Our mission at the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) includes continuous learning for directors. In pursuit of that mission our staff also seek out the most exciting events across the country to learn more about the disruptions that will impact members’ boards. I caught up with Erin Essenmacher, NACD’s chief programming officer, after her appearance at SXSW to discuss takeaways from the conference and how corporate directors can continue the conversation on technology disruption.
Erin moderated a panel, in partnership with KITE, titled “Innovation: the Board Director’s Cut,” featuring leadership representatives from Spredfast, OurOffice, and Capital Expert Services. The panel discussed the strategies directors should take in order to best manage technology disruptions at their companies. Highlights from our conversation follow. Katie Swafford: What led your panel to discuss technology disruption? What do you see at NACD—or among NACD’s members—that surfaced this particular topic for the panel?
Erin Essenmacher: Across the spectrum of industries, companies are being disrupted because they are not focused on how new technologies, paired with shifting trends, are completely changing business models. My first major takeaway from the panel was the need to focus on disruption. I don’t even like to say technology disruption, because I think that makes the issue sound too small and prescribed, which it is not. While technology is a big driver of disruption, so are issues like social and demographic shifts and other market-shaping forces as they intersect with technology. Disruption is a huge challenge to navigate for boards at companies of all sizes. We are reaching the point where the swift changes are blurring the lines between industries, and directors should be raising questions with managers about what is on the horizon for their companies, and if their companies are thinking sufficiently about the big picture and the nature and impact of those changes.
In terms of the discussion here at SXSW, the panel was really focused a lot more on flipping the script. A lot of the folks in the audience were on the boards of early-stage companies, and the panel really looked at how boards can add value to companies of all sizes. The panelists brought many perspectives—some are involved on the inside of early-stage companies, some are making investments in start-ups, and they all serve as directors at companies of various sizes, so it was a really interesting discussion.
Swafford:Are there specific skills gaps that NACD has seen when it comes to handling technology disruption or innovation?
Essenmacher: I would say the biggest skill gap is very low tech, but critically important: a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be a continuous learner. When you get to the top of your career and you’re on a board, you’re extremely seasoned and experienced. You’re an expert in many things that relate to the company business model or to the industry you serve, and it’s easy for that expertise to make you complacent. When you have a business environment like ours where things are changing so quickly, I think the most successful boards are the ones that acknowledge that disruption is happening. Most importantly, they acknowledge that because the environment is new, they will not have all of the answers. They are willing to get serious about what’s happening, they are willing to get curious about the gaps in their own knowledge, and they are willing to challenge the management team to evaluate the existing assumptions and expectations of the company culture and business model.
Swafford: Is there an ideal board composition that’s best able to navigate disruption? Is there a leading practice when it comes to board composition?
Essenmacher: I wouldn’t say that there’s an ideal board composition, because every company is different. Composition is going to vary widely depending on industry, company size, and many other factors. An overarching leading practice is to continually consider the board’s composition compared to your long-term strategy as a company. It’s not just about bringing in people that have the latest and greatest technology expertise. There is a critical role on any board for business judgment and experience. We need all of that in our boards. Once you start to dig into how you can think differently about your business model in the face of disruption, you can start to think differently about your board composition. It’s also not just about defaulting to a former CEO or CFO. Boards need to think critically about how diversity of experience, perspective, and expertise can help elevate their strategic discussions to map to where consumers and the market are headed.
Swafford: Where do you foresee some of the topics that came up in the panel flowing over into the Global Board Leaders’ Summit? I would think diversity, board composition, and growth, among other topics, will really flow into the conversations you will be having at Summit.
Essenmacher: We need to challenge ourselves to learn about new trends from the ground-level up. Our panel here at SXSW discussed topics that are important for board members to engage in, so how can we extend this conversation? At the NACD 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit we will be hosting the third annual “Dancing with the Start-ups” pitch competition. This event allows us, as board members, to hear what the leaders of start-ups are creating from the ground level—how they are using technology, how they are leveraging or setting trends, and how their ingenuity is disrupting the industry of the company on whose board you might serve. Yes, it’s a fun format and very exciting, but there is also a lot of great content. I think of it as a “meet the disruptors” session. It’s really an opportunity for directors to see the earliest stages of the next iteration of products, services, and trends that are disrupting their industry.
