They say that being a CEO is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. It’s particularly difficult when their organisation is facing, or in the midst of, disruption – a word that’s overused, yes, but also one that fits the bill because it epitomises the intensity of confusion, panic, and distraction that comes with massive technical and social changes.
Today’s executives have been in the thick of digital and demographic shockwaves for most of their careers – an existence synonymous with a life in perpetual chaos. To thrive in this chaos, leaders need to restructure their organisations to manage multiple business models and revenue streams (advertising, reader revenue, events, merchandise, etc.), they also need to transform the company culture in ways that will be, without a doubt, foreign and prickly for some. It’s a massive undertaking to reinvent legacy organisations and lead them out of confusion and into a future of clarity and confidence organisation. But in the end the challenges are worth the rewards.
Media’s seemingly endless struggle to transform itself has been at the top of my mind for several years. Over that time I’ve gathered a number of notable insights from leaders who have struggled and prevailed in the face of revolutionary changes, those who actively embraced change to fuel new ideas, innovations, and industries, and the advisers who have counselled both.
I’m sure you’re familiar with some of these individuals, but there will likely be others outside your familiar leadership landscape that I hope will inspire you as they have me.
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Leadership consultant, university professor, columnist, and keynote speaker, Dr. Ed Brenegar has been working with senior executives and entrepreneurs for over 30 years helping them be more effective leaders in a world racked by constant change.
Brenegar asserts that leadership in the 21st century is fundamentally different than it was two decades ago. Prior to the year 2000, the typical corporation was a top-down, closed hierarchy that absorbed raw talent into its organisational structure. It was a time of few leaders and many followers. Today, successful organisations are open systems where the raw talent actually transforms the organisational structure – where everyone can function as a leader.
Mainstream media grew up in the 20th century and prospered, particularly in the era just prior to the internet. It probably seemed like a logical idea at the time to carry that winning leadership equation forward after the turn of the century, but the results proved otherwise. Worrying though, that despite the financial devastation that continues to pummel the media business, we haven’t seen much change in its leadership models in the past 20 years.
Breneger’s assertions about shared leadership remind me of an interview I did with serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author of The Great Rewrite, Leonard Brody back in 2016, where he talked about the reversal of power we’re seeing today across organisations and society.
Prior to the internet, power was controlled from the top-down, whether that be from presidents, principals, priests or publishers. Fueled by massive changes in technology and social behaviour, that traditional pyramid of power has been completely inverted in almost every facet of our lives.
The 2017 Edelman Barometer Trust Study supported Brody’s claim, reiterating that there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between those who traditionally held authority and the people they once managed.
Getting back to the publishing world...
We live in a people-powered planet, not the publisher-powered one that once wielded considerable influence over society and governments. But it’s only been in the past few years that some media executives have started to recognise that. What most lacked in 2000, and many still do to this day, is vision.
Dr. Breneger’s definition is one we subscribe to at PressReader and is worth bookmarking and reading often…
“Visionary leaders are the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are social innovators, and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically.
“There is a profound interconnectedness between the leader and the whole, and true visionary leaders serve the good of the whole. They search for solutions that transcend the usual adversarial approaches and address the causal level of problems. They find a higher synthesis of the best of both sides of an issue and address the systemic root causes of problems to create real breakthroughs.”
The professor also shares that visionary leaders have a talent for:
In thinking about Dr. Breneger’s viewpoint, let’s each ask ourselves these three questions to see how we measure up:
If the answers are not in the affirmative, then we really need to ask ourselves the toughest question of all, “Why?”
If I were to choose leaders who epitomise Breneger’s definition, these individuals immediately pop into my mind: Phil Knight (Nike), Sir Richard Branson (Virgin), Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk (Tesla), Steve Jobs (Apple), Jack Ma (Alibaba), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), and Bill Gates (Microsoft). Let’s take a look at three of them a little more closely.
Phil Knight: Keep your eyes on the horizon
You’ve all heard Nike’s “Just do it!” mantra. But did you know that when the company came up with that catchy phrase in 1988, it wasn’t at the top of its game. The winter before, the company experienced the biggest slump in its history; it was in dire straits.
But Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, took a bold risk to rebrand the company with a slogan of dubious origin; that move was considered by many to be the catalyst behind the company’s reversal of misfortune. Today Nike is the number one apparel brand in the world with annual revenues of over $US34bn and net income of $US4.2bn.
Knight was an imaginative, insightful, and bold leader who did not believe in micromanaging employees. Long before the power pyramid flipped in favour of people, Knight recognised leadership talents in those he employed. Once he shared his vision with new hires he trusted them to perform to the best of their abilities (their way) and he gave them the space to do that. He inspired them to…
“Dream audaciously. Have the courage to fail forward. Act with urgency.”
Sir Richard Branson: Serve the good of the whole
As a teenager, this self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist was dyslexic and struggling with academics. He had dropped out of school at 16, but his age and failure to graduate didn’t hold him back.
To appease his father who wanted him to complete his education, Richard made his first big deal. He promised his father that he would sell the equivalent of US$8K worth of advertising needed to launch a magazine he felt young people needed – The Student. If he missed his goal, he would return to school; if he made it, he would be free to launch his first real business.
400+ companies later, the charismatic icon has given us some of the most successful people-first brands in the world – an incredible legacy that has afforded him a net worth of over US$5bn and a life most of us can only dream of. And here’s why…
“From my very first day as an entrepreneur, I've felt the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people's lives better. There's no point in starting a business unless you're going to make a dramatic difference to other people's lives.”
Sir Richard Branson
Can any of us truthfully say that why we do what we do is to make a dramatic difference in peoples’ lives? Probably not too many if we’re truly honest, and that’s okay. Because although we can’t change our past, we can make a new and better future for ourselves and others.
