“The world is going to take fundamental re-architecture for businesses to modernize”. Aaron Levie, CEO Box

A few weeks ago, I was in Silicon Valley meeting CEOs to interview for the BBC series I host, BBC CEO Guru. The series focuses on artificial intelligence, new ways of working and the future for businesses. Meeting these CEOs reinforced ideas for business that my company, Xinfu, is already focusing on such as digital disruption and the importance of big data. I also learned some new lessons and have included the best parts of just some of the interviews below, to share CEO best practice for current CEOs and those aspiring. The other bits of best practice learned I will be sharing in part 2…

1.    Working Agile

“To me, agile means being fast and being adaptable. It’s how quickly you can pivot around issues and how you’re set up to change and adapt”. Aaron Levie

We know that agile innovation methods have revolutionized I.T. over the past 25 to 30 years, greatly increasing success rates in software development, improved quality and speed to market and boosted the motivation and productivity of IT teams. Now these practices are spreading across a broad range of industries and functions and even into the C-suite. “Agile” is a radical alternative to command-and-control-style management and it’s been fully embraced in Silicon Valley.

Elisa Steele, CEO of Jive Software told us that being agile means “going fast, failing fast and correcting fast – that’s our philosophy. We collaborate a lot but make it clear when it’s time to make a decision fast that the team also needs to execute fast”.

Meg Whitman, CEO of HP agreed that speed is key in today’s increasingly agile business environments: “We always tended to let decisions sit for too long. We would look into them briefly and then never come back to them. You’ve got to escalate the decision or challenge and resolve them in 48 hours. Do the analysis and then act. You have to make a proactive decision, sitting back is not usually a good strategy” and “organisations need to be learning organisations. Human beings are wired for a certain pace and for change and they need to adapt to more change in shorter periods of time”.

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack took the slant that working agile might take a while to really set in: “We’re creatures of habit and take a while to figure out the best way to work”. He helpfully offered that “changing to an agile environment requires repetition; hopefully saying things that are useful or good. It takes a while for things to sink in and for people to fall in line”.

“You need to create a collaboration platform to unify companies, so you can work faster, smarter and be ahead of the competition. “The old mentality is that information equates to power so is shared accordingly, to a limited few. Now, information is seen as an asset to help everyone do a better job. It’s about being transparent”. Elisa Steele

2.    Digital disruption

It was clear that all of the CEOs we spoke to in Silicon Valley believe that AI will scale fast and companies outside of Silicon Valley need to be ready.

Aaron Levie offered 3 key points:

  1. “Work in a post AI world will be far more interesting as we won’t be doing tasks computers can do for us. Technology will help us make better decisions and help us get out of the drudgery of the day-to-day”.

2. “We’ve only just realised how disruptive our technology really is”.

3. “Take Uber – they’re just focused on application. It’s a very powerful, on-demand technology. The culture is wildly different to any company they compete with. The world is going to take fundamental re-architecture for businesses to modernize”.

I can’t express enough how you don’t need to be a big business to make a real difference in the world. Digital disruption enables tiny companies and often individuals to completely revolutionise a company or the day-to-day lives of the masses. If this idea was applied to every single person in a huge corporate, imagine the difference they could go on to make..

Elisa Steele offers 3 key points:

  1. There are two important things going on here. 1.) Small companies are disrupting the large and they’re changing the entire business model. They are giving power to the consumer in a way that they haven’t before. 2.) Hierarchy doesn’t exist in the same way anymore and companies need to decide what this means in the long term”.

2. “It used to be all about the CDO. Now, the whole company needs to digitalise with the CEO leading the process. If you’ve got a CDO, it means you’re a bit behind in getting the rest of the organization to think digitally”.

3.“Public companies have a lot of pressure on them to deliver the short term results that aren’t conducive to the long term strategy of the mission. If you really believe the mission will generate the results over time, you’ve got to have the courage to get there”.

