Hurry up and slow down?
As the NASDAQ falls and the job market shrinks, leaders across the business landscape have stopped dead in their tracks to analyze the market, gather their wits, and hide from impending doom. But slow times don’t mean languid leadership. We need forward thinkers and risk takers today more than ever.
In search of leadership strategies for tough times, the Fast Company staff tracked down various models and mentors during our RealTime event earlier this week in Philadelphia. We asked them what priorities and principles matter most to them now, what beliefs they question now, and what promises and possibilities get them jazzed now. Here, eight industry leaders share their agendas moving forward, and offer advice and inspiration for change insurgents facing high seas and low morale.
People say times are tough, but things aren’t really that bad. Times are turbulent and exciting, and they don’t get any better than this. There are enormous opportunities for people who trust instincts, emotion, energy, imagination, and intuition. Those people will open up a wide gap between themselves and process-driven, management-focused cowards.
I’m most excited about the movement from information to relationships and about the power that is being given to women. The way the world works now plays into women’s strengths, because it is about love, relationships, and networking. Women are intuitively more empathetic in those areas than guys, so they have the advantage.
Men used to have a structural edge. They would go to the office and have a whole corporate infrastructure, and they would use that structure to beat up on women. But the Internet has leveled the playing field. With a more flexible workplace and the opportunity to work at home, women are going to kick that disadvantage. They will be able to balance family, kids, and all that stuff.
But women need to find a role for men in this world, or they’re going to encounter resistance. Women also need more role models. And they need to start looking after their own more. Women are their own second-worst enemy.
Women needed feminism to get on the radar screen. Get over it. They are now completely there. What is it that will now allow women to power through? It’s not stridency. It’s empathy and subtlety and taking opportunities as they come up.
Corporate boardrooms are a much better place with women in them. Women make for better meetings. They are more empathetic, they listen more, and they aren’t so problem-solution driven. Guys tend to go from A to B very quickly and very laterally. Solution, problem. Problem, solution. But the complexities people have to deal with in the boardroom are generally not just a problem and a solution. They are nuanced. And women really help that. Women in the boardroom enable corporations to make better decisions.
Women also help team dynamics enormously. Putting women in teams is great because they don’t have the testosterone and the ego that screw teams up.
(Read Kevin Roberts’ RealTime speech here.)
President and CEO
It’s tough to keep the faith today. But nothing good comes without paying a price.
Two years ago, I believed anything was possible. I now believe anything is possible — but not without persistence and passion. This has been a velvet revolution so far, without much blood spilled. Now it’s time for the true believers to exercise real leadership.
As information and bandwidth are further democratized, I believe that our possibilities and opportunities will multiply through outstanding leadership. A lot of people in Silicon Valley have been expressing remorse that the information revolution was taken over by a bunch of money-grubbing robber barons, who were not interested in the technology or its impact. Now we’ll see a resurgence of people who really care about making the world a better place through technology.
Founder, chairman, and CEO
The economy is trying hard now to squeeze out redundancy. Executives most need to ask themselves, “Where can our company be the low-cost provider of some good or service? What is our single core competency? Where we can deliver value to our customers with the greatest capital efficiency?” If a company isn’t the most efficient at delivering that core competency, it should exit the marketplace and let somebody else do that business. There’s not enough capital — people, labor, resources, land, real estate — to sustain multiple players doing the same thing.
Two years ago, I believed that change was going to occur much, much faster. I overestimated the importance of good ideas and creative thinking, and underestimated the practical nuts and bolts of efficiency management. All those good ideas will evolve; they’ll just take a lot longer, and they may not represent the commercial opportunities we thought they would.
Right now, there are tens of thousands of business models that are going to be shut down. The economy is going to continue to bury its dead for at least the next 12 months. There are a lot of people in the wrong jobs, there are a lot of businesses that never should have been launched, and there are a lot of capital models that are high and dry. In 18 months to 2 years, the economy will have moved through this painful phase, and we’ll be able to replow the earth and plant a crop that will flourish.
I believe in the future of the Internet and the power of technology to change people’s lives now more than ever. Through all the sound and fury of the dotcom era, we’ve seen a consistent expansion of the Internet, with hundreds of millions of people using the Web to do real, useful things. If you’re in a business, like MicroStrategy is, of extracting insight from data and delivering it to people to help them live better lives, then the future is going to be a great place to be. In the next few years, we will continue to see extraordinary success in the information-technology realm.
Founder and president
Institute for Women’s Leadership
The only thing that’s inevitable is change. Organizations are changing, governments are changing, institutions are changing, and ecosystems are changing. Being facile with leading change — being a change catalyst — is the most important competency a leader needs.
Given the current rapid pace of change, we need to figure out how to sustain a voracious appetite for learning. Success often breeds arrogance or complacency. We need to become learning machines. But we also need to reframe our relationship with failure. We have a distorted relationship with failure, and we don’t recognize it as a component of learning.
