In addition to serving as the CEO of the Aspen Institute and having served as the managing editor of Time and as the chair and CEO of CNN, Walter Isaacson is an author and historian who specializes in telling the life stories of the great minds that have fundamentally shaped our world.
From Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein to Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs, Isaacson has observed that the common denominator among the greatest geniuses in human history is a sense of curiosity that spans multiple disciplines—that and a little rebelliousness. He sat down with NACD Directorship Editor in Chief Judy Warner at the 2017 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit to discuss his latest book, a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and the relevance of the life and work of the ultimate Renaissance man to the digital age.
For Isaacson, Leonardo’s unquenchable curiosity was one of his defining qualities, observing that the questions that the artist would jot down and explore through the course of his notebooks would never directly result in a larger project, be it a work of art or an invention. But there was value in the process of discovering answers to even the most mundane of questions, be it figuring out why the sky is blue or how they made locks in Milan. The artist developed a heightened understanding of the patterns of the world in which he lived, and this understanding fueled his work.
“Sometimes you wander and you do what any good corporate director would do, which is have a vision of what you’re doing and be tactical and open when something comes up. Especially in the digital age, you have to be open to this,” Isaacson said.
And openness to exploring new possibilities has been a guiding principle in Isaacson’s own career. “I began with print, and now dabble in everything from films to podcasts to television and books,” Isaacson reflected. “Each time, I say, ‘Hey, that’s a new opportunity.’ Leonardo was fascinated by everything, and that’s the best advice you can give someone: always be passionately curious.”
Isaacson also identified diversity as a critical factor to innovation. Looking at the Florence, Italy, of the 1400s, he observed that an influx of immigrant populations allowed for people of different background to mingle and exchange ideas. He also sees similar social conditions as being the impetus for the creation of jazz, which some have hailed as America’s greatest art form. “If there are people with different viewpoints and backgrounds, the edginess produces a creativity that uniformity doesn’t produce,” Isaacson said.
Thanks in part to the edginess of his environment, Leonardo helped to redefine art—as did his rival, fellow master painter Michelangelo. For Isaacson, the competition between these two men was paralleled in the late twentieth century by the competition between technology titans Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But where Jobs focused on end-to-end control of his products and emphasized elegant design, Gates focused on creating software and letting other companies create the hardware that would serve as vehicles for his products. “And each model works well,” Isaacson said. “There’s no right answer. Jobs believed that beauty mattered, but Bill Gates produced a better business model.”
Jobs and Gates also helped to usher in the digital age, which, like the Renaissance, has completely reshaped how we think about and orient ourselves to our world. This new environment—driven by machines, machine learning, and artificial intelligence—has made some wonder how people will fit in to it. “I hear people say you have to learn coding. That’s ridiculous. We’ve learned that machines will learn how to code better than us, but they can’t learn creativity. What will matter in the future is getting people to connect the arts and technology. We need to be like Leonardo, which is to make no distinctions. Love the beauty of an equation as much as you love the beauty of a brush stroke.”
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According to acclaimed researcher and author Brené Brown, being vulnerable can be a strategic asset to any organization. Although this may sound counterintuitive to some, Brown made the case for how vulnerability cultivates innovation to a rapt audience of directors and corporate-governance professionals gathered at the 2017 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit.
Brown became an Internet sensation after she discussed her academic research on these themes at a TEDxHouston event in 2010. Although her presentation was enthusiastically received by her in-person audience, she was frustrated by negative online comments left on the video. But soon after, she discovered a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt that not only has reframed how she viewed her experience, but also has guided her subsequent work:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Brown then identified the following four qualities that, when operationalized within an organization, will create a culture of courageous leadership:
Vulnerability. Based on Brown’s research, there is no job where a person is not vulnerable. She noted that vulnerability is not the same as cowardice. Rather, it’s the willingness to expose your new ideas to public scrutiny. Without trying to do something new, and risking the possibility of failing horribly, progress can never happen.
Courage. It takes courage to compete in business. Luckily, Brown’s research into the behaviors of 80 senior leaders and more than 300 MBA students demonstrates that courage is a skill that can be taught and measured. She recommends four practices to instill a culture of bravery in an organization: (1) encouraging vulnerability, (2) defining the organization’s values and operationalizing those values, (3) inculcating trust between individuals and teams, and (4) empowering people with “rising skills,” or the skills to pick one’s self up and brush one’s self off after failing. Regarding rising skills, Brown pointed out that if your employees cannot recover from and learn from their failures, they will begin to feel that they need to be on the defensive—a mind-set that can hinder creativity and innovation.
Ethics. One of the most difficult situations a person can encounter in a business setting is standing up to someone who is making unethical choices. According to Brown, ethics should be the grounding framework that drives behavior. When someone acts outside the set of ethics that the organization adopts or outside the law, leaders must be brave enough to call out that person’s missteps. Her point holds particular relevance to directors and executives who are responsible for overseeing business ethics and promoting a culture of ethical performance.
