Our guest:
Sarah Schwab
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About our guest

In this episode, we meet Sarah Schwab, founder and CEO of The Experience Accelerator, a start-up that improves learning outcomes for corporations and individuals by using persuasive technology – they offer a highly personalised, interactive service with a cutting-edge feel. The business was chosen as one of Europe’s ten leading Edtech startups for the 2017 Venturelab Edtech.

A graduate of Aston University and Thunderbird School of Global Management, Sarah has had leadership roles in global organisations, consultancy firms and entrepreneurial development organisations: roles that gave her a very clear insight into leadership development and how to accelerate it.


The workplace is changing faster than we might imagine.

In 2012 the global rate of change accelerated, moving from an average of 1.5 “significant changes” in our work life that year to an average of over three in 2015.  We all know someone that has had their job restructured, taken over or removed completely.

Also, the balance of power is shifting from the employer to the employee for highly skilled knowledge workers. Many are bringing different motivations to the workplace,   and sixty-two percent of millennials have thought about starting their own business.

And then, our lifestyles are changing too. In their book, “The 100 year Life”, Gratton and Scott look at how we are moving from three major phases of life; education, work and retirement, to one where people can expect to work to eighty using a range of old and new skills across many different industries.

This podcast looks at how we might all prepare for these societal upheavals, and lead the change that needs to happen not only in our organisations but also across society as a whole.

Sarah has some answers to these challenges.  She examines the role of executive leadership in setting the development tone in an organisation, the need for broad learning and leadership development for younger leaders, and the role of technology in assessing softer skills, which she contends are now core skills for many organisations.

Moreover, she worries about those that may not have access to such development and the growing gap between those that are ready for these changes and those that are not.  Finally, she looks at transhuman technologies and the role that AI, wearables and implants may have on our working life.

Top quotes

  • If we think about our children and our children’s children, they may well work into their eighties, and across the period of their career they could have seven, eight, nine different career stages, which, when you think about it, requires people to have a dramatically different learning mindset to cope with all of that change.
  • Large corporates in particularly more traditional industries are struggling to attract young talent. I see some progressive companies taking this shift on: I was actually lucky enough to work with a company here in Switzerland, they’re focussed on developing not just employees for what the company needs, but developing employees in a more rounded sense, and making them more employable, whether it’s for them or other organisations in the future.
  • Transhumanism is the theory that we, as humans, can evolve beyond our current physical and mental limitations.
  • We should all be focussing on the things that computers can’t do.
  • Great managers help inspire employees, and visualise the behaviours they want to adopt. They allow them to practice in a safe environment, and they give them frequent feedback. So, in some ways, I’m merely taking that dramatically important need in terms of driving behaviour change, and bringing it in a very affordable virtual way to learners all around the world.

The Big Takeaways

  • In a 100 Year Life, we can expect to work for longer – and those roles will change over time. Organisations and individuals will need to work on their learning and development needs, both inside and outside work.We know that the Social Contract between the employer and the employee is changing. It’s likely that learning and development beyond that of just the organisation’s needs will be a way of supporting individuals’ whole life learning. This may be seen by employees as an important part of that contract.
  • Some technologies are going to enhance our skills beyond what is currently thought possible. These Transhuman technologies may give individuals new and highly prized skills that traditionally would have required years of study. For example, language education could be replaced by an implant or wearable device.
  • Employees are coming to the workplace with different expectations of autonomy, motivation and engagement. The gig economy for skilled knowledge workers means that we may have some workers on output-based contracts, and not working in a traditional place-based way.
  • New methods supporting the measurement of soft skills will make them easier to assess and develop. Those soft skills will become core business skills.
  • New learning environments will deliver executive style training at scale but without the cost.


The People’s Insights podcast from Cognisco with Owen Ashby.

Hello, in this episode I’m going to be speaking with Sarah Schwab of the Experience Accelerator. Sarah is founder and CEO of the Experience Accelerator, a company providing high-impact for leaders and their organisations, through leadership devotement, with a cutting-edge feel. Sarah thrives on partnering with organisations, including Cognisco of course, to increase the time to value of their learning strategy, and developing the leaders they need to execute their future strategies flawlessly.

We think what Sarah does goes a great deal further than that, and we’re excited to tell you more. Sarah has extensive experience and significant qualifications in the area of leadership and development, and you’ll be able to pick up her full bio via the website on the podcast page. As I’ve just been explaining to Sarah, it’s such a full and comprehensive bio, that it deserves to be seen. But we need to crack on, so I’ll put the full details on the website there.

Cognisco partners with, and is interested in Sarah’s work, at the Experience Accelerator because we believe they bring something new and dynamic to the leadership and development world, a new more engaging, almost democratic model that enables us to combine forces and deliver a fantastic new approach to leadership development programmes to a much wider and geographically more disparate audience, much more inclusive proposition.

Welcome Sarah.

Thanks, so much Owen.

