When Walter S. Isaacson winds down his 14-year tenure as the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute at the end of this year, his beloved hometown of New Orleans will be seeing more of him. Students in his classroom at Tulane University will be the lucky recipients of his rich knowledge and experience as he returns as a professor in those stately halls in the Garden District.
Walter S. Isaacson will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit.
Isaacson, who has penned biographies of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs will speak at NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit in October on innovation and disruption. (He will also release a new biography on Leonardo da Vinci in October.)
In addition to his work as a writer, Issacson keeps his governance plate quite full: he is a director of United Continental Holdings and an advisory board member of the National Institutes of Health. His nonprofit board service includes the Society of American Historians, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. He also has served as an advisory board member at Perella Weinberg Partners, a global financial services and advisory firm, since 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to correspond with him via e-mail and ask him any question my heart desired. While the edited version of our full interview will run in the forthcoming May/June 2017 issue of NACD Directorship, I saved choice pieces from our exchange that unfortunately landed on the cutting room floor due to the physical constraints of a magazine page.
Many of my questions were inspired by newspaper headlines. “Why I’m Moving Home,” a recent New York Times op-ed piece by lawyer cum venture capitalist J.D. Vance, particularly grabbed my attention because it explores a common question: Can you really go home? Can you re-integrate yourself into that community—let alone revitalize it?
Isaacson seems to think so—and he’s a living example that it’s possible. Both he and his wife have divided their time between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans for some time. “I am happiest in my hometown of New Orleans dealing with issues of urban planning, jobs programs, and education reform,” he writes. “I got re-involved after Hurricane Katrina when I was made vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. My wife and I have a place in the French Quarter. I think there is more impact to be made when we act locally, and I am lucky that I have a deep passion for the town where I was born and raised.”
And how have the horrors of Hurricane Katrina shaped his worldview? The storm not only physically decimated New Orleans, but in its aftermath, the city’s population dropped by half largely due to storm-related displacements. Isaacson is determined to help reverse this radical demographic shift by invigorating education and entrepreneurialism to attract top talent and great thinkers back to the city.
“Hurricane Katrina reminded me of the value of home,” he writes. “I think that when we are looking for the good we can do and the impact we can have, now is a good time to be looking locally. I am fortunate to have New Orleans as my hometown. We are trying new ways to reform education and make an innovative environment for creative people and entrepreneurs.”
Do you have a similar experience of returning to your hometown to change it for the better? Do you serve on a board that inspires a company to better serve the communities in which the business operates? We’d love to hear from you. Share your experiences in the comment section.
Judy Warner is editor in chief of NACD Directorship magazine.
The uncertainty of looking to the future presses boards to consider how confident their senior executives and supporting teams are in executing strategy. How can the board help the companies they oversee to face the future with a greater sense of confidence?
Confidence is neither a cliché nor an assertion of mere optimism. Rather, it is a quality that drives leaders and their companies forward. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as “the state of feeling certain about the truth of something” and “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” This definition focuses on the board and management’s appreciation of the collective capabilities of the enterprise, including the ability to carry out a company’s vision. It raises three fundamental questions:
Do weknow where we’re going directionally and why? Are our people committed to achieving a common vision that is clearly articulated, meaningful, and aspirational?
Are we prepared for the journey? Does our staff have the capabilities to execute our strategy? Do we have a great team, a strong roadmap, and the required processes, systems and alliances, and sufficient resources to sustain our journey?
Dowepossesstheability, will, anddiscipline to cope withchange alongthe way,nomatterwhathappens? Does our board have the mental toughness to stay on course? Is our management team agile and adaptive enough to recognize market opportunities and emerging risks, and capitalize on, endure, or overcome them by making timely adjustments to strategy and capabilities?
Definitive, positive responses to these questions from the board will enable confidence across the organization.
Looking back on experiences working with successful companies, seven attributes were identified that organizations must have when facing the uncertainty of future markets.
How to Build the Foundation for Confidence
Confidentorganizationssharecommitmenttoa vision. Commitment to a vision provides a shared “future pull” that is both inspiring and motivating. This perspective fuels enterprise-wide focus and energy to learn, which encourages participation and altruistic camaraderie. An effective vision crafted by the board and executive team leads people at all levels of a company to recognize that the enterprise’s success and their personal success are inextricably linked.
