What's on Your Agenda?

Ten senior executives and thinkers explain the most crucial item on their leadership agenda.

Confusing times demand clear thinking and focused execution. The best leaders are those who can concentrate everyone's attention on the most important threats facing their organization — and on the biggest and best opportunities for creating a fast-growth future. We asked 10 senior executives and thinkers to explain the most crucial item on their leadership agenda.

Ray Lane

Job: General partner
Org: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
Place: Menlo Park, California

After I left Oracle, I started to think about the Internet from a broader perspective. Out of that thinking came my vision of the "real-time enterprise." That's a fancy tag line for a company that uses Internet technology to drive out manual business processes, to eliminate guesswork, and to reduce costs. My goal is to help create companies that can enable or fulfill at least a part of that vision.

The key feature of a real-time enterprise is spontaneous transaction flow. In most businesses today, an event like a customer order spawns thousands of transactions that go through a series of vertically organized departments. As a result, most companies have a highly fragmented view of their customers. A real-time enterprise addresses that problem.

The Internet is still the most important business platform of the past century. Nothing rivals the Net when it comes to reinventing business processes. Size begets complexity, and complexity loses. But the Net can enable big companies to behave like the small, homespun companies that they once were.

Ray Lane joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers last September, shortly after resigning his position as president and COO of Oracle Corp. Earlier in his career, he held senior positions at Booz Allen & Hamilton and EDS.

Aaron Sorkin

Job: Creator, executive producer, and writer of The West Wing
Place: Burbank, California

When the West Wing first met with popular acclaim, I just panicked. I started worrying that the show could become very unpopular very fast. For whatever reason, I desperately need the approval, week after week, of 17 million complete strangers. Without sinking too far into the therapist's couch, I'll just say that I fear failure — and for me, the worst kind of failure is writing a bad script.

How do I do that? Logistically, there aren't enough hours in the day. Even when I finish a script, that just means that I'm late in starting the next one. But for me, the trick is to follow the rules of classic storytelling. Drama is basically about one thing: Somebody wants something, and something or someone is standing in the way of him getting it. What he wants — the money, the girl, the ticket to Philadelphia — doesn't really matter. But whatever it is, the audience has to want it for him.

In the end, my goal is to create compelling theater. Beyond that, I'd like to celebrate public service. We tend to view politicians either as Machiavellian schemers or as dolts. Neither type interests me. Similarly, I'd like to raise the level of public debate. I don't want to create some kind of after-school special, but I would like to see certain issues receive a full-throated airing.

Aaron Sorkin writes roughly 70 pages of dialogue per week for The West Wing. His writing credits also include the movies A Few Good Men (1992), Malice (1993), The American President (1995), and the TV show Sports Night.

Kathy Biro

Job: Cofounder and vice chairman
Org: Digitas Inc.
Place: Boston, Massachusetts

This year marks the end of the dotcom smugfest. To celebrate, I've set aside my managerial responsibilities so that I can fully explore the future of e-business. The Internet industry is desperate for adults who can speak in reasoned tones.

Only two metrics matter: return on investment from your marketing mix and lifetime value of each of your customers. Forget about clicks, hits, and page views. You can't treat the Web like a mass-marketing vehicle — not anymore.

What's the right marketing mix? You have to make sure that every point of contact — in a store, by phone, on the Web — is completely synergistic. The Web has proven that customers have zero tolerance for fragmented lines of business.

Meanwhile, results matter. You need to convert new customers into real revenue. The biggest risk to the growth of the Internet is something that nobody had considered until very recently: What if most Net spending simply ends up generating business that companies would have gotten anyway?

In the end, my job is to help the industry prove the positive economic impact of the Internet. The Internet represents a fundamental transformation that we can't take for granted. For companies even to consider cutting back on Internet spending is absolutely criminal.

Kathy Biro (kbiro@digitas.com) was director of Digitas until January of this year. Before helping to start Digitas, a $187 million Internet-services firm, she was a senior strategist at its predecessor, the consulting firm Bronner Slosberg Humphrey.

Charles E. Phillips

Job: Managing director, enterprise and Internet software
Org: Morgan Stanley Dean Witter
Place: New York, New York

The glamour days of B2B commerce may be over. But B2B is alive and ready for the next stage: a multiyear build-out. The question now is whether customers are building the requisite infrastructure to go from concept to reality. That transition isn't going to be easy or quick — but I'm still bullish on B2B.

Right now, I'm focusing on early adopters — companies that have written checks for B2B projects. If those companies really use B2B exchanges, they will generate revenue and create value for their stockholders. To be sure, there's a huge chicken-and-egg problem. People need to take responsibility for leading buyers and sellers into each online marketplace — and for training those players on how to use it. That's mundane work. But eventually, one big attraction of each marketplace will be that other people are already there.

