Tomorrowland: Retooling the Workplace for the Future

Back in the 1990’s, the Disney Corporation re-branded their Florida resort’s Tomorrowland to depict the future as envisioned by the Sci-Fi writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was intended to be more than a paint job and a few new attractions. People movers, robots, and chromed flying cars fill the nooks and crannies of the re-branded Tomorrowland, giving Disney guests glimpses of a world dominated by prosperity, computing power, and automation. The late Walt Disney’s vision is also sewn into every attraction in Tomorrowland, a vision rooted in the idea that technology enhanced life and shouldn’t be feared.

Tomorrowland is today in many of the places we serve. In our ongoing quest to build businesses structured for the long-term, me must embrace the arrival of computer-driven automation. While we may be years away from the practical deployment of massive people movers and reliable flying cars, automation in factories, retail spaces, warehouses, and back-end settings is here to stay. In many ways, life is enhanced because of the arrival of automation. Today, there is more time for leisure, self-care, and education because so many smart machines do the hard jobs of the past with a few keystrokes or a flip of the switch. AI-powered machines can even command the keystrokes and switches without human interface. Indeed, automation is welcomed in our daily routines, allowing us to claim more time for the tasks and relationships that matter the most to us. But how is automation impacting the workforce in industry, services businesses, and retail venues? Will there be jobs in the digital future that’s unfolding before us right now? Yes, but jobs will look different. The arrival of automation means the current and emerging workforce will need different skill-sets than past workers.

The jobs of the early industrial period required manual labour and basic cognitive skills. If you could learn a valuable skill like typesetting, tool & die making, or machine assembly – even with a limited educational background – you could always find a job with a competitive wage. Today, AI-integrated machines are replacing skilled labour at a fraction of the outlay companies once spent on hiring, retaining, and retraining the people who handled skilled labour tasks. In place of these jobs, businesses require more and more employees with technological credentials like coding, computer repair, and network management. Today, it’s vital for businesses to staff with individuals who can manage the machines doing the work. Businesses must also invest in their current employees, providing continuing education opportunities that move the team from the analogue processes of the past to the digital processes of the present.

Interestingly, the shift to automation will also require the hiring of more individuals credentialed in fields like industrial psychology and counseling. With the deepening shift toward automation and streamlined workforces, businesses may lose some of the important interpersonal connections that have historically nurtured innovation and esprit de corps. Having professionals on the team who can help tech employees stay connected with people will be vital moving forward. Further, intentionality in “bringing people together” to network, celebrate, and learn in the workplace will become far more significant in the future.

Tomorrowland is our reality in 2019 and beyond, and more of the wonders envisioned in decades past will continue to arrive and reshape how we live. Automation will boost business profitability, safety statistics, and time available for the tasks and relationships that matter the most. As we embrace the technological marvels that are reshaping work and leisure, let’s not neglect to imagine what the next breakthroughs may look like.

Diversity and Inclusion in the Infinite Game of Business

Diversity and Inclusion in the Infinite Game of Business

Diversity and Inclusion
Ubuntu. No, I’m not talking about the operating system. In this case, I’m referring to the Zimbabwean word that rose to notoriety during the days of South African Apartheid. Ubuntu… While there is no real English equivalent, a string of words does the job: Ubuntu means “I am, because we are.” When the great visionaries of the anti-Apartheid movement like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu looked out upon a deeply divided South Africa, they recognized amazing diversity and the potential of a far more just and inclusive society. After Apartheid collapsed, Ubuntu became a rallying cry for the establishment of a government that honored the value and contributions of every person in South Africa.

