The rapid pace of technological advancements is causing tectonic shifts in the business risk landscape. Social media and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular are causing directors to reconsider how they think and talk about risk. Consequently, these topics were the focus of the first part of a roundtable discussion on the next generation of risk hosted by EisnerAmper LLP and the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) in New York last week.
There is an abundance of examples of companies that sustained severe reputational damage after being caught in the center of a social media storm. Most recently, credit reporting company Equifax made headlines after the company disclosed that it was the subject of a major data breach that compromised the information of roughly half of the U.S. population. The company’s offering of free credit monitoring to affected customers only made matters worse: several print and digital news outlets, including The New York Times, analyzed the terms of the offer, which suggested that by signing up for the service, a person relinquished his or her right to take legal action against Equifax. While the company later changed the legal language in another effort to assuage public concern, reestablishing its trustworthiness may be more of an uphill battle.
“Some of these things would have always been in the news, but the amount of time and the quickness with which news reaches an audience is unbelievable,” EisnerAmper Audit Partner Steven Kreit observed. “Boards need to make sure there’s a social media strategy throughout the company. Boards need to ask management what it has planned for and make sure they can react to those issues as they come up. It’s also important to have policies around social media. What is the CEO allowed to say? Are they allowed to have personal accounts and use that to disseminate company information?”
When attendees were asked if they knew their company’s social media policy backwards and forwards, few indicated that they did—but there was some debate as to how necessary this is. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a board member to know the details of what the policy is,” one director opined. “What the board needs to know is that there’s a policy and that employees know what they can and cannot say about the company.”
Kreit agreed. “You don’t want to get too far into the weeds,” he said, “but a CEO may react to something in the middle of the night and that response may harm the company. And board members need to make sure the company doesn’t get hurt.”
While most of the discussion focused on preparing for the worst, one attendee observed that a company response plan that is effectively used to respond to negative feedback on social media can not only curb a damaging situation, but help to restore trust in the company.
Discussion then turned to AI. Here, some companies are ahead of the curve in applying technology that has the power to parse through massive amounts of data to make a determination about something. Take for example, IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that famously competed on the game show Jeopardy!, facial recognition software and self-driving cars. Here, the risk is that AI is advancing so rapidly as a disruptor across nearly every industry. If a company isn’t paying attention now, the competition will leave it in the dust later. But AI is a broad subject area and identifying the elements that are most relevant to a board agenda—namely the risks—can initially seem daunting.
“These are conversations I rarely hear discussed around the boardroom table,” Kreit remarked. “And these are risks that keep changing.”
“An interesting exercise is to look at risk factors in public disclosures,” one attendee said. “We look at competitors and it’s easy to see what risks they are identifying in the same industry.”
“In the conversations I’ve had, it isn’t so much about whether the machine will do its own thing and crush humans as much as asking what fundamental technology are we not using to help us be more competitive and customer-focused,” one attendee offered. “The other thing is, technologists sometimes rely too much on technology. At some point, a human being has to put subjectivity in the mix to make sure the automated methodology you employed doesn’t come back and bite you. This conversation comes through the CISO [chief information security officer] on my board as well as the CTO [chief technology officer] together.” Another director remarked that these discussions take place on the audit committee level.
“It’s important to not think about technology and risk without it being an integral part of the strategy discussion,” another director piped in. “If it isn’t, I think it becomes an academic conversation and you’re walking ahead with one eye open and one eye closed.”
To this end, and in closing this portion of the roundtable, another attendee remarked on how board composition it critical in positioning the board to oversee this issue in the years ahead. “If you don’t have enough forward-looking people with experience from other industries, you’re doomed. Look at who you’re working with and have some sense of what you are [as an organization], what you want to be, and how you’re going to get there.”
Next week, the NACD Board Leaders’ Blog will feature roundtable discussion highlights that explore geopolitical and regulatory risks.
Organizations face a radically shifting context for the workplace that includes cognitive technology, intelligent automation, and machine learning. These technologies are disrupting and threatening many companies across many industries. As a result, organization designs and business models are being updated to defend existing market position and proactively seek the new opportunities that “digital” can offer.
Mercer’s 2017 Talent Trends study found that 97 percent of executives say that becoming a digital organization is important to their future, with 77 percent stating that their company is on a digital journey already. However, as few as 8 percent of CEOs believe their organizations are as digital (or even anywhere near as digital) as they must be to ward off emerging competitors.
