You could read a lot into Fortune’s latest list of the World’s Greatest Leaders. Among the philanthropists (Bill and Melinda Gates, No 1), politicians (New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, No 2), activists (Greta Thunberg, No 6) and sports figures (LA Rams NFL coach Sean McVay, No 17), there were a couple of highly placed Africans, including South Sudanese newspaper editor Anna Nimiriano (No 8) and billionaire Aliko Dangote (No 11), whose Dangote Industries accounts for a third of the value of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. But when you take a step back from the individual stories, you quickly notice how many among Fortune’s top 20 are CEOs… And how very many of those CEOs run tech companies.
There at No 4 you have Pony Ma, founder and CEO of Tencent, hailed for his ‘low profile’ and ‘global influence’. You’ve got Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at No 5, recognised for his moral principles as much as for the ‘incredible growth’ of new businesses such as Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. The list goes on: SoftBank CEO and ‘tech kingmaker’ Masayoshi Son at No 12; Apple CEO Tim Cook at No 14; and Code2040 CEO Tristan Walker at No 19.
If you’ve attended a business leadership summit or read a blog recently, you’ll have heard that ‘every company is now a tech company’. It sounds trite but it’s increasingly proving to be true: today’s great leaders – and remember, Bill Gates built his fortune at Microsoft – are techies.
Yet, is today’s tech revolution, characterised by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a result of great leaders? Or are those great leaders a product of the tech revolution? Historians have been debating the ‘great man’ theory for centuries, and the unprecedented social and technological changes of the modern age aren’t making the debate any clearer.
What is clear, though, is that businesses operating in the digital world (by which, of course, we mean all businesses) need leaders who are switched on, plugged and tuned in to the unprecedented rate of transformation.
As market research company Forrester explains in its recent Future of IT report: ‘The challenge is not that technology evolves faster; [it] is that organisations must understand and capitalise on technology at faster rates – and convert that new technology to competitive advantage. This necessarily shifts the way technology is viewed. Rather than seeing new technologies as a way to better meet business needs, firms must think of them as a way to imagine and create new possibilities.’
The trouble, as Forrester sees it, is that business leadership isn’t always on board. ‘Technology is still alien and strange to too many boards and CEOs,’ the report states. ‘Beyond understanding technology’s power and coming to terms with a new family of acronyms and buzzwords, many executives and boards are unsure of how to best lead and exploit technology for their own firms. But that is changing: a new generation of directors and CEOs will make leadership more digitally confident – and more digitally aggressive. The C-suite will understand more and expect more.’
However, if it takes acting as an innovator and value creator as a yardstick, Forrester estimates that no more than 20% of current chief information officers (CIOs) can fulfil this expanded mandate. ‘And yet, the mandate for the CIO and [their] team will radically evolve and expand further as CEOs wake up to the fact that parsing out responsibility to CTOs [chief technical officers], CDOs [chief digital officers], and CIOs only exacerbates the problem,’ the report adds. ‘No matter who sits in the chair, the CIO and [their] team will be core to business design and take the lead role in technology-driven innovation.’
So how are Africa’s C-suite execs doing in this regard? In South Africa, executives are ‘good at developing their innovation strategy, communicating it, and aligning their people around it’, according to the 2018/19 State of Innovation Capabilities Report, developed by the Creative Leadership Collective and the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
That’s the good news. The bad news, the report adds, ‘is that our innovation practices are immature. We need to rethink the way innovation is funded as well as make more metered funding available to it’.
Paul Steenkamp, co-founder of the Creative Leadership Collective and co-author of the study, says the current trend towards prioritising innovation comes at a critical time in Africa’s history. He adds that to solve the continent’s problems, we can’t afford – from an innovation perspective – to do the wrong things, even if they’re done well. ‘We need to think and act differently, and leaders need to create a more empowering culture within their organisation. Encouragingly, South African public and private sector organisations have taken note: management commitment and support for innovation is perceived to be on the up.’
It’s useful to unpack the report’s findings on South Africa. The authors include five stages of innovation maturity, ranging from 1 (ad hoc innovation with no formal focus or follow-through) to 5 (optimised innovation that is scalable and driven by empowered employees). The research found that none of the participating South African organisations were at Stage 5, and just 8% were Stage 4.
‘Nearly 80% of South African firms are either at the “emerging” or “defined” stages of innovation, where there is some awareness and effort, or some degree of formalised strategic programmes linked to customer or business objectives,’ says Steenkamp.
‘This is consistent with global trends: in the 2018 Benchmarking Innovation Impact report, nearly 60% of global respondents placed themselves in the first two categories. Only 4.1% believed they had reached the highest stage of innovation maturity.’ Significantly, he adds, ‘an organisation’s capacity to manage innovation tends to improve over time, but only when there is clear leadership to manage specific issues limiting innovation at the various stages of maturity’.
And so it comes back, inevitably, to leadership. But as the Creative Leadership Collective /USB report makes clear – and as the truly great leaders, from Gates and Cook to Ma, Nadella and so many more, demonstrate – leadership requires more than just using the company expense account to buy the latest iPhone.
Business leaders in the digital age have to manage innovation, encourage ‘intrapreneurship’ throughout their organisations, and – crucially – they have to take the risks necessary to allow for unconstrained innovation.
The Creative Leadership Collective/USB report says it best, when listing the call-outs from its findings. ‘We just don’t believe you,’ the authors tell their audience of business leaders. ‘South African execs like to talk about the value of failing fast, provided lessons are learnt and learning shared. But in a recession and with the threat of retrenchments, people don’t believe that failure is really an option. This disconnect is bad for your business. You must walk the talk. Show that you’re failing fast before asking others to do the same.’
To that one might add, on behalf of harried employees across the continent, that tech-driven AI and automation is as much a threat to those execs as it is to the hives of stressed-out corporate worker bees.
Sharmla Chetty, president of global markets at Duke Corporate Education, underlined this point at the 2019 Davos of Human Capital conference, held in Johannesburg this past July. ‘Building relationships, empathy and bringing humanity into the workplace is the future of work,’ she said. ‘Organisations can’t protect jobs that are made redundant by technology, but we do have a responsibility to our people. Leaders have a responsibility to nurture agility, adaptability and focus on protecting people, rather than jobs, through reskilling.’
The one-day event brought together more than 500 senior leaders and HR professionals from across Africa, with the aim of defining the future for business in an era of digital disruption. One of the delegates was Sophia, the humanoid AI created by Hanson Robotics. Sophia’s presence – and her appearance (she can display more than 50 facial expressions) – emphasised just how rapidly technology is developing.
‘Technology-driven change is compelling us to become more flexible and open to new concepts and ways of working,’ said Chetty. ‘We need to adapt to a new work reality in which careers become less linear and far more fluid. Change is accelerated and continuous – which is why leadership will have a critical role to play in providing effective support and development opportunities for employees.
‘Almost every day we see new roles, skills and jobs emerging, and while technology can amplify human genius, it can also highlight human limitations. Technology can do a lot of things but it can’t replace the human touch. Ultimately, it’s up to us to ensure that technology reflects our humanity, our purpose, and our values.’
Humanity, purpose, values… All are aspects of corporate culture, and all are – or should be – shaped by corporate leaders. And they are needed now, more than ever.