So, what does Ubuntu have to do with business? Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). If you’re serious about participating in the infinite game, that is, leading your business for long-term relevance and value and not just short-term victories, then a commitment to D&I must be a top priority. This may require a significant shift in your approach to hiring, promotion and overall Talent strategy to be successful. Especially if your leadership table is comprised of a single homogeneous team (predominantly white and male in North America). This shift must start with potentially difficult and honest dialogue about experience and privilege. For many of these leaders who had an unencumbered rise up the corporate ladder, it may be hard to recognize and action D&I deficiencies in the business. This isn’t an affront against white males, just the reality of privilege. It is vital to be honest about the influence of privilege in our culture and in business (and yes, I say this, with a deep understanding that I too, as a white female, have privilege).

Now that we have tackled this sensitive topic, let’s look at the benefits of a diverse and inclusive culture. For starters, innovation. When we talk about D&I, we often frame it as building a safe space for our colleagues. With safety comes the comfort to challenge the status quo and to think about new and different. Having an environment that is diverse and inclusive opens the gates for novel thought, practices, products, and marketing – it becomes an environment that is an incubator for innovation.

A hyper-focus on D&I also has the potential to supercharge your business growth. A BCG study found that diverse teams drove 19% higher growth rates, because of the innovation of the teams. Just think…. businesses that want to reach new customer segments – how better to do that than leverage the insight and experiences of those same segments that exists WITHIN the organization.
Ubuntu. Yes, this is a lofty word. I am, because we are. However, I think Ubuntu gets to the core of what it means to be in the infinite game. Businesses that are committed to best practices in Diversity and Inclusion are in it for the long term and will encounter sustainable innovation and growth. Not to mention, it’s quite simply the right thing to do. I love that at IBM, our Ubuntu phrase is “You cannot BE what you cannot SEE”.

In it to Win it or Outlast it?

As an athlete, I’ve developed a real appreciation (aka: obsession) for high-quality athletic apparel and shoes. In the Canadian and US markets, Nike, Lululemon, Adidas, and Under Armour are the undisputed leaders by market share, outfitting millions of people in their products. But, let’s be clear… The difference between #1 and #3 is staggering. As of December 31, 2018, Nike’s market capitalization was $110 billion US to Under Armour’s $10 billion US. More importantly, Nike continues a trajectory of modest growth while its upstart competitor has been ceding market share and bleeding cash since 2017. Why is there such a disparity between #1 and #3 when their products and audiences are so similar? The answer? Nike is engaged in an infinite game, while Under Armour is playing a finite game.

In business, sports or any other contest, those playing a finite game are in it to win it. THAT IS ALL. When Under Armour launched some 23 years ago, the brand had the vision and appetite of a prize fighter fixated on knocking Nike to the mat. While Under Armour geared its operation toward quickly challenging and then besting the “Swoosh,” Nike kept responsive to its customers and their emerging apparel and shoe needs. Nike was and is interested in keeping the game – the athletic apparel game – going indefinitely, not eliminating its competitors. Under Armour, on the other hand, continues to exhaust its resources in a Quest to unseat Nike. Who will have the wherewithal to be around in 20 years?

Simon Sinek, leadership guru and author of the 2019 title, “The Infinite Game,” believes that the most effective leaders, and the organizations they lead, compete in infinite games, not finite ones. They are motivated by moving people forward, not overwhelming a real or perceived adversary, or being solely focused on quarterly results. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it,” Sinek says, adding, “and what you do simply proves what you believe.” Said another way, the leader’s motivations will often determine the leader’s effectiveness.

Obviously, there is tremendous value in moving toward an infinite game mindset. For starters, leadership with a long view is always more responsive to the changing needs of employees and clients. When the “goal” is to stay in the game, leaders and organizations keep their ears attuned to feedback, great ideas, and market trends. Infinite leadership also nourishes an air of collaboration and innovation. When stakeholders believe in the leader’s “why,” they will walk with the leader in pursuit of the why. Ask yourself, are you more likely to work for the woman who says, “We’re going to beat the crap out of X,” or the one who says, “Here’s where we’re going, and here’s why I feel you need to be on this journey with me?” Sinek says, ““If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money.” However, “If you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

Are you leading to deliver a knockout punch, or because you believe in something far more profound than a one-time victory? How you answer this question reveals a lot about the health of your leadership style. As for me, I’ll be wearing Nikes when I’m ninety. That’s the power of infinite game leadership.