Sarah’s in a very beautiful part of Switzerland.  Lovely to hear and be with you today Sarah, I’ve given you a broad introduction there, and I don’t want to steal your thunder, I want to give you the opportunity to position this, and I think this for us at least is in the context of a new dynamic in the way the world is moving differently. So, perhaps if you could tell us what you think some of the shifts are that you see in the world of business and society in general, that make us think differently about learning in the future?

Yes, I’d be happy to do that Owen, and to start with thanks for having me, it’s such a pleasure to chat with you today.

The future; there’s probably three big things come to mind when I think about learning in the future. The first is longevity, there’s a great book called ‘The 100-year life’, Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott, they talk about how our parents and our grandparents had the traditional three-stage life; the one where you go to school, you go to work, and then you retire. I think even for people of our generation, that is increasingly becoming an obsolete model. But if we think about our children, and our children’s children, they may well work into their eighties, and across the period of their career they could have seven, eight, nine different career stages, which when you think about it requires people to have a dramatically different learning mindset to cope with all of that change. Gratton & Scott talk about this idea of a portfolio life where you have a portfolio of activities or work options for yourself, that you pick up and put down as you go through this extended working period our children will be experiencing. So, I think longevity is changing how we think about traditional corporate careers.

The second shift is somewhat linked to the first, I think about this as the changing social contract between employers and employees; to pick up on my former employer CEB, they had this interesting stat which is that in 2015 employees worldwide on average had three major changes in their worklife, whether that was an acquisition, or perhaps a restructure, and that was compared to nearly half that number just three years prior. So, between 2012 and 2015 there’s this massive change in frequency of shifting in our worklife, and I think we probably all know someone that got restructured recently, myself included! … about a year and a half ago. And, from my perspective, the best thing that ever happened to me, opportunity and change is wonderful.

But I think here its not really surprising that employees are taking matters into their own hands in some respects, whether that’s the explosion of the gig economy, 62 percent of millennials have considered starting their own business, or on the more negative side the fact that large corporates in particularly more traditional industries are struggling to attract young talent. I see some progressive companies taking this shift on, I was actually lucky enough to work with a company here in Switzerland, they’re focussed on developing not just employees for what the company needs, but developing employees in a sort of more rounded sense, and making employees be more employable, whether it’s for them or for other organisations in the future. That’s a really important mindset that large corporates need to take on, less about us as the large corporate, and more about how do we help prepare employees for this changing future.

The third one is, ‘Transhumanism’, what is transhumanism? Well, this is the theory that we as humans can evolve beyond our current physical and mental limitations, and it’s got a particular science and technology vent to it. It’s things like wearables and implantables, in its simplest form my Fit-bit has completely changed how I think about walking over the past couple of years! Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily delivering the results I was hoping, but yes, I walk a lot more than I used to. But I don’t think we’re that far away in all seriousness from much more dramatic changes in capabilities, and one of the things here is, what if our thought processes were so much faster and more transferable than they are today. Just as an example, here am I talking about transhumanism, my ability to communicate what I want to say is somewhat limited by how fast I can speak, and how quickly I can form the words in a logical fashion. But in actual fact, and you’ll have to trust me on this, my brain is moving so much faster, and what if I could send all my thoughts to you directly via technology, whether you’d want that or not would be a different question.

I guess the receiving of those thoughts would be similarly enabled, so somehow, I’d be able to triage that messaging in a way that enables me to respond to it, or act on it. You wouldn’t be a one-way transmission presumably?

Exactly, and those concepts of filtering I think is an important point as we think about learning in the future as well, but yes, absolutely. What I see in the press is a lot of negativity around these types of dramatic changes, and I probably fall in the camp who don’t see this so much with a fearful approach, notwithstanding the ethical and the security concerns need to be properly addressed, but rather if we think about this as our next evolutionary step, so, I can increase my human potential so much more dramatically than where I am today. I think it’s a really interesting phase of our development and has obviously huge implications for learning.

It does, absolutely, and it’s interesting that you’re already managing to see stuff that relatively speaking is still some way out for organisations but put it in context for today’s audience and I’m seeing a very almost pedestrian level, I’m seeing large scale organisations are starting to recognise a shift in not necessarily the balance of power, but maybe there’s almost an equilibrium in terms of the relationship between the employer, and the would-be employee, one way or another. The whole dynamic of that relationship is changing, and I think it’s in line with what you  were suggesting earlier about the idea of the portfolio career is no longer the preserve of the professions, per say. It’s almost just commonplace, it starts from potentially people selling stuff from their loft on eBay at the weekends, as well as doing their day job, to realise actually there are multiple revenue streams for one individual, there are multiple ways of being able to make money from their talents and capabilities one way or another. And now of course, technology facilitates that so much more readily.

It does feel we’re at the birth of that, I often think in terms of 20th Century and 21st Century businesses. 20th Century businesses are just not structured in a way that enables them to embrace and capitalise on some of that dynamic, although really cumbersome and slow in being able to respond to it. Whereas we know fast-cycle business that started just yesterday, the unicorns of this world could be outstripping some of the 20th Century businesses because they’re not incumbent by the operating models of the past, by the human capital kind of models of the past. They’re the people who are embracing the millennial approach to work and work life, and this whole idea of results only work enterprise, are you familiar with that model? Where we’re shifting away from bums on seats during the day, and saying, lets have an employment contract based around what you can deliver in a given period.

