In early February 2021, three of the world’s most successful leaders came together: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, and Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management. They gathered (virtually, of course) to talk about the volatile and uncertain year we just experienced and, more importantly, the future yet to come.
And though they represent vastly different sectors, they had many shared experiences in the past year that were telling. As one sign, rather than appearing alone, the three leaders assembled as a panel. Though some missed the symbolism, doing so was a conscious nod to the reality that the way forward won’t be forged by any one leader-hero, real or mythological.
The theme of the panel was message-laden and worthy of note, as well: “Leading with Purpose.” The participants were highly qualified, too. In the past decade, all three companies represented have been standouts for taking the power promised in prioritizing purpose and actually making it real.
Microsoft, Walmart and Waste Management each have actively infused purpose into their cultures. On a daily basis, they have used it as a compass, not just at the C-suite level, but by empowering every single member of their organizations to use it in their daily decision-making and actions and, indeed, to shape it in an ongoing way.
As any leader who’s sincerely pursued purpose as a competitive advantage will tell you, actually doing this is complex, challenging, never-done work — which is precisely why the moderator’s first prompt to the group was so surprising: “Describe the future in one word.”
She, in fact, asked them to offer a single word to describe the past year, too. To which the executives responded: “challenge,” “distraction” and “resilience.” But the road ahead? How could one word possibly capture it?
Think for a moment about what we can pretty safely say about the immediate future. There’s little question that a far larger percentage of work will be done remotely than in the past, though it will vary by organization,. What products and services we consume – and how we do so — are already taking new forms (think carryout versus in-person dining, or attending a conference by Zoom rather than flying to it).
It’s also likely that topics once left at home — racial equity and politics among them — will remain front and center at work. All of this and more make describing the future in a single word daunting. How, then, did these leaders respond? While it may at first appear that they said three different things, in truth they all said the same thing.
About the future beginning now, Fish chose the word “multitasking.” Referring to the distractions and uncertainties of 2020, he added, “I don’t think these things are an anomaly.”
Nadella’s response built on the challenge, but went beyond inherent unpredictability. “Optimism,” he said, then added, “and innovation.” After apologizing for not honoring the one-word limit, he said that the innovation he was talking about wasn’t the kind of innovation in the narrower sense of the past-like a single invention or idea, or a single person as the source. It was innovation in the broader sense — as a way of thinking across the organizational culture, and even across sectors. That, he made clear, was something to feel optimistic about, not threatened by.
Fish and McMillon vigorously nodded in agreement. And then McMillon wove a third thread into the shared quilt. He chose the word “regenerative,” explaining that the openness and agility inherent in multitasking and innovation must repeatedly and infinitely regenerate across ideas, people and places going forward.
Three different words. But in this new abnormal in which we live, they were necessary to describe the very same thing: To thrive in uncertain times, we must think and lead in a wholly new way.
From retail to IT to waste management and far beyond, the challenge is, without question, a multitasking, regenerative and innovative one. This is a challenge not for individual leaders but for collective cultures, sectors and teams. Daunting as that can sound, Nadella was wise to put forth one more word – “optimism” — to remind us that it is a future brimming with potential.[video: https://youtu.be/CFrIQ5XMs94?t=3589[/embed]
Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He is the author of two award-winning books: “The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity” and “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.” As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, “Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times,” will be released in the spring of 2021.