Doing the Right Thing: Ethical Leadership

Ethical Leadership

In the 50’s and 60’s, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) dumped nearly 400 million gallons of water contaminated with Chromium 6 into unlined wastewater ponds near the town of Hinkley, California. It was a cheap way to dispose of the byproducts of the process involved in transmitting natural gas through the state. The money saved through this catastrophic practice funneled into the bank accounts of the company’s leaders. PG&E executives continued to receive rich compensation while contamination seeped into the groundwater around Hinkley. It wasn’t until 1987, after residents in the area saw a huge spike in cancer rates, that PG&E finally acknowledged the gross negligence. Who was at fault for this ethical lapse? EVERY PG&E leader who knew there was a problem yet failed to report it. The courts agreed, of course, awarding the Hinkley residents impacted by cancer with a combined $300 million (US) in damages.

If you are in the least bit paying attention to the business news, you will recognize the failures of leadership with great frequency. While they don’t always make the front pages of the Wall Street Journal, the lapses are there. Financial malfeasance, sexual indiscretion, and racial/gender/sexual orientation discrimination are among the many missteps that hurt people, derail careers, and damage businesses. Indeed, power corrupts. Unfortunately, the consequences of poor leadership ethics are not immediately mitigated when shady leaders are removed from their positions. Unethical behavior can fester “system-wide” when the bad habits modeled by leaders become the behaviors of employees too. Remember the 2007-2009 banking crisis? That’s a case study in systemic, unethical behavior.

Every leader has a different definition for ethical leadership. Some present a tidy list of traits that the ethical leader should model for her team. They might say ethical leaders live by a code of conduct, practice transparency in all of their affairs, or have an accountability system in place to check potentially unethical behavior. Others insist that ethics is more gut-level than specific traits and practices. Simply, the leader must just do the right thing. Given this wide variance in the discussion, let me offer two touchstones that guide my understanding of ethical practice: 1. Ethical leaders honour and respect the members of the team and the business’ clients, and 2. Ethical leaders practice what they preach.

If you hold the members of the team in high regard, you will always discern how your words and actions impact the people working for you. Are you encouraging your team to cut corners, do you allow high performing, yet toxic, team members to remain in place, do you drive low/no value engagements to meet short term objectives? Are you honest with the members of the team, or, in the alternative, do you withhold or mischaracterize information that’s essential to the good functioning of the business? The same applies to your clients. If what you say and do does not hold your team and clients in high regard, then assume it’s not the right thing. Given the inherent power that is vested in leadership positions, ethical leaders must never use their power to force others do engage in behavior that compromises one’s sense of safety, identity, and value.

In my years of leadership, I’ve grown ill of colleagues whose rhetoric doesn’t align with action. If you are serious about ethical leadership – and you must be – then how you act must be consistent with what you say. If you demand the highest standards of ethical behavior from your team members, but don’t act ethically yourself, then you are hurting your organization and everyone in it.

True leaders are ethical leaders.

I Choose to Lead

I Choose to Lead

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was well regarded for his long work hours and his easy rapport with Starbucks employees. Known to frequent many of the local stores he ran, Schultz was at home running an espresso machine, chatting with customers, and roasting the famous beans that put the Seattle-based chain on the international map. Schultz’s willingness to get his hands dirty inspired his employees to work a little harder every time they donned the green aprons and visors. That said, Schultz’s greatest strength as the two-time CEO of Starbucks was his ability to think strategically. During the infancy of Starbucks, Schultz convinced the owners of the business to retool their stores in the model of the espresso-fueled meeting houses of Europe. With espresso on the menu and space in each unit for people to visit, Starbucks was positioned for massive growth and massive profits. In fact, years after Howard Schultz stepped away from the CEO position at Starbucks, he was asked to return and rework his strategic magic for a company in need of a new direction.