Our Summit theme this year is transformation. The theme provides a wonderful opportunity to keep engaging in this conversation on disruption, but to also look at disruption through a proactive lens. How can we take what we know about the shifting business landscape and leverage it for strategic advantage? On the risk side, we will learn from people who are experts on the important issues of technology and privacy, enabling us to delve into what those issues mean for public trust. We will discuss how new regulations are shifting what disruption means, including the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). I believe this shift in how companies market their products and how business models are changing is creating an opportunity for large and small companies to learn from each other.
There will be a lot of opportunity to discuss disruption at the 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit happening September 29 through October 2 in Washington, DC. Don’t miss out on our early bird pricing through March 31 to save on registration.
Over the years, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has featured miles of technology and millions of people—2.75 million square feet for 3,900 booths and nearly 185,000 attendees in 2018 alone.
Under those tents are innovations that will disrupt markets and your companies. The question is, which ones?
Not every innovation is disruptive, and not every market is vulnerable. According to a recent blog by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen, written shortly before the most recent CES event in January, “disruptive innovation,” a term Christensen coined in 1995, is “the process by which products and services, often less expensive and less sophisticated, move upmarket until they displace established competitors.”
Displacement is no fun; it generally means downsizing and can mean demise. So directors naturally want their companies to disrupt, rather than be disrupted. That’s why NACD launched the NACD CES Experience in partnership with Grant Thornton. Participants enjoyed a director-curated tour and program that explored the technology trends of greatest relevance to business, helping attendees see implications for their own companies.
General trends highlighted on the tour included the impact of artificial intelligence, machine learning, chip and processing technologies, and sensor technologies on human-machine interface. The small group of directors also witnessed new technologies in voice input and response, image and vision interactions, biometrics, digital assistants, computational photography, shoppable images, virtual environments, and biometric trackers.
NACD inaugurated a similar annual event last July, the NACD Technology Symposium, where directors toured businesses in Silicon Valley, interacting with innovators there. And in April 2018, NACD will host a Global Cyber Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. NACD, working with others, has been providing cyber-risk oversight guidance for directors since the year 2000, most recently with the NACD Director’s Handbook on Cyber-Risk Oversight, 2017 edition. Also our Emerging Issues resource center has a segment on the impact of technology change.
Such programs, encouraging focus amid complexity and change, are models for what board leadership is all about: focused oversight. Based on my own board service, and on my decades of dialogue with directors, I believe that identifying and prioritizing issues for oversight is the single most important value that boards bring to organizations. It’s opposite of the “shiny thing” syndrome, in which our attention darts to whatever is new and interesting.
In a video interview with several directors at the opening day of CES, NACD Chief Programming Officer Erin Essenmacher asked why they came. Lianne Pelletier, whose views on CES were recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, focused on infrastructure, a key topic at Expeditors International, where she serves as a director. John Hotta, a director at First Washington Robotics, focused on the accessibility of platforms like Amazon’s Alexa. Maureen Conners, on the board of Fashion Incubator San Francisco, said that directors should bring the top “three to five” issues to the attention of their CEO to ask for a report on strategic implications.
In short, all the directors interviewed said that they wanted broader horizons but would continue to focus straight ahead.
I first attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) more than 30 years ago and have visited periodically over the intervening years. Rest assured that the creativity and sheer volume of innovation exhibited there never ceases to amaze and impress me. While some of it is developed and showcased by global companies such as Samsung and Kohler, the showroom floor is also filled with talent previously working behind the scenes at various brands, or by truly start-up entrepreneurs.
This was the first time that I have viewed the show through the eyes of a corporate director. As I walked more than 10 miles through the aisles over the course of CES 2018, I considered the governance implications of what I saw.
