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.
The most compelling obligation of a board is to create shareholder value. The most enduring way to create shareholder value is to create customer value. Creating great customer value is an ongoing process of continuous renewal. In today’s marketplace, most competitive advantages (even seeming monopolies) are fleeting. Great intellectual property (IP) is vulnerable to alternatives and to advances in the state of the art. Human talent has never been more mobile. Advances in communication, universal access to information, and the lowering of trade barriers have opened many markets to global competition. Supply chains can be anywhere. What’s a director to do?
I am convinced that the only sustainable competitive advantage is to create an innovative enterprise. To be truly sustainable, innovation cannot be a eureka moment, where a liquid accidentally falls on a hot stove and we have rubber. Further, it cannot be built just on individuals who are innovative. Great individual contributors are necessary but not sufficient. To be truly sustainable, innovation must be deeply imbedded in the culture of the organization and in the collective behavior of its leaders. Sustainable innovation must also be baked into processes that are documented, taught, and repeatable.
Boards must have a broad-based expectation of innovation from management. That expectation must be imbedded in CEO recruiting, in establishing visions and goals, in measurement and reward. This innovation must be pervasive; a critical quality dimension to everything that management does. Innovation can occur in a firm’s products and services, in their business model, in their approach to markets (advertising and sales efforts), in their staff recruiting and retention practices.
How does a board operate, staff, and structure itself to drive innovation?
Circumstances vary so widely. I doubt there is a rigid answer to that question. However, I do believe there are universal success contributors:
Full board engagement. When the very broad functional potential for deploying innovation is laid over the skills’ breadth of a well-diversified board (legal, operational, financial, business development, etc.) it could be limiting to assign the responsibility for innovation oversight to a subset of the board. An alternative is to require that innovation be deeply imbedded in all of management’s plans, strategies, and goals and reviewed by the full board.
External market awareness. Directors who stay aware of best innovation practices across the economy are best able to contribute to continuous innovation on the boards on which they serve. Directors must become students of the discipline of innovation.
External perspective. There are innovation experts. Just as a board equips itself with experts in compensation, taxes, and organizational development, we need to find competent advisors who can help us to stay current and focused on our innovation progress.
Fundamental alignment between the board and the CEO on innovation. CEO position descriptions are usually written to reflect the board’s definition of success within a certain time frame. The capacity to passionately lead innovation must be fundamental to the CEO position description.
Patience. Creating an innovative culture is a longer-term project than is introducing an innovation to an individual product. The history of business is littered with stories of spectacularly successful short-term product/market innovations that were not sustained in subsequent products. One primary reason that the life of an S&P 500 company is now down to 20 years (from over 50 years a generation earlier) is that some firms are innovating in a more effective and sustained way than others.
Final thoughts on innovation and risk: Innovation is a form of change. Some innovations represent disruptive change that can impact the innovator as well as the markets they disrupt. For example, a new-product innovation can disrupt an existing successful product, or even an existing monopoly. Risks of this type can be effectively managed through thoughtful planning, integrated communication, and solid enterprise-wide controls.
The biggest risk in today’s economy lies in not innovating.
Thomas J. Furst served as senior vice president and chief financial officer of SRI International for 18 years until 2014. He was a director of the Sarnoff Corp. until its absorption into SRI. Tom currently speaks, and advises management and boards, on innovation and related topics. He can be reached at email@example.com.