This same study also uncovered striking discord between the digital strategy and people strategy. While most CEOs are focused on designing a more digital and agile organization to compete for the future, only 15 percent of human resource (HR) departments have organization and job design as key elements of their people strategy. Only 37 percent of HR respondents have change management on their radar screen. The risks created by this disconnect are significant. Without a culture open to change and a workforce willing and able to adopt new technologies, digital change efforts will rarely be as impactful as they need to be.
The Board’s Role in Elevating the Digital and People Agenda
Boards are custodians of organization strategy. They also play a key role in overseeing the talent strategies required to execute and deliver on business objectives. By reviewing the organization’s talent strategy through the lens of digital disruption, directors can help uncover risks and ensure better alignment between their companies’ digital and people agendas that will be necessary for future success.
Here are five sets of questions to get started.
1. Does the executive team possess digital competence and diversity? Digital strategy should be born from the vision of the CEO and executive team. In combination, does the executive team have the digital competence to appropriately prioritize and drive development of transformational digital strategy? Will they think beyond technology to people capabilities and a culture of agility? And, beyond digital capabilities, is there enough diversity to help foresee the range of potential future business scenarios and support the creativity and agility that will be needed to adapt to changing business circumstances?
2. Do our succession planning and leadership development goals emphasize the capabilities needed in a more digital world? Organizations need to revisit their leadership development programs because the competencies that have reliably predicted leadership potential and success in the past, even just yesterday, are not the same as those needed for tomorrow. Are leaders self-aware such that they are not blindsided by emerging risks? Are leaders sufficiently curious to sense more than the obvious trends that will impact business success? Are leaders creative and entrepreneurial enough to create advantage from new technologies and business design possibilities?
3. Is there a balance between the company’s strategy to build talent and buy? Many organizations have a bias to build talent from within, particularly as they plan their succession pipeline for the executive team. However, buying digital experience (within or outside the organization’s industry) is a much quicker way of building digital competence and diversity of thought. Is there a discipline of building executive “succession slates” that includes curating external candidates who offer capabilities different from those gained through internal experience?
4. Has the workforce plan considered the impact of digital disruption on jobs?
In The Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum projected that 35 percent of core skills will change between 2015 and 2020. Current jobs will require a different skillset in a few years; skills instability will be high in all industries regardless of employment outlook; and, if current roles are already difficult to recruit for, it certainly won’t get easier as demand for new skills emerges. Does the organization have a workforce plan that forecasts which skills will be needed in the future and which will be less in demand? Is there a talent plan that aligns with this changing pattern of skill demand? And is there transparency with the workforce, so that those whose jobs are most at risk of disruption are able to take proactive steps to build a skillset that will be relevant tomorrow?
5. What thought has been given to employer brand and the company’s role in society? Digital disruption goes hand-in-hand with job disruption. It is likely that tomorrow’s business models will require a smaller core workforce and that digital technology will destroy more jobs than it creates. It is likely that unemployment and underemployment will rise. How will the organization maintain an attractive employer brand and contribute to the health and welfare of broader society? What plans, tools, and programs does the organization have in place to manage the transition of all members of its workforce (executive and non-executive) who will not be able to adjust to the workforce of the future?
Without a robust people agenda, an organization’s transformation efforts to address the challenge of digital disruption will struggle. By applying a digital mindset to the talent strategy and asking questions like those above, directors can play an important role in ensuring the alignment between people and digital strategy, and better position the organization for success.
Ilya Bonic is president of Mercer’s Career business.
Probably the last thing Uber needs right now is to have anyone recount their recent setbacks, but the company’s quick, Icarus-like fall from grace tells us much about how technology companies going through hyper-growth can go wrong. By 2016, the ride-sharing firm was a segment leader, present in 570 cities worldwide and with 12,000 employees. Yet just since the beginning of the year, Uber’s company culture, marked by “sharp elbows,” has rapidly become a liability.
The key is to preserve the great parts of the culture that drove Uber’s market leadership, including the company’s relentless focus on results, and now augment the culture for a larger scale. Specifically, it would be wise to add an appropriate level of processes and gender rebalance to the company’s board.
