A Future-Focused Approach to Preparing Your Organization for Resiliency and Success
Convergence is here. As deepening intersections of people, business, and technology emerge, this historic inflection point demands leaders rebalance the energy and focus we place on technology and humans within our organizations. It’s my honor to interview Deborah Westphal, author and former CEO of Toffler Associates. In her newly released book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-centric Future, she shares personal stories and historical examples to describe convergences spanning the globe. Everything from global supply chains to climate change is being reshaped by the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
I had the opportunity to read a pre-release copy of Convergence. The book challenged my concept of leadership. I wonder how organizations will create and deliver new value in the future? I ask myself what my role as Toffler Associates’ leader should be and how I must change my beliefs and behaviors to meet the future needs of our stakeholders? What is my responsibility to influence results beyond traditional business metrics to our clients?
In this conversation, Deb and I discussed a range of topics, from how the book came about, to defining stakeholders, to taking a future-focused look at business.
Maria: Why did you write Convergence?
Deb: As an author and speaker, I want to add to the growing number of voices that are calling for change. Today’s leaders must think through their role in addressing broader worldly issues and the challenges we face as societies and humanity. My hope is that readers come away motivated to add their energy to solving humanity’s hardest problems.
Maria: What actions do you hope readers take after reading Convergence?
Deb: The forces of technology, people, and business purpose are imbalanced and diverging. It is happening all around us so we have to make a choice. Either we recognize what is happening and join in to rebalance these forces, or we ignore them with peril.
John Kotter at Harvard Business School describes the process see, feel, and change. Leaders must see our current organizational structures and systems are outdated and incapable of sustaining future success. They must feel the power of all the competing forces creating an imbalance in the environments in which they operate and realize that now is the time to transition to a human-centric perspective. And they must have the courage to speak up, understanding that they have the resources and capacity to make the necessary pivot and that doing so will increase the probability of a successful future.
Maria: The current system is set up to reward shareholder value. How does a leader go against shareholder expectations when they are not necessarily rewarded for this behavior?
Deb: Leaders have to balance their efforts to meet today’s goals with making sure they will even have a market in the future to operate. You’ve got to have a market to operate in. That is true for today and for the future. If you are doing things today that will have negative impacts on your future markets, you’re not going to have a sustainable business.
As an example, water is important in almost every company manufacturing anything – electronics, pharmaceuticals, food, clothing – you name it. Besides air, water is the most important thing to sustain human life. If we destroy our water sources, businesses won’t be able to make things, but more importantly, people will die. You may not get rewarded directly for having a water management strategy, but no short-term gain is going to be worth what you lose over the longer term. There must be some rebalancing between decisions for today and decisions for tomorrow. Today’s businesses must incorporate some sort of analysis of these complex relationships into their decision-making to determine impact, consequences, and opportunities for the future and for the stakeholder communities that operate in.
Maria: It sounds like an imperative for leaders to seek an understanding of secondary and tertiary impacts of their strategies and decisions and be intentional about those shocks. How do you see stakeholdership differing in your private sector work compared to in your government work?
Deb: Each one has specific relationships with stakeholders. Financial responsibilities constitute the biggest difference. Besides that, I could make the case that there isn’t much else different between private and public stakeholdership.
Businesses serve a spectrum of stakeholders that includes customers, suppliers, employees, and the communities where we operate. I expanded this definition to be human-centric by adding the expectation that businesses also serve the larger needs of humanity. This addition is especially true when we think about our impact on global issues such as climate change and water management. The important point is that businesses also need to balance being profitable and serving stakeholders.
Government is naturally stakeholder-focused. Rather than being driven by profit, they are driven by mission. Successful government organizations understand their key stakeholders and how to solicit feedback, listen, and respond. For example, the Department of Defense (DoD) has customers, suppliers, employees, and communities to consider. Its customers are warfighters deployed around the world to serve and protect our national security interests. Its suppliers are the thousands of businesses and nonprofit organizations that innovate solutions and support the needs of the department. And its employees are the men and women across the uniformed services, civilian service, and contractors. DoD is connected to the communities they serve by having the National Guard, which reports to the governors of each state and which is there to serve the needs of states, regardless of whether the issues are natural or man-made.
Maria: Shareholders look to metrics as an indicator of success. Some would say government should also embrace more effective metrics to indicate program progress of mission and goals. How would an organization measure its impact on humanity?
Deb: The first thing they could do is to start tracking their suppliers’ efforts and making an acquisition criterion. This should carry through prime contractors as well as their subs or suppliers. If they haven’t started already, each government department should have this focus as a part of their strategic planning office. There is much work to be done in understanding what they should be focused on, building plans and defining measures and metrics to track goals. There is also work to be done in updating processes, procedures, and behaviors to continue to improve performance to goals.
Maria: How can both of these sectors improve to be more future-focused?
Deb: First of all, realize there is no crystal ball. These sectors, just like the rest of us, must be able to operate in uncertainty. What you can do is become more aware of why and how the world is changing and understand the likely consequences of these changes. Set aside time to peer into the future and consider the risks of changes. Many of us feel the constant pull between today’s issues, which are urgent, and tomorrow’s more distant variabilities, which often are strategically more critical to our organization’s survival.
We have to use future-focused thinking to sense and assess the landscape all the time. It is the practice of continually challenging what you believe is happening, why it’s happening, and what could happen next. This behavior needs to be practiced continuously. Peering into the future using a human-centric perspective can give you the clarity and confidence needed to challenge long-held and obsolete assumptions, biases, and beliefs. Once you do, you can identify what you need to shed to build resilience and move forward into the future.
Maria: Peering into the future with a human-centric lens certainly causes leaders to ask different questions. As leaders seek to make change in their organization, what are some of the important first steps?
Deb: This process is hard and humbling, but leaders have support in this journey. Several things must happen to make change in the organization. Understand the human system and how it takes precedence over all other systems, including your business systems. Recognize the growing gap happening from what was expected from your business to what is expected. The shift from shareholder primacy to serving the needs of stakeholders is gaining momentum. Leaders have to be willing and able to disrupt how and why decisions are made in and for their business. This disruption must happen with every meeting every day until decisions are made for stakeholders, not just shareholders.
As with future-focused thinking, the effort to shift to a stakeholder mindset requires diligent rooting out of obsolete knowledge about why you are doing what you are doing and how you do it within your organization. Change won’t happen overnight. You will need to keep your eyes on the horizon to meet the future. Lastly, search out other leaders also trying to address the challenge of transforming. Learn from them. Share with them. Engage the people in your organization to help. Engage your stakeholders to understand the problems and possible solutions.
Thank you, Deb, for broadening our aperture as we look for ways to grow as leaders and evolve our organizations for the future. Your unexpected questions and thought-provoking stories stimulate an evolution for leaders. I truly enjoyed Convergence and encourage everyone to pick it up on Amazon and add it to their well-worn stack of leadership guidebooks.
As you think about the new requirements to be a leader today, for tomorrow, we look forward to continuing this dialog. Please join me, Toffler Associates Director Hans Davies, and author Deborah Westphal for a special workshop event on June 17, 2021, from 11:00 AM until 12:30 PM (ET) to explore The Evolving Role of the Stakeholder: Preparing your Organization for Future Success.