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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Lorrie Norrington has over 35 years of operating experience in technology, software, and Internet businesses. Norrington is currently an Operating Partner at Lead Edge Capital, and serves on the boards of Autodesk, Colgate-Palmolive Co., HubSpot, BigCommerce, and Eventbrite. She lives in Silicon Valley. This blog is part of the2017 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summitseries.
A company’s board sets the tone from the top and oversees long-term strategy. However, now more than ever, boards also must actively work to understand technology trends and encourage a culture of innovation that drives long-term growth. The development of an innovation mindset has become an imperative for directors.
The pace of technological change is forcing governance needs to evolve faster than anticipated. As a result, the inability to innovate has become one of the biggest business risks in most enterprise risk management assessments. It is useful to understand that both evolutionary innovation (or the combination of small ideas into bigger change) and discontinuous innovation (which is disruptive to companies and industries) can render companies uncompetitive in months and years—not decades.
Below are some of the techniques I’ve used over the past decade as a director to keep current on my knowledge and help boards embrace technology and innovation.
Take It Personally
You don’t have to live in Silicon Valley or be a technologist to possess a solid working knowledge of innovation and technology trends. In our previous roles as executives, we were forced to keep current on business and technology changes. The same holds for board directors. It is up to you. Annual updates through events like the NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit are essential to learn about key trends and best practices from other boards. However, given the rate of change, you cannot rely solely on annual updates. Every year, at a minimum, I read the top three business technology books on Amazon’s bestseller list, attend one technology conference (Mary Meeker’s annual pitch is a must), and read my favorite tech-focused publications (i.e., Recode and TechCrunch) daily. This routine enables me to engage in the boardroom with an informed perspective.
Go Beyond the CEO
With today’s rate of change, it isn’t realistic to expect the CEO to have all the answers regarding innovation efforts and how teams are applying technology. If your board has a technology and innovation committee, take time to understand executives’ areas of focus and ensure the agenda is balanced to include both the risks and opportunities technology change can create. If your board does not have one, ensure one of your board members is designated to engage regularly with the chief technology officer or chief product officer about their mid-and long-term innovation and technology plans.
Create an “Innovation System” for Your Board
A technology and innovation review should be part of your annual, board-level strategy or product review. Examining current technologies and innovations, as well as early-stage technologies and innovations that management believes to be part of the future, are two key behaviors to build as a part of your board’s robust “innovation system.” Last, by including technology and technical product skills as part of the criteria for new board members, you will ensure the board has the right skills long-term to encourage and challenge management.
In sum, boards set the tone for the entire organization. If you embrace technology and innovation, this empowers everyone throughout the company to do the same. In a world where the rate of technology and innovation will determine long-term success or failure, directors must embrace the changes needed to encourage and challenge management to accelerate their understanding of technology and the pace of innovation.
To learn more about technology and innovation, attend the 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Oct. 1–4, 2017, in National Harbor, MD. For the full Summit agenda, please visit the Summit website.
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.