Some leaders like to have “skin in the game.” The approachable leader inspires her team every time she’s willing to grab a mop handle, scrub a table, or troubleshoot a copier problem. Who doesn’t appreciate the leadership of a person who isn’t afraid of a little grunt work or association with the hourly workers on the team? We all want “one of us” in the boardroom. That said, leadership is a bigger nut than sweat equity and good relationships. If you really want to lead in a meaningful way, you must do so from a strategic posture. Said another way, good leadership is different than good management. Many hard-working, well-meaning, and approachable leaders have run their businesses into the rocks because their vision never reached beyond the day-to-day management and short term objectives of the business.

Strong leaders do more than manage teams and business practices, they make bold decisions. When you lead from a strategic posture, you are envisioning what the business could and should look like 3, 5, and 10+ years downstream. Strategic leaders recognize that their decisions nourish the long-term health of the business, and not necessarily the immediate concerns of daily operations. For example, Schultz realized that Starbucks needed to revamp its menu and drastically change its store design if it ever wanted to grow beyond the Seattle- area. A strategic vision for growth required short-term upheaval in the company’s original stores and patience from the earliest employees. 28,000 stores later, Starbucks is the largest coffee retailer on the planet. Without a strategic leader at the helm of the company, Starbucks would still be a regional coffee brand.

Schultz stepped away from Starbucks for a second time in 2017. While he no longer roasts beans and brews espresso for the business, Schultz’s leadership legacy can be seen on 6 of 7 continents. The little decisions that demonstrate your work ethic and care for employees will always show that you are trustworthy and authentic. However, your ability to make courageous decisions will determine whether you are leading as well as managing. A strategic posture is a must for those who aspire to lead. When your vision sees beyond the immediate needs of the business, you are in position to plot a course that has the best interest of the business, and those who work on behalf of the business, in mind. I choose to lead.

I Choose to Lead

I Choose to Lead

Collaboration for the Greater Good

Collaboration for the Greater Good

Collaboration for the Greater Good

Do you remember Circuit City? Way back, Circuit City was the go-to provider for many families’ electronics needs. Fueled by a slurry of acquisitions, the company expanded its footprint using the “Big Box” format to dazzle customers with spaciousness, innovative displays, and, of course, the latest products. Then, Best Buy entered the scene. Best Buy out-dazzled Circuit City; as customers shifted their allegiance, Circuit City didn’t have the capital to update and re-challenge its competition. Could Circuit City learn some things from Best Buy? Absolutely. Was Best Buy interested in charitably dulling out its trade secrets to Circuit City? No chance.

When you make your living in the tech world, you come to realize that competition is the name of the game. I don’t need to summarize “Porter’s Five Forces” to articulate the importance of staying ahead of the firm down the street. If you can’t beat the value offered by your competitors, then your buyers will take their business elsewhere. It’s as simple as that. Obviously, the tech space isn’t the only space one encounters competition. Retail, services, and banking are all angling – against each other – for a larger slice of wallet share. But here’s the interesting thing… Sometimes, bitter rivals collaborate on projects that benefit the greater good. In the digital world especially, a little collaboration can seed a great deal of good.

Consider the cohort of major retailers who recently found some common ground in the arena of food supply. Fueled by a shared commitment to provide a safe food supply to consumers, major retailers like Walmart, Nestlé, Tyson Foods and Unilever worked with IBM to explore the potential of Blockchain Technology. The driving idea behind the collaboration was simple and elegant. How can Blockchain help us trace our perishable items from the farm to the retail shelf so we ensure that the food supply line is optimized for efficiency and safety? The cohort wasn’t formed to stoke competition, but instead to make sure the food purchased by consumers was delivered to the highest level of quality possible. My colleague Marie Wieck, who serves as general manager of IBM Blockchain, believes that Blockchain is transformative for retail. “Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organizations come together and enabling a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth.” I agree with Marie and also believe that tech firms like ours benefit when we listen to the real-time concerns and aspirations of our clients. If retail giants can come together to serve the greater good, then certainly we can partner with these cohorts to offer our input and resources.