Companies are not going to shelve their B2B initiatives just because the economy slows down. When the downturn started, Jack Welch said that it spending was the one thing that General Electric wouldn't cut. Not every CEO thinks like Welch, but enough of them do. The B2B sector has a critical mass of early adopters. And even in hard times, I don't think that a single big company is prepared to say, "Paper is fine. Let's just keep doing it the old way."

Charles E. Phillips (charles.phillips@msdw.com) joined Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in 1994 as an equity-research analyst. Previously, he was an analyst for Kidder, Peabody & Co., SoundView Financial Group Inc., and the Bank of New York.

J Mays

Job: Vice president of design
Org: Ford Motor Co.
Place: Detroit, Michigan

Traditionally, car designers have had a slightly elitist view of what's right for customers. That's changing a lot with the new generation of designers. Most of us listen more carefully to customers than our predecessors did. For example, I'm working with people from Ford's brand-development team, taking the verbal information that they gather about customers and turning it into a visual sensibility that speaks to those customers.

While change is important at Ford, what really defines us as a company is what we keep from our history. At least in North America, people have had an emotional connection to Ford that goes back to our Midwestern roots, and we need to draw on that tradition even as we tweak it. Take the new Thunderbird: It's unabashedly fun and American; it's retro, yet its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek.

But if we in the auto industry really want to move forward, we need to break out of the insular mentality that has long dictated car design. That means working with different types of designers. Last year, I worked with an Australian product designer who had never designed a car in his life. Working with him was one of the most valuable projects of my career, simply because it taught me to think differently.

J Mays, who supervised the redesign of the Ford Thunderbird, oversees the design of Ford's "blue oval" line of vehicles, including the F-150 truck and the Taurus.

Harriet Pearson

Job: Chief privacy officer
Org: IBM Corp.
Place: Washington, DC

My mandate is this: to inject privacy thinking into how IBM does business, both online and offline, from how we design new technologies to how we deal with our employees.

The big question is, How do we set policies for addressing all of those issues? The problem with government intervention is that technology changes much faster than legislation or regulation does. The best approach is industry self-regulation, which can evolve more quickly. The Internet is still in its infancy, and we need to allow for flexibility and experimentation so that leadership will emerge from the marketplace.

As one of the biggest, most information-intensive companies in the world, IBM has an obligation to help set the agenda on privacy. I'm working with people from other companies to create new industry-wide standards, along with new technologies that empower consumers to choose how companies use information about them.

Privacy isn't a technology issue; it's a social issue. And I believe that companies really want to help consumers protect information — not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's also good business. If a company doesn't earn the respect of its customers by respecting their privacy, those customers won't come back.

Harriet Pearson, who took on the CPO title last November, joined IBM in 1993 as program manager for environmental policy. Previously, she practiced corporate law in Washington, DC and worked as an engineer in Louisiana and Texas.

Guy Kawasaki

Job: CEO
Org: Garage.com
Place: Palo Alto, California

Back during the late-1990s boom, we learned that "in a tornado, even a turkey can fly" (to quote venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner). But it's also true that no bird can fly against a tornado. And that's where we are today. It's all about one thing: survival. I can't afford to have a down day.

CEOs prove themselves in tough times, not easy ones. A year from now, I want to be able to say that we remained strong during a very rough period. Here are some principles that I'm following to get us through that period.

Communicate with employees constantly. People need to know that we have a plan of attack and that we can control our fate.

Focus on quality, not quantity. When VCs were spraying money with fire hoses — when they were funding anyone who could boot up PowerPoint — it was okay to focus on quantity. But these days, VCs are using pipettes to dole out cash.

Hire only for critical positions. Norm Abram says, "Measure twice, cut once." These times require us to "measure twice, hire once."

Everyone acknowledges that we're in the downward turn of a cycle. But while most people are focusing on "downward," I'm concentrating on "cycle." In the end, the high-tech economy will come back, and I plan to be there when it does.

Guy Kawasaki (kawasaki@garage.com) founded Garage.com in 1997. A venture-capital investment bank, Garage.com provides funding services for high-tech startups. Previously, Kawasaki was chief evangelist at Apple Computer Inc.

Susan Estrich

Job: Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science
Org: University of Southern California
Place: Los Angeles, California

Here we are in 2001, and just two Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs. Women in business may have achieved equality at both the entry and the middle-management levels, but when it comes to finding a place at the top, it's still a man's world.

Corporate America is required to report financials each quarter, and it's judged by those numbers. Why shouldn't we apply the same kind of rigor to the inclusion of women? Let's get every company to report on its "leading gender indicators." Get your company to form a task force to find out what happens to the women in its workforce. How many women are there at each level and in each division? What about promotions? Track those numbers, and expect the company to make real progress.

