The world is changing at breakneck speed, and the business world is no exception. With new times come new challenges, and modern leaders are faced with an increasingly daunting task: how to be relevant in a world where everything is changing, and nothing is certain.
For some years I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to business and political leaders at forums like the ADC Forum - a think tank addressing the opportunities and challenges of leadership. Every year I see close up how leaders of large corporations and countries grapple with the pace of change. New products and services offered by fast growing start-ups quickly disrupt old business models. Fundamentalist, business school formulas simply aren’t working any longer, and the best leaders are looking for better solutions.
Leadership is the cornerstone of every organisation because leadership creates the culture of a company - and culture is where the magic happens. This is why top Silicon Valley venture capitalists will tell you that they invest in people, not products. The best leaders are those who can create market-leading products and services, year after year. So, how do they do it?
Great leaders listen, but they don’t just listen. They actively seek to understand a range of perspectives, and are always on the lookout for new ideas. In my work, I often have unpleasant news to deliver to CEOs: unless you keep up with the pace of technology, your business will become irrelevant. Technology has become such an enormous part of our lives that all companies are becoming technology companies - it’s that important.
A great example of this is the blockchain - a decentralised, peer to peer ledger for transactions of value - which is fundamentally changing how businesses offer products and services.
Using blockchain technologies, customers are able to transact more directly with each other, cutting out traditional intermediaries like banks through blockchain payment systems, law firms through smart contracts that automatically execute once certain events have occurred, accounting firms through blockchain databases that record and verify accounts in real time, and even central monetary authorities - where Bitcoin and other digital currencies are gaining traction in the market against State issued currencies like the United States Dollar. Already, Bitcoin is accepted by companies like Zappos, Reddit, Tesla, Microsoft and Richard Branson’s own Virgin Galactic.
Consensys, a Brooklyn, New York based incubator and consultancy, are using the Ethereum blockchain to develop a range of new technologies, including business to business products that provide real competitive advantages for companies. These include more seamless supply chains that increase manufacture speeds, facilitate faster orders, payments and deliveries, and create more accurate and secure records.
The Ethereum blockchain is even being used to bring about changes in how companies are operated and managed, employing a combination of task allocation and completion tracking and smart contracts to monitor and record who does what, when, and even make payments based on tasks completed. The implications of these organisations - called Decentralised Autonomous Organisations - can seem scary, as we trade off more and more power to computers, but the benefits are also clear - bringing more efficiency, accountability and fairer remuneration to reward effort and outcomes.
So what does leadership mean in the age of technologies like the blockchain? It comes back to culture. The organisations that succeed will be those that have a strong mission to attract great talent and foster creativity in their employees and collaborators to come up with increasingly sophisticated solutions. There’s no point coming up with great ideas though, if the decision makers aren’t listening. As Richard Branson likes to say, you never know where the next great idea will come from. As a leader who loves to listen, he uses tools like Ideapod to crowdsource ideas for new business ideas. If today’s leaders want to be creating products and services that people love, they need to invest in a culture that maximises the creative value of their teams. Technology is an essential tool, but it will be the technologies that are best able to harness the uniquely human power of creativity that will bring the best results.