Collaboration serves the greater good. This is certainly the case on the micro level too. While I may not sit down for a conversation with a competitor about the inner workings of my company, I will grab a tea or a glass of wine (preferably the latter) with a rival to talk about business trends, leadership challenges, and our common concern for the well-being of our communities and planets. What we can learn from each other that moves everyone forward? Great leaders, like great companies, know when and how to collaborate especially when the “cause” is not market share. Not something you’ve done before? Now is the time.

The Demands of Good Leadership in the Age of AI

The Demands of Good Leadership in the Age of AI

During a recent visit to a “big box” store (insert big shudder here as I prefer to do all my shopping online), I noticed that not only had many of the cashiers been replaced by a sprawling plaza of check out kiosks, but also how few sales and service employees appeared to be on the sales floor. As customers struggled to complete their purchases at the self-serve kiosks, I also observed a line up at each of the handful of employees who were working the floor. Frustrated, several customers wandered aimlessly around the store in search of a person who could help them. When a young clerk entered from the back, he quickly had a throng of people at him, and became clearly overwhelmed by the flood of irritated shoppers and unable to curb the rising tide of discontent. I saw a manager walk by and at no time did I witness a leader stepping into a deteriorating situation to offer triage and guidance. I can’t imagine how many of the customers I saw that morning took their business elsewhere.

A 2018 IBM study concluded that over the next three years 120 million workers from the world’s 12 largest economies may experience significant retraining because of the proliferation of intelligent/AI-enabled automation.1 The same study determined that 60 million workers in the same economies, nearly 3.4% of the workforce, would be redeployed or laid off over the same time period because of AI.2 While it’s clear that many hourly positions may be filled by AI technologies in the coming decades, I’ve wondered how leadership will be impacted by the rise of all things digital. Will there be a need for strategic planning, managing, talent development and all those other skills embedded in strong “human” leadership, or will leadership be outsourced to AI like so many other facets of business? My response to my own question is rooted in a simple understanding of leadership. Leadership requires interpersonal acumen, multidimensional knowledge, and a diverse skill set. While AI can duplicate the latter two facets of leadership, interpersonal acumen is the exclusive domain of people.

Where Technology Falls Short

While technology can streamline processes, increase process efficiency, and reduce costs, it cannot understand the motivations, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses of the members of the team. For example, when an employee’s work is impacted by a death or health crisis, the leader must balance the demands of business with the expectation of empathy. Can technology engage in the hard work of consoling a worker in trouble? Can it muster the team to take on more tasks to fill the gaps created by the one who must step away to take care of health or family? Can technology “work the magic” of helping under-performing team members capture their full potential? And what about the inevitable crisis on the sales floor or down at the shipping dock? When the proverbial “s**t hits the fan,” someone must step up and be accountable – they must lead. Indeed, the need for strong leadership will endure even as the mechanics of business undergo a massive change. However, the shape of leadership may be encountering its own change right now. It appears that a rapidly evolving AI landscape demands human leadership versed in the soft skills that motivate, guide, and support the well-being of workers.

As technology continues to broaden its integration into the processes that drive our businesses, leadership will still be tasked with setting the vision and building the nimble team that services the vision. In the coming decades, leadership training will include larger servings of organizational psychology than the current training approaches, giving leaders stronger skills for the important work of human management and development. In work environments that will be increasingly AI driven, leadership will be tasked with cultivating relationships – esprit de corps – that keeps the team connected while more and more machines “do the work.” Leaders will also serve as interpreters and care providers who help their employees accept change and envision how their gifts and energies are carried into the new and emerging workplace models. In the domain of continuing education, for instance, leaders will be tasked with articulating why consistent skills development is a priority, not just an option, in the modern workspace. As the IBM study affirms, we must embrace the reality that lifelong learning is here to stay.