Confident organizations have a heightened awareness of the environment. A confident organization constantly reality tests its market understanding by facilitating effective listening to customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Boards should encourage companies to generate sources of new learning, encouraging systemic thinking in distilling and acting on the environment feedback received, with the objective of driving continuous improvement. The confident organization fosters a culture of sharing and supports formal and informal continuous feedback loops to flatten the organization, get closer to the customer, and promote a preparedness mindset.
Confidentorganizationsaligntheirrequiredcapabilities. It is a never-ending priority of the board to ensure that the right talent and capabilities are in place to achieve differentiation in the marketplace and execute strategies successfully. Capabilities include an enterprise’s superior know-how, innovative processes, proprietary systems, distinctive brands, collaborative cultures, and a unique set of supplier and customer relationships.
How to Sustain Confidence
Achieving a foundation of confidence is necessary, but alone is not enough without concerted efforts to sustain confidence. Astute directors and executives know that the ability, will, and discipline to cope with change are also needed to sustain their journey. Those winning traits are enabled by the attributes below.
Confidentorganizationsare risk-savvy. The confident organization is secure in the knowledge that it has considered all plausible risk scenarios, knows its breakpoint in the event of extreme scenarios, and has effective response plans in place (including plans to exit the strategy if circumstances warrant). Most importantly, the confident organization should have an effective early-warning capability in place to alert decision-makers of changes in the marketplace that affect the validity of critical strategic assumptions. In a truly confident organization, no idea or person is above challenge and contrarian views are welcomed.
Confidentorganizationslearnaggressively. Confident organizations improve their learning by: creating centers of excellence; embracing cutting-edge technology to drive the vision forward; fostering an open, transparent environment of ongoing knowledge sharing, networking, collaboration, and team learning; perceiving admission of errors as a strength and requiring learning from the missteps; and converting lessons learned into process improvements. Aggressive learning stimulates the collective genius of the entire enterprise.
Confidentorganizationsplaceapremiumoncreativity. Innovation should be an integral part of the corporate DNA of the confident company, and should be evidenced by setting accountability for results with innovation-focused metrics at the organizational, process, and individual levels to encourage and reward creativity. Companies committed to innovation have the creative capacity to take advantage of market opportunities and respond to emerging risks. When innovation is a strategic imperative, companies empower and reward their employees to take the appropriate risks to realize new ideas without encumbering them with the fear of repercussions if they aren’t successful.
Confidentorganizationsare resilient. Confident organizations have adaptive processes supported by disciplined decision-making, and are committed to adapt early to continuous and disruptive change. They have the will to stay the course when the going gets tough, and are prepared to act decisively to revise strategic plans in response to changing market realities. They do not allow competitors to gain advantage by building large capital reserves, having great relationships with their lenders, and by cultivating trusting relationships with their customers, vendors and shareholders. The strategies that their boards approve include triggers for contingency plans that directors and management will implement if certain predetermined events occur or conditions arise.
In summary, the speed of change continues to escalate, creating more uncertainty about future developments and outcomes. If there was ever a time for a board to assess an organization’s confidence, we believe it is now. It’s one thing to have a confident CEO, but if the people within the entity lack confidence, the organization itself may not have the creativity and resiliency needed to sustain a winning strategy.
Jim DeLoach is managing director with Protiviti, a global consulting firm.
At NACD’s Master Class this August, directors from companies like Boingo Wireless Inc., Colgate-Palmolive Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., GameStop Corp., and the Royal Bank of Canada convened in Laguna Beach, California, for peer-to-peer discussions on strategy, risk, and leading through disruption. One common thread ran throughout the discussions: companies expend enormous resources and efforts to mitigate cyber, geopolitical, and other threats, but they have yet to allocate the same attention to technology disruption. Kelvin Westbrook— president and CEO of KRW Advisors LLC, and a director of Archer Daniels Midland Co., Stifel Financial Corp., and T-Mobile US Inc.—framed the issue this way for Master Class participants: “Companies can survive cyber data breaches, but many don’t survive innovative technology disruption. It’s a bigger deal that we need to address.”