Fortunately, we’re now finding very innovative ways to use e-learning platforms for training and development. Because those options are much more efficient, instructors can use e-learning platforms for routine training and save classrooms for one-on-one tutoring or specialized one-to-many teaching.
I’m very encouraged by these breakthroughs, but I continue to be shocked by corporate America’s continuing lack of awareness of women’s potential. I thought corporations were finally catching onto women’s extraordinary contributions and onto the fact that 50% of our talent is being underutilized. If I were more of a pessimist, that would discourage me, but I’m an optimist, so it just makes me more resolute.
During tough times, leaders must exhibit a sense of perspective. They must monitor their stress levels and strive to create a sense of normalcy. During the BT Global Challenge, one of my crew members felt that his life was constantly in mortal danger, so he refused to change out of his dry suit. He worked in it during his four-hour watch on deck, and then plopped down in the middle of the cabin corridor with a wet, slimy, stinky suit still on and dozed off to sleep. He always expected the worst to happen at the worst time, and he let everyone know that.
To counterbalance his attitude, I made a point of very publicly changing out of my sailing clothes, putting on my pajamas, grabbing my teddy bear, and heading off to sleep during my breaks. It was my job as a leader to remind the crew that this was only a yacht race.
At the same time, there are only so many times you can communicate that message to your team. There are only so many times you can say, “It’s going to be all right.” Because sometimes it’s not all right. The degrees of not-all-right are what’s important. A leader must keep perspective, but he must also respect and take into account his crew’s feelings.
President and CEO
When customers interact with your company through a variety of channels, it’s very hard to create a seamless, integrated, good experience for them. That’s what we as leaders need to think hardest about, because customer-service challenges will escalate in every single industry. How do we value the needs of our customers over the needs of our organization, even when we’re in a cost-cutting mode?
I’ve built technology subsidiaries within four major organizations: Dow Jones, Washington Post, Pacific Bell, and Manheim. One of my core beliefs all along was that each technology subsidiary needed to be completely separate, both from a technology-development standpoint and from a sales standpoint. As the legacy companies’ willingness to absorb technology has grown, I’m challenging that belief in myself. To create a seamless customer experience, we need to make sure that we aren’t creating separation for separation’s sake, but that we’re creating it only where it’s absolutely necessary.
As powerful a technology as the Internet is, it doesn’t change fundamental business rules. Being able to make money is important. Providing high-quality customer service is important. The Internet is a transformative factor in our society, but it doesn’t rewrite the fundamental rules, and it doesn’t allow us to ignore core truths.
President and CEO
Internet advertising is the fastest-growing ad medium ever introduced. In the past five years, it has grown faster than television, cable, radio, and print advertising did during their infant stages. People talk about how bad it is out there, but they forget that we’ve only just begun to explore this medium.
As advertisers become more discerning, they are asking weather.com to solve some fundamental business problems for them. They are asking us to establish local, relevant relationships with their customers. And we, in turn, are becoming more creative in the ways we develop unique solutions for our biggest-paying customers: our advertisers.
Our revenue is growing, not shrinking. And I think that’s because we established meaningful, long-term strategies with our advertisers at a time when everyone else was slapping up flashy ad banners and calling it a day.
President of the Polymerland Division
When the economy’s bad, you need to think about customers more than ever. In this environment, you’re more apt to cut costs — thereby reducing your capability to serve customers. You’ve got to veer the other way. You’ve got to look for new ways to improve your relationships and your value proposition because, at the end of the day, customers are really what it’s all about.
It’s pretty tough out there right now. I visit customers and see half of their plants not producing any parts. I see places that put big investments in CDs and DVDs running at half capacity. I see auto plants producing a million or so fewer cars than last year, which is a lot of materials to us. None of us sees much relief in sight. It’s going to continue to be a tough environment, and we’re going to continue to operate in it. The economy will come back. It always does. But that won’t happen next week.
On a more hopeful note, two years ago, I really didn’t understand the total power of the Internet. I looked at it simply as an order-entry tool, and I didn’t grasp how much it could empower our sales team at Polymerland. I also didn’t understand the digitization piece — how much we could change the business and get more productive with the technologies that existed.
With the Internet, I believe that we have finally found the ultimate sales-force productivity tool. The Internet gives us the ability to solve customer-service issues, and it provides us with a robust and excellent fulfillment piece. Combine that with the real, timely, accurate information that a commercial Web site can provide, and you have a tool that will free our sales team to grow new things for our customers. That’s huge.
I’ve been a sales guy for 25 years. When I see that we can make people more productive and take a lot of mundane tasks off their plates, I get excited. The opportunity to learn and to be proactive makes this one of the most exciting times since I started in the business.
Anni Layne (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Linda Tischler (email@example.com) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media.