That in its own right opens up an enormous potential for parents who have got young children, who are eminently capable and intelligent people, but can’t and don’t want to go to the office 9 to 5. They’ve seen it I think a lot on the West Coast of America where really good developers would prefer to code at night, and surf during the day, they get the best out of those, they get the best people and they get the best out of them. It is interesting to how businesses move towards that. Those things are fascinating. For me, we’re starting to see stuff around… I guess again it’s slightly pedestrian, you’re moving away from the technical skills and assessing around technical skills, and the most businesses can bring themselves to talk about are soft skills and EQ.  I think you’re talking even further than that, aren’t you?

Absolutely, yes. And just back to the last point you made, I think it’s about choice and autonomy; when we’re talking about a much more extended working life, these two things whilst always important even in our current lives become increasingly more so, and I think businesses that get that and get the motivation and engagement factors that come along with given choice and autonomy, will ultimately be able as you said to attract the right talent.

Fascinating. I guess that’s why you’re saying that organisation now is looking at the humanity and the human, rather than being able to put people in job roles and functions, necessarily; being able to see how can we grow and develop a more rounded ethical human being, both for ourselves but also for other employers and for the future, so they just become more generally useful I guess to society as a whole.

Yes, that’s right.

The transhuman thing is fascinating and quite scary. I think there’s something about the fact you might be able to bring to life the concept of the Babelfish, which would just be marvellous wouldn’t it, how we all wanted that. There’s a step in-between we’re seeing here at Cognisco which is people are fascinated by AI, automation, robotics and the sort of things that would change the workplace, but they’re starting to move towards a realisation that humans bring a different dynamic and a capability, and what we need to be aware of is the ability for people to do critical thinking, to work with dilemmas, to work in peer groups, to work as parts of teams, and there seems to be a shift towards a better understanding of how do we get people to think more intelligently, yes, having the skills is one thing; to be able to lead, to be able to make decisions in difficult times and under pressure, to be able to think around complex problems and dilemmas, are they the sorts of things you’re seeing as sort of a new focus for the market in the industry?

Yes, absolutely. I saw a great post on LinkedIn today which was focussed around we should all be focussing on the things that computers can’t do, and I’ll share a little bit about some cool new AI developments I’ve seen. But I think the reality is we need to realise we are a long-long way away in AI terms, from being able to simulate some of these more complex behaviours you’ve just described. So, I absolutely see that as a place to focus. I think there’s also interesting scientific discoveries about how the brain works, with respect to some of those complex behaviours that are really interesting to me. As you know I’m fascinated with Avatars and how we can accelerate learning by using them, there’s a couple of pieces of seminal research, and I had a bit of a starry moment last week, I was at the World VR Forum, in Crans-Montana and I met Mar Gonzalez-Franco who is one of the seminal researchers in the field, and I got to shake her hand!

Was it really her hand!?

It really was her hand, not an avatar! She’s now with Microsoft Research Group, but she’s published research that says, if your avatar looks 70 percent or more like you, your brain processes that in the same way as if you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, which if you think about it, it has some interesting implications from a visualisation perspective. I pair that with another great piece of research out of Stanford University, Nicky and Jeremy Bailenson, they’ve coined this term called the proteus effect, and what they’ve been able to show is that using avatars can cause your behaviour to change, so a couple of key experiments they were able to demonstrate, but even just after a short exposure to avatars they were able to see that the avatars could help the human confirm to the behaviour the avatar was doing.

A couple of experiments, the first one was, participants who had avatars that were slightly more attractive than themselves were much more confident in approaching members of the opposite sex. So if you believe in your better self you’re more likely to adopt behaviour that will be more socially aware, and the second study they did was in the field of negotiations where people’s who’s avatars were slightly taller, slightly more attractive to them, actually had better negotiating outcomes than people whose avatars were shorter, and the shorter and the less attractive they were, more willing to accept lesser attractive offers in the negotiation, than the slightly better looking avatars.

I think those two pieces together allow us to create this concept of a digital visualisation process, so we can see our future self as we would like to be or, doing a behaviour we would like to master. I think that’s particularly intriguing from a learning perspective.

Does the data show that by people practicing, or going through the motions with an avatar that represents themselves, and obviously working with other avatars, it enables them to embody that sense of confidence or capability in their real world? Is that effectively what you’re saying, they would translate that…?

That’s correct. I think there’s still work to be done on how long, so I don’t think this is a shortcut for deliberate practice and other well-researched methods we know for adopting behaviour change more permanently. But, there’s some interesting cognitive activity that happens when you see your avatar performing in skills or behaviour that you don’t have yet, and yes indeed the research backs-up the fact that you’re more likely to adopt those behaviours after the avatar emersion, as it were.

That’s totally awesome. Some of the deep practice work you menti