Trust. Brown asked the audience, “If you can’t see a person’s vulnerability, will you ever be able to trust them?” Vulnerability is a key to building trust, and top-performing teams rate trust in their coworkers as the deciding factor for success.
Brown noted that people who lack trust in one another are likely to avoid confronting their fears and anxieties. Trust makes workers brave enough to develop and share their ideas, and allows them to discuss failures in a respectful manner.
“Can innovation come without exposure?” Brown asked. “Can you have innovation without vulnerability? No. It doesn’t exist.”
NACD and Marsh & McLennan Companies will host a Board Committee Forum on Strategy and Risk at the upcoming 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit. This forum will explore converging risk and strategy issues facing boards as companies respond to digitization and artificial intelligence.
Business and society at large are in the midst of a remarkable change not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Boards and the C-Suite must understand the fundamental scope and impact of the changes to guide their organization through the next ten years.
There are two ways companies can view this change. From one perspective, it’s time to play defense. Automation is expected to rapidly erode job security for entire categories of workers. Increasing transparency will melt away the ties that bind together vertically integrated businesses. Scale-driven manufacturers will see 3D printing create decentralized and fragmented production, making many traditional factories obsolete. Virtually no conventional business will be spared by this exponentially accelerating change.
But there’s another perspective—and a wholly optimistic one. Just as there has never been this degree of change, there has never been this degree of possibility for innovation. But what will it take to win customers in this new world of extreme connectivity and automation?
To answer this question, Lippincott has worked extensively across industries to predict the changes ahead. The six fundamental shifts below offer a picture of the customer of the future and the world for which companies need to prepare.
1. A life flow. New models of work, platforms for sharing information, and constant connectivity that technology provideswill upend the traditional concepts of one job, one house, and singular ownership of things. Optionality will be what provides stability in a world that prioritizes access over ownership and experiences over possessions.
Companies that are able to move with their customers in a de-centralized, independent fashion will undoubtedly do well in the future. Convenience and flexibility will become crucial selling points. The acts of hailing a cab, visiting the grocery store, or stopping at the bank have already been streamlined to a swipe of a finger. Even the most minor interruptions will stand out.
2. A transparent existence. The amount of data created by these technologies will explode, as everything and everyone increasingly becomes tracked and scored. Tracking each facet of life presents companies with enormous opportunities—but also accountability to customers who will demand transparency around how their data is being managed. This heightened visibility will lead to a rise of ratings, and every brand we consider will have a score. Companies will need to be more transparent than ever, opening up their customer experience for full accountability. Those hiding anything will quickly be exposed.
3. The rise of the omnipotent individual. Products offered on digital platforms will be modular, customized, and democratized. As a result, customers will wield god-like power over each component of their lives, from their homes to their genes. In response, the production of products will become flexible and dispersed, customized to the unique wants of these empowered consumers.
Companies will need to give their customers the power to unbundle, customize, make, modulate and mix. They’ll need to go beyond a “one size fits all” approach and grant customers the power to control their own unique experiences. Those that master this will be rewarded handsomely for it.
4. An on-demand world. Technology makes the world more immediate. On-demand access and automated task completion will serve appetites for instantaneous results, and customers will reward the fastest solutions with their dollars and data. While customers will have less to do, they will have more to manage. For companies, it’s incredibly important to keep up with customers’ ever-increasing expectations for immediacy and efficiency throughout every aspect of the customer experience.
5. Exponential intelligence. Consumers will have more access to information than ever before, shifting who and how they trust. As a result, their decision-making processes will change from being a personal deliberation to a collaborative and connected feedback loop. Lippincott’s research shows that 62 percent of consumers would rather make decisions based on intelligent apps and crowdsourced information than on the advice of family and friends. Companies should strive to provide their customers with as much knowledge about their business and its products as possible.
6. Synthetic reality. Virtual reality and the real world will overlap, expanding consumer perspectives and opening up new possibilities in information access, communication, how people shape their personal identity, and the monetization and gamification of products and commodities. The companies that help their customers navigate between the two worlds with ease will open up new channels to connect, creating a business differentiator in the process.
As these six shifts unfold, they’ll yield a bounty of new innovations and value propositions. Companies and their boards need to think deeply and strategically about what these changes portend for the fundamental underpinnings of their business designs and value add to the customer of the future. And for those that do, something great is just beginning.
To read Lippincott’s full report on these six shifts, click here.
John Marshall is the chief strategy and innovation officer at Lippincott.
To learn more about strategy and risk, attend the 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summitwhere you will have the opportunity to explore emerging risk issues with peers. A detailed agenda of NACD and Marsh & McLennan’s Board Committee Forum on strategy and risk, can be found here.