For Uber, the hits have just kept coming. First there was the video of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick chewing out one of the company’s own drivers. This was followed by lawsuits and first-person stories alleging a toxic company culture of sexual harassment. For good measure, long-time board member David Bonderman resigned after allegedly making sexist remarks at a meeting to unveil plans for reforming Uber’s sexist culture. Then, Kalanick resigned, Uber investor Benchmark Capital is suing him and the company, and Uber agreed to audits for the next 20 years by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC’s actions demonstrate the level of long-term damage cultural problems can inflict.
Now that Uber has selected Dara Khosrowshahi to lead the company, and is likely to become a publicly-traded company in the year and a half to three years, the board has even greater impetus to change the direction of the company’s culture.
As a woman who’s served on many major tech company boards, much of this sounds like old news. Women in technology industries still push against a silicon ceiling when it comes to career advancement and cultural issues. Research from the Society of Women Engineers found that 20 percent of today’s engineering school graduates are women, yet just 11 percent continue working in the field. Women in information technology leadership roles (such as chief information officers or technology vice presidents) are just nine percent of the total, according to a survey from Harvey Nash and KPMG.
The numbers are also bleak in other Silicon Valley boardrooms. Among the Valley’s 150 largest tech firms, only 15 percent of board members are women (versus 21 percent in the S&P 500). A Korn Ferry study of the top 100 U.S. tech firms saw just three with women as CEO/chair, and five with a woman as the board’s lead director.
Changing any corporate culture is a challenge, but I’ve found bringing diversity to the tech industry is even trickier. Fast-growth “unicorn” companies can quickly outgrow their founding, venture-based startup corporate governance, and find themselves facing Uber-like crises with too few seasoned, level-headed business people in the boardroom. Yet in my own experience, I’ve seen technology companies nurture diverse, inclusive cultures, starting with a few one-on-one approaches from the boardroom.
Build internal career networks. At Volvo Car AB, where I serve on the board, we’ve launched a regular program where I have the opportunity to meet with senior and mid-level women executives on personal career development. We work with these executives to build on their strengths, clarify their career aspirations, and offer advice on advancement. This is a new program, but it is already proving a success in energizing and motivating the paths of these current and future female leaders.
Make mentoring personal. On the board of Schneider Electric, I make it a point to directly mentor a number of women on the company’s senior executive team. Women in management find it tremendously helpful to have someone in the boardroom take a personal interest in their career strategy and development. At Uber, new board member Ariana Huffington will be in an ideal position to put her mentoring and career savvy to work in helping rising women execs rebuild the company. The key is a regular ongoing program of mentoring and support.
Go beyond mentoring. The tech industry, in particular has too few role models for rising female talents. The mentoring aid above is helpful, but why not go one step better? Companies can ask their male and female executives and board members to either mentor or sponsor promising female executives. There is a big difference between mentoring which is periodic advising and coaching and sponsoring where you take ownership for introducing and more actively helping sponsor an individual for their next step up in their career. Women who are already senior managers or board members can kick mentoring up a notch by sponsoring high-potential women. Take personal ownership of career coaching for the top talent in your organization. Give them advice, introduce them to the people they need to sharpen their skills, and introduce their names at strategic moments.
Recognize the women making a difference. When I served as chair of the board’s compensation committee at tech firm Polycom, we were active in the annual recognition event for sales staff. I noted that women were leaders in sales, making up less than 10 percent of the sales force, but were 34 percent of our “President’s Circle” top sales performers. Making an added effort to celebrate and promote this talent is crucial in sending the message that sales is not just a “guy thing” in the company.
The news emerging from Uber can serve as a spark for making the support and advancement of women in your company a boardroom mission. The talents of these women are a strategic asset to companies, and there is a growing body of research proving that firms who nurture and empower their gender diversity gain in revenues and adaptability. In any company, balance sheet results are always found downstream from company culture. When it comes to reshaping that culture to be welcoming to women, the boardroom is the ideal place to start.
Betsy S. Atkins is a three-time CEO, serial entrepreneur, and founder of Baja Ventures. She has co-founded technology, CPG, and energy companies, and currently is director of Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., HD Supply Holdings, Schneider Electric SE, SL Green Realty Corp., and Volvo AB. A version of this article appeared in June on TechCrunch’s Crunch Network.