Women must use their power to hold company leaders' feet to the fire. One woman alone may not have the power to change the rules, but if, say, three female law associates get together to form a task force aimed at finding out what happens to women in their firm, you'd better believe that they'll get that task force. Every company has three women who have made it far enough to make that happen.

Susan Estrich (estrich@aol.com) was the first woman to run a presidential campaign. (She was manager of the Dukakis campaign in 1988.) She is a nationally syndicated columnist and has written five books, including Sex & Power (Riverhead Books, 2000).

Mika Salmi

Job: CEO
Org: AtomShockwave
Place: San Francisco, California

Even before the merger of our two companies, both AtomFilms and shockwave.com were under some tremendous pressure to validate the digital-entertainment category. Now the stakes have gotten higher. We have six to nine months to prove ourselves. Our success depends on speed and communication.

I can't delay. If I draw out the integration effort — or if I postpone difficult decisions — the entire company will be on hold, uncertainty will settle in, and employees will start to think about themselves, rather than about the company.

I also have to speak up. In a failed merger, communication is usually the first thing to go wrong. Rumors fly. Morale drops. So I err on the side of overcommunication. And I don't keep secrets. That's one way to avoid office politics: It's harder for people to develop a power base when everyone knows what's going on.

For employees, the key is to communicate what the merger means for them and what their role will be within the new company. By creating frequent opportunities to talk to employees, I hope to gain their trust. For many of them, I'm the new guy in charge. I can't say to people, "Trust me," and then just expect them to trust me. Over time, employees have to see that I'm delivering on my promises.

Mika Salmi founded AtomFilms in 1998 and sold it to shockwave.com, a division of Macromedia Inc., last December. Before launching AtomFilms, he was executive director for business development at Getty Images Inc., in Seattle.

Martha Farnsworth Riche

Job: President
Org: Farnsworth Riche Associates
Place: Washington, DC

There's a new demographic reality changing the social and economic landscape: For the first time ever, the U.S. population has roughly equal numbers of people in each age bracket. Tectonic plates are shifting, and it's my job to warn the world about what that means.

In 1935, when the age for getting Social Security was set at 65, the average life expectancy was 59. If we adjusted for current life expectancy, the age of eligibility would be about 81 by now. One effect of this overall trend is that old ways of thinking won't work in the new consumer environment. In the past, businesses could assume that the preferences of 18-to-35-year-olds would drive their market. But people in older age groups are gaining rapidly in market power.

Politicians from both parties are absolutely horrified by this new reality. They think, We couldn't possibly raise the Social Security age. For me, appealing to businesses is easier, because I can focus on the bottom line; I can say, "Look, you're losing market share."

My challenge is to be clear about how I spend my time and energy. I'm in the early-warning business, not the implementation business. I need to get the right people to adopt my language. Change is happening faster than ever before, and we can't afford to let it just happen.

Martha Farnsworth Riche was director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1994 to 1998. Farnsworth Riche Associates is a demographics-consulting firm that she founded two years ago.

Angus S. King Jr.

Job: Governor
State: Maine
Place: Augusta, Maine

I want to make Maine the most digitally literate society on Earth. To get there, I'm focusing now on a very simple idea: Let's make a laptop available to every school kid in the state.

In terms of average personal income, Maine ranks in the bottom third of all states. So economic development is my main priority. Here's the good news: Thanks to the telecommunications revolution, your economic destiny is no longer determined by where you live — and Maine has the advantage of being a wonderful place to live. But we need to push hard to create a great telecommunications infrastructure and a highly educated workforce. Incremental change isn't going to work for us.

Last year, I put forth a plan to distribute a laptop to every seventh-grader in Maine. This is digital equity with a vengeance: If you have a good education and access to the technology, you have an infinitely better chance of finding opportunity and good pay.

Selling such a dramatic proposal isn't easy. In fact, this is the greatest challenge that I've faced as governor. I've met with nearly every member of the legislature to build support for the idea, and now I'm talking to the public. Meanwhile, we have set up a technology task force, which has refined the idea: Instead of giving laptops to kids, the state would give them to schools, and kids would borrow them for the year, as if they were library books. The proposal is scheduled to come before the legislature this spring.

I'm working on other things too. Even as we focus on improving Maine's high-tech prospects, we're not giving up on our traditional economic base: blueberries, potatoes, lobsters, forest products, and so on. In fact, one ambition of mine is to hook the Chinese on blueberry muffins. If every person in China had a blueberry muffin every morning, we'd be in great shape.

Angus S. King Jr. (governor@state.me.us) is now serving his second four-year term in the Maine statehouse. Before entering politics, King founded Northeast Energy Management Inc., a company that developed energy-conservation projects.

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