The tasks of leadership in the AI era may change, but the necessity of leaders remains. While machines may do more of the work, informed workers will still need to ensure the machines are working appropriately. Leaders will inspire and equip those who manage the machinery. Leadership is one of the skills that is here to stay.

Boldness, Courage, Leadership

leadersHow many of you know the name Wang Weilin? As you scratch your heads, I’ll just jump in and tell you… Wang Weilin is the “Tank Man” associated with the Tiananmen Square protests that unfolded in China in 1989 (I know I was SO young then but this gets replayed frequently enough that many of you can recall this image, if not the name). As a column of tanks advanced through the square to discourage protestors, young Wang stood in front of the tanks to stop the advance. When the column shifted, Wang shifted. Was Wang’s protest more than an act of desperation in a desperate time? Absolutely. It was a decisive moment fueled by courage; courage that inspired others to rise in opposition to a then oppressive regime.

Too often in business and life we reduce leadership to a list of skills that the one in charge must possess to manage a group of followers. We might say an effective leader is a great communicator, planner, teacher, intellectual, or tactician. Sometimes we imagine a particular look for a leader, insisting that leaders are clean-cut, fit, and perhaps stand heads and shoulders above those they are called to lead. In business, we see leadership in those who can navigate the organization through a crisis or those who can craft an inspiring vision for the team and the organization it serves. While I can’t argue with any of these traits of successful leadership, I often wonder if we spend too much time dissecting and debating what constitutes leadership and what doesn’t. What if leadership is really just a byproduct of courage? The courage to speak and act in a manner that inspires courage in others.

Poor leadership is the silent killer in business. In my career, I’ve worked with many so-called leaders who never had the backbone to make the tough call, to push back internally and upwardly, or go to bat for those he was supposedly leading. As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once affirmed, “if you refuse to lose your footing from time to time, you will lose yourself”. Playing it safe alienates your team, stymies initiative, and usually leads to poor retention of the team. A true leader not only manages to teach towards the completion of goals and objectives, but also gets out in front of the team if the situation requires a drastic change in approach. Ask yourself, “Do I want to work for a manager who’s unwilling to take the risks that they are asking me to take?” You already know the answer.

Courage is also embodied when the leader is willing to recognize, “I don’t have an answer,” or, “I need more information before I can make a decision.” Winston Churchill, who we often remember as uber-decisive, recognized the courage in stepping back and being led. “Courage,” Churchill quipped, “is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” In the business environment, a leader should also be willing to step back and learn from those they are leading. Many great ideas, terrific processes, and deft marking approaches have died an untimely death because the one in charge would only listen to his voice.

No one knows for sure what happened to Wang Weilin following his standoff in June of 1989. Some say he was arrested and executed; others say he remains in hiding even today. However, Wang’s courage – his leadership – endures. If you truly want to lead in business as in life, you must be willing to put your people, the community, and the cause above your own needs. I choose to lead.

Professional Boundaries – Career Conversation

A portion of a much longer talk (hence me reading from notes) to a national group of female corporate lawyers. I share my thoughts and experiences around boundaries; how to think about creating both the expansive and narrow boundaries for yourself before others define them for you.

Women Who Roar – Life Lessons from a Female Corporate Executive

A speaking engagement to a group of Female Corporate Lawyers across Canada (in person in Toronto and broadcast live across Canada). Please forgive the video quality – I was in a beautiful office overlooking Lake Ontario, but it wasn’t favourable for video quality! As a result of the length (60 mins total) and the the video angle/coverage, I had to remain at the podium and refer to notes – please focus on the content and messaging! I have edited out the confidential Q&A session.