A few years ago I read an editorial about the leadership secrets that made Oprah the first black woman billionaire in world history with an estimated worth of US$3bn. There were many, including her unquestionable love of her audience, her empathy for others, and her ability to motivate millions. It’s why “Oprah for president” is a mantra sung by many in the US.
In an interview at Stanford University Business School, she told the audience that her mission is to try to lift people up…
“I'm trying to bring little pieces of light into people's lives because my job is not to be an interviewer, my job is not to be a talk show host or just to own a network. I am here to raise the level of consciousness to connect people to ideas and stories so that they can see themselves and live better lives."
But in context of this article and her impact on society and the media, it is her vision and her ability to communicate it with clarity to others what makes her one of the most inspiring leaders on this planet. If you still don’t quite get what I’m saying, just listen to her speech at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards when she says…
"We all know the press is under siege these days. We also know it's the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.
To tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies, I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times.”
We so often get caught up in the routines of life and business that we lose sight of what really matters. So let’s take a moment right now and try to feel Oprah’s passion for the work the media does on behalf of the truth and the people who live by it.
I could write on and on about the other visionary leaders on my favourites list, but I’ll keep them for a future article. Instead, I’d like to leave you with a few more nuggets of wisdom I’ve come across recently.
IBM Canada’s president and general manager, Dino Trevisani, wrote a very interesting article last year titled Leading through disruption and transformation.
In it, he talks about how IBM surveyed 800+ CEOs from more than 70 countries across 21 industries. He learned that digital technology, convergence, and the rising number of “unlikely competitors” were dominant concerns that had the majority of CEOs planning to reassess their strategic direction. Sound familiar?
But he also noticed that a minority of those CEOs did things quite differently. Not surprisingly, they were also the leaders of the most successful companies in the world. Trevisani called them Torchbearers and highlighted their three recommended calls to action for leaders.
1. Sharpen strategies by pursuing innovation and exploiting new and emerging technologies or business models to “cross the finish line first.”
“I have always believed that action inspires reaction. Too many times we are waiting for something to happen or to have the perfect insight to act. I would rather make mistakes that we can correct on our path to successful outcomes than to wait for the perfect moment to act.”
President and General Manager,
2. Energise engagement by employing cutting-edge cognitive and predictive analytics that will help leaders identify and engage customers at a deeper human level and make better business decisions.
3. Turbocharge transformation by building a culture of rapid prototyping and experimentation to fast-track the introduction of new products, services, and business models. Invest in innovation for the long term, anticipate market demand and ready the organization to capitalize on it.
This reminds me of what Netflix, CEO, Reed Hastings, said when he separated his DVD business from streaming, “Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.”
A Harvard MBA, The New York Times bestselling author, Neil Pasricha, is one of the most admired TED speakers on the planet. Called the "pied piper of happiness", Neil was Walmart's director of leadership development for a decade – a role that instilled in him a deep understanding of what makes a great CEO. Today, Neil travels all over the globe sharing his insights and leadership strategies with Fortune 50 companies and CEOs from the likes of Audi, GE, and Abbott.
Now, you may be wondering what happiness has to do with business success. I know I certainly did when I first came across him. But it makes a lot of sense.
According to Neil, if you live your life according to the 3 As of Awesome, life and business will be richer, more satisfying, and more successful.
Attitude: We all face hardships in life and business. Truly successful and happy people don’t succumb to toxic thoughts or actions. They grieve and then face the future with new eyes and take action; they move forward to a better future, even if it’s just baby steps.
Awareness: Embrace your inner three-year-old and view everything as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Let go of preconceived biases and assumptions and open your mind to new discoveries and possibilities that can inspire better decision making.
Authenticity: Shed the persona you wear like a mask and be true to yourself and those around you. Let your heart lead you towards satisfying experiences.
Neil said something else I found inspiring both in work and my personal life.
“Motivation doesn't actually lead to action; action leads to motivation. It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking, than think yourself into a new way of acting.”
Check out some of his TED talks when you have a moment. I think you’ll find a gem or two of your own to carry with you forward in your life and business.
Seth Godin: Be magic about to happen
I work with a phenomenal marketing team at PressReader. What I love about them is that, aside from being ridiculously smart and super fun, they’re never satisfied by status quo and continually look to reinvent the mold when it comes to branding, messaging, and design. To do that, they spend a lot of their personal time staying on top of what the best-of-the-best in marketing have to say and practice. (And they also instilled the benefit of a contraction and the power of an Oxford comma in me.)
One of their favourites is marketing guru, Seth Godin – often referred to as “the ultimate entrepreneur for the information age.” A highly sought-after keynote speaker and best-selling author of 18 books, Seth riffs daily on his blog about different aspects of marketing, advertising, and leadership.
He’s been quoted more times than I can count about all of these topics, but the one that jumped out at me while writing this article was about what he says we want in a CEO/leader…
“What we're looking for in a CEO is formidability. Someone to be reckoned with. Not someone with all the answers, because no one has all the answers. No, we want someone who is magic about to happen.”
We all know what it’s like to look up to our leaders whether they be CEOs, politicians or teachers. We hope/expect that they will do something remarkable. Are we asking too much? I don’t think so. Some ponder whether being a great leader is an innate gift or a learned behaviour? Perhaps it’s a combination of both. Either way, learning is a part of every person’s life and whether it’s by mistake or by design, we should cherish every chance we get to capitalise on it.
I hope you were able to glean a few learnings out of this article. I would love to know who inspires you in your leadership journey. Let’s talk!
PressReader and FIPP will be in Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina for our first FIPP Insider events in Latin America!
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