To me, one of the benefits of being at CES is being away from daily routines and taking the opportunity to observe and just let your mind cogitate the possibilities. And cogitate I did. In some cases, I wanted to know not only what the product did, but how it was made. In other instances, I wondered how a product could be marketed or sold, what companies would create its competitor products, and what adoption rate was required to make the product financially successful.
So, what did I find exciting? What made the governance wheels in my head turn? Below are a few themes that stood out.
Quantum Computers. From a pure technology standpoint, the quantum computer stands out due to its astounding small size yet incredible processing power. Intel, which is one of the leaders of the quantum computing race, kicked the week off by exhibiting its own advancements in engineering one of the most powerful quantum chips yet. The IBM Research group, on the other hand, displayed its quantum computer as a stunning piece of art.
Sensors and the Internet of Things. Sensors—which were imbedded in everything from fabrics to headsets, from vehicles to medical products, and in everything else you might imagine would benefit from being connected—continued to impress due to the breadth of their utility. One clever use of sensors was the ShadeCraft patio umbrella whose electronics and robotics allowed it to automatically raise and lower itself based upon current light and weather conditions. This product not only understood sunrise and sunset, but followed the sun throughout the day to properly tilt the umbrella and gauged wind speed or rain to automatically close the umbrella without human intervention. No more worrying about your expensive patio umbrella being turned inside out, upending your table, or taking off as a projectile when you weren’t available to tend it.
Autonomous Vehicles. There was an incredible number of offerings around autonomous vehicles. I use the term vehicles instead of cars because the auto-drive implications are also clear for vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, campers, and other vehicles. Here again the use of sensors was key, and there is no doubt that many of these machines will perform better than the drivers that we currently encounter on the road, human foibles and all.
Medical Aids. Regarding other products, I found so many to be interesting. There was an audio system that not only provided a hearing test but progressed to actually construct an ear bud that utilized the results of the hearing test to produce a customized hearing aid. Phenomenal! Anyone who has gone through the rigor of selecting a hearing aid device can appreciate this speedy, streamlined approach, especially when it is at half the price point of today’s offerings. Next, I liked the Gyenno Co., which developed a special spoon that automatically levels its contents to eliminate spilling. This will provide such a caring and practical solution for those with Parkinson’s or other medical issues that have a problem feeding themselves due to tremors.
3D Printing. Another greatly improved invention is 3D printing. Although the method has been around for a while, it is now not limited to plastics or small items. Printers can fabricate in a variety of mediums and to great scale. For example, there was a camper-type van displayed on the showroom floor that was created by 3D printing. It was produced quickly and at much less expense than a traditional van. It is easy to extrapolate the utility of 3D printing to assist various businesses since it permits specialty solutions that previously did not have the volume to be economically feasible from the producer’s perspective, and were not affordable from the buyer’s standpoint.
Odds and Ends. Three fun offerings were related to beer, fingernails, and laundry. Although I am not a beer drinker, the PicoBrew easily allows making craft beers at home and would be a hit with many of my friends. And I know those who would like the fingernail machine that can use any photos to create vinyl nails for application at home. Finally I’ll introduce the FoldiMate, a device that folds your laundry when you feed it into the machine. It could be the next best thing since sliced bread for the lazy among us.
It is worth noting that one of the great joys of CES is that everyone is welcome, and that the exhibitors and subject-matter experts arrive from many countries. CES makes clear that the desire to innovate transcends borders and creeds, and that the glue holding this incredible meeting together is not so-called “geekiness,” but a superior level of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and desire for business success—and, perhaps above all, the desire by many to improve living conditions around the world.
I’ll close by saying everyone should attend this show once their life time. As a director, I suggest setting the goal of attending every three to five years. CES presents a soup-to-nuts view of developments in products and technology that consumers will anticipate. Even if you are not affiliated with what is considered a consumer business, you do serve customers that will continue to expect innovation. As I absorbed the week’s events and considered the possibilities around every corner, CES opened my mind about what could or should be considered in the boardroom related to strategy and risk. It was well worth my time, and would be for you, too.
Kathleen Misunas is a director of Boingo Wireless and Tech Data Corp., two publicly traded technology companies.