Debbie Brackeen was in the “innovation” business before it was even called “innovation.” After completing her undergrad at Stanford University, she found herself in the heart of Silicon Valley. She spent her first years at Apple followed by stints at a variety of high-tech companies from HP to venture-baked start-ups. Today she is the chief strategy and innovation officer at CSAA Insurance Group, one of the largest AAA insurers in the world.
You stepped into the future…but has it felt more like you stepped off a cliff? Some of the most spectacular strategic failures have been due to poor execution. Unfortunately, the momentum of vision is often short-lived as the reality of the complexity of execution begins to set in. Since 1955, only 57 companies have maintained a position in the Fortune 500 while nearly 2,000 companies have come and gone during that same time period.
Three days are too few to fully unwind into what makes the Cayman Islands special. Lobster at the waterside cafe, sparkling blue water lapping white sand, genuinely nice people living in a safe country that feels, well, just happy. I was there to teach a two-day Outthinker course for a local university, training fast-rising government officials on how to sharpen their strategic and innovative thinking skills.
In a dimly lit wine cellar, we turn to our meal. I am at a corporate dinner filled with executives from fascinating backgrounds. But there is one particular conversation, being led by a fascinating gentleman, that is entirely reframing for me what it means to be a leader.
A hundred years before Uber popularized the “platform business,” an English teacher and a porcelain merchant were launching their own platform business in Canton, China, called Li & Fung. In 1906, Li To-ming and Fung Pak-liu started a trading company, exporting porcelain, fireworks, jade and silk. They eventually set up headquarters in Hong Kong.
My wife knows credit cards. She has a couple, of course, but she is also the general counsel of one the world’s leading credit card companies. So, it’s enigmatic that were she old enough in the early 1970s to apply for a credit card herself, her bank would have refused to issue her one. Before 1974, most banks deemed women too high a risk unless they were married and their husbands co-signed for the card.
Strategy lasts. Derived from the title of ancient Greek government officials charged with rallying resources to fuel military campaigns, refined in China, then ported back to the West by Napoleon, the science or art of coming together to agree on a goal, and the method to achieve it, is an activity that like farming or governing or writing poetry distinguishes human from animal.
Last Wednesday, in a suburban New Jersey warehouse converted into conference space and a cooking show set, I joined 80 managers assembled to discuss their company’s strategy. We had helped design the two-day experience and were at the point in the flow of the off-site when we hoped we would hear some new, breakthrough insights.
What an energizing whirlwind two weeks: keynoted for the Federal Reserve (the future of banking), spoke to CFOs in San Diego (the future of finance), facilitated our Outthinker Chief Strategy Officer roundtable in New York (the future of strategy), met with ABC TV in LA (the future of television), ran a workshop for a Fortune 500 real estate firm (the future of real estate), ran an Outthinker workshop for an apparel retail leader (the future of retail), then addressed a room of board members of public tech companies in Silicon Valley (the future of everything!).
The term “employee engagement” was introduced into the management lexicon around 1990 when HR (or personnel, as they were called then) departments shifted focus from employee satisfaction toward employee commitment. Employee engagement is now a multi-billion-dollar business with consulting firms, training companies, and technology firms seeking new ways to get employees to find meaning in their work.