athletes have leveraged their generalizable expertise to drive a significant turnaround, quickly addressing core challenges, capitalizing on favourable market trends, and more than doubling revenue. So far this team of athletes, working alongside specialists, has engineered nearly an eightfold increase in the company’s share price over the past 10 years, more than triple the S&P 500’s return during the same period.


Studies show that leaders with varied backgrounds tend to marshal more innovation. That’s because broad experiences help leaders generate systematic, cross-cutting ideas to continuously adapt to a changing environment.

Consider the plight of retailers. Many have stuck with role-playing specialists amid their industry’s transformation, deepening the lines between homegrown brick-and-mortar experts and imported e-commerce and digital marketing experts, or between tenured leaders and newer hires with only headquarter experience.

But one fast-growing retailer is bucking the industry trend. It is one of the few major US grocers that competes with technology and financial firms for top undergraduate talent — including on compensation. It then systematically exposes these young athletes-to-be to a broad range of experiences and skills before placing them in leadership roles. Over the years this has created, reinforced and sustained a culture of adaptability, producing leaders who understand all the moving pieces and can react effectively and quickly as trends change.

The grocer is now enjoying the payoff: It is rapidly penetrating the heavily saturated US market, taking advantage of changing customer preferences and an unpredictable business environment to vault into the top five.

Where to start

The organizations that will thrive in the next several years will identify, attract and train athletes, while making the organizational changes necessary for them to thrive alongside specialists. Most won’t be able to build thriving teams with athletes overnight; “big bang” changes will likely be too disruptive to work smoothly.

But organizations can start by championing and systematizing internal mobility across functions, identifying and promoting the athletes they already have, and evaluating recruiting and compensation strategies to attract more of this kind of talent. Taken together, such actions can increase resilience, innovation and agility in the face of uncertainty.

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