What makes a great leader in this era of constant change?
Digital transformation is perhaps the most consequential technology shift in recent history, affecting virtually all industries. It is upending business models, processes, corporate culture and customer relationships. In this Q&A, Robert Safian, former editor and managing director of Fast Company, discusses how leaders can thrive amid this chaos and best steer their companies through.
Q: You’ve talked about a cohort of leaders — part of “Generation Flux” — pointing the way through the pace of change that exists in business today. What is Generation Flux, and who are some of its noteworthy leaders?
A: Generation Flux is not defined by chronological age — you can be young or old and be GenFlux. The key attribute is your mind-set, a willingness and ability to adapt to the changes going on around us. Today’s Flux leaders combine long-term vision with agility in execution and tactics. There are many roads to success. Flux leaders include rising entrepreneurs like Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek, as well as established figures like Nike CEO Mark Parker and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
Q: What critical qualities do those leaders have that make them stand out?
A: Flux leaders recognize that the pace of change in our world continues to accelerate, and that the approaches that anchored success in the past will not be those that work in the future. They see that technological transition offers both opportunity and risk, and that having a clear mission and purpose for an enterprise provides critical guiderails for navigating that transition. Flux leaders don’t see business simply as a vehicle for creating wealth; rather, business is a powerful mechanism for bringing a future world into being.
Business leaders who look at digital transformation as a one-time act, a hurdle to get through or a mountain to climb, misunderstand the essential nature of our evolving world.
Q: What one thing should a business leader do to get his or her organization’s digital transformation on the right track? What one thing should he or she avoid?
A: Business leaders who look at digital transformation as a one-time act, a hurdle to get through or a mountain to climb, misunderstand the essential nature of our evolving world. Digital transformation will be ongoing and, for all practical purposes, unending. Embracing that mind-set allows leaders to build structures and cultures that are resilient in the face of constant change — they don’t fight that change, they relish it.
Q: One of the oft-mentioned challenges to digital transformation is culture change. Why is this so hard, and how can business leaders help their organizations navigate this?
A: Human beings seem to instinctively crave structure and stability. But our digital world is defined by constant change. That means we need to relearn how we approach everything. We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. To enhance and reinforce that relearning process, business leaders need to tolerate not just failure (an imperfect word, with its inherently negative connotations) but constant messiness. You can still be on track even if you do not stay within the lines. Neither progress nor creativity unfolds in straight lines, predictable patterns, systematic processes. Things work for a while, and then they don’t. That’s not failure; that’s life.
Q: In your opinion, what leader stands out in this era of digital transformation?
A: Jeff Bezos obviously captures attention for his Flux characteristics. Amazon has succeeded by constantly shape-shifting: an online bookseller, a web services provider, an entertainment company and so on. Bezos has demonstrated both long-term vision and near-term agility.
But I also like to point out another leader who has demonstrated these traits recently, and reaped benefits from them: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Microsoft had lost relevance among tech cognoscenti, ceding leadership to the new generation epitomized by Amazon and its cohort (Facebook, Google, etc.). Nadella refocused Microsoft from being what Nadella calls “a know-it-all” culture to a “learn-it-all” culture, unlocking billions in market capitalization and reestablishing the company as a player in our evolving future. Microsoft may not be the king anymore, it may not even be a primary challenger, but it certainly cannot be ignored.
Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian was the executive editor at Fast Company. Under his leadership, Fast Company won the coveted National Magazine Award for Magazine of The Year in 2014. Safian has appeared numerous times on TV outlets, including CBS This Morning, MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CNBC’s Squawk Box, and has shared insights at industry-leading forums all around the world. Before joining Fast Company, Safian served as an executive editor at Fortune and at Time. He was the youngest-ever chief editor at Time Inc., when at 33 he was named head of Money Magazine, a position he held for six years. Safian came to Fast Company in 2007 from Fortune, where he served as executive editor.