A prosthetic hand created using low-cost 3-D printing technology was demonstrated at the 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit. Photo by Denny Henry.
This year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit puts technology and disruption front and center, with a variety of leading-edge speakers and sessions that focus on these themes. But more than just convening discussions, the director community get hands-on experience with emerging trends via Innovation Nation. This popular feature, launched at last year’s Summit, is back once again, featuring an even more robust cross-section of the trends, technologies, and innovations that are disrupting your businesses and shaping your world. This year’s exhibits include opportunities to immerse yourself in virtual reality, experience the sharing economy at work, and see the latest in drone technology up close. Here is a sampling of who will be on hand:
Dancing With the Start-Ups, a new feature modeled after the popular show Shark Tank, builds on popular sessions from past Summits that gave directors a chance to “Meet the Disruptors.” This fast-paced competition will feature 12 companies across three key industries—healthcare, financial services, and energy— to showcase the latest and greatest in emerging business. Both the competition and a booth showcasing the startup talent in Innovation Nation will offer Summit attendees the chance to meet the entrepreneurs who are hoping to be your next competitors in the marketplace. For those who can’t make the Sunday session, or who just want to get to know the companies a little better, swing by Innovation Nation to learn more about innovative new ways to diagnose malaria, the latest in solar energy technology, the intersection of market data with sustainability, and much more.
Dave Meadows is a self-described “lifelong ‘tinkerer’ and inventor”—inclinations that served him well in his former role as a senior research and development executive with Novartis International AG. Several years ago, Meadows set out to solve a problem that has plagued wine drinkers for nearly 9,000-years—adverse physical reactions, especially when drinking reds. Five years later, The Wand™ was born. This invention removes 95 percent of the histamines and sulfite preservatives from wine. The result—a whole legion of wine enthusiasts who had previously learned to avoid wine can once again partake without the fear of headaches and other adverse reactions. You can experience the power of The Wand™ firsthand and talk to Meadows about and his work in the areas of medical diagnostics, sports medicine, and consumer packaged goods.
Big data and analytics are driving the growth of nearly every business, from heavy hitters like General Electric and Alibaba to early stage start-ups and family farms. This new trend is poised to transform industries, power new business models, enable innovation, and create greater value. According to research from International Data Corporation, worldwide revenues for big data and analytics will grow to $187 billion by 2019—a 50 percent increase from revenues in 2014. But Powerlytics Inc. cofounder Kevin Sheetz cautions that, when it comes to data, big doesn’t mean better, and behind the hype are a number of critical questions boards should be asking to ensure their companies are taking full and smart advantage of this trend. Sheetz will be at the Summit to give directors real-time interaction with the company’s platform, which aggregates publicly available consumer and business financial data from sources like IRS tax returns, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
February 15, 2011 became a milestone in both game show and artificial intelligence (AI) history, as the IBM-designed super computer, Watson, bested previously undefeated players Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter to win Jeopardy! The Watson team has been hard at work in the intervening five years to use natural language processing and machine learning to make sense of large amounts of unstructured data. IBM developers will be available to demo this technology and answer questions about the intersection of AI and analytics.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is reshaping the business landscape in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is one of many organizations harnessing the IoT to save lives. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were more than six million police-reported crashes on U.S. roads in 2015. While the number of people surviving car accidents has increased significantly thanks to airbags, antilock brakes, and other technology, USDOT’s Connected Vehicles program aims to stop many of those crashes from happening in the first place. This unique partnership between state and local transportation agencies, vehicle and device makers, and the public, aims to test and evaluate technology that will enable motor vehicles, roads and other infrastructure, and devices to “talk” to one another so every vehicle on the road is aware of the position of other nearby vehicles. Chris Gerdes, USDOT’s chief innovation officer, will discuss the program Monday on the main stage. Swing by the Innovation Nation to check out this technology, learn more about how you can bring the program to your home city, and get inspiration for how the IoT might just help your own business survive and thrive.
These are just a few snapshots of the incredible line-up of thought leaders and emerging technology at next month’s Summit. Want to learn more? View the full list of speakers and sessions at NACDonline.org/summit.