Sebastian Thrun looked at the bigger picture: “Digitalisation started in the 1300s, when we started writing books. It was the most efficient technology to copy and transmit information. The most recent digitization is just more efficient and is able to connect lots of data and ability. It’s the biggest revolution we have seen in recent history. We now have a bigger opportunity to find new jobs if we free ourselves of repetitive, mindless work. We can be more creative as a human race.” Sebastian Thrun, CEO Udacity

3.    Silicon Valley companies are often lacking in soft skills: Make Mum proud

“CEOs need a myriad of skills They are really janitors who clear up the mess. “Silicon Valley is not known for soft skills and it’s a key point that needs addressing over the coming decade. We need a powerful combination of tools to get people to adapt to how businesses are changing with these skills”. Sebastian Thrun

Sure, these companies deliver on the results and are making huge differences to the way the whole world is working, but with the digital I found that these companies aren’t focussing enough on those soft skills that need to be actively developed, both by the individual taking responsibility of their own learning and their company investing into their development. Not focussing on these soft skills enough results in self-perpetuating, ego-driven cultures and burnout. The companies have meaning and purpose but fundamentally lack strong philosophical cultures to support this.

Box however, (online cloud sharing system that my company uses and loves), is really trying to work on those soft skills. One of the best takeaways I got from being in Silicon Valley was Box’s motto “Make Mum proud” and it’s a mentality that they really encourage each of their people to bring to work and stick by each day. Imagine if everyone did everything with this statement in mind. I think the world would be a different place.

“Make Mum proud: It’s how you should behave, and it’s how to be a good person. This is our no asshole rule: do right thing for customers, peers and colleagues”. Aaron Levie

“It’s hard to be a person who puts their hands up when it goes wrong, or who admits regrets. Humans are driven by ego, defensiveness, the wrong motivations and it can lead to the wrong working environment. We want to get to a point of real teamwork where we’re advancing the product and figuring out how can we do it brilliantly, this is where the soft skills need to come in”. Stewart Butterfield

“Much routine work will be automated as technology and software becomes more sophisticated, but non-routine work needs humans and smart leaders”. Elisa Steele

“Good leadership is an engineering job. It’s trying to make a machine work, not a classical steam engine. People have aspirations, fears and they want to be loved and to feel important. Teach your people that the sky is the limit in every respect. Udacity does a lot of soft-skill development courses. They teach mentoring skills and prepare one for work place that is collaborative”. Sebastian Thrun

4.    CEO mentoring and leadership coaching has a narrow definition in the Silicon Valley

They want the golden key to unlocking the win for the company. They see mentoring as financial endorsement attached to a fast-tracked career. The world of management is being abolished, which presents challenges for the traditional CEO coach – good job I’m not one of them, then!

“We have turned the hierarchy upside down and given people the power to connect, create ideas and drive change in ways never explored before”. Elisa Steele

“It’s not just about showing up and getting the pay check anymore. It’s more about integration and working on something that means something to you, so you still need leadership to connect people, to lead the organisation’s mission”. Elisa Steele

“You do need CEOs and mentoring. CEOs need to be developed too, because they bring us a clear vision. You also need AI to create the innovation and bring the data to round off the package”. Sebastian Thrun

5. The “Data-Driver” CEO

“Digital disruption is happening across the board. It’s how to communicate and get your job done faster and smarter”. Elisa Steele

Imagine which parts of business could be positively impacted by taking lots of information and making better decisions because of better data”. Aaron Levie

There’s a new CEO type emerging in the Silicon Valley that we call the “Data-Driver”. Unsurprisingly, they’re data-driven using big data to make BIG decisions. Obviously, you need to trust your intuition as an experienced leader, but at the end of the day you can’t argue with the numbers.

The plus sides are that they believe:

·     Data science is changing and will continue to change the world and should be driving their company performance. “Routine work is predictable and much of it will be automated as technology and software become more sophisticated”. Elisa Steele

·     In drawing on companies that are the best in the world at this e.g. China and India

·     Diversity really does matter and you need to always be yourself: “I can be myself at work – it’s something we have talked about a lot. I’m naturally more introverted but people say now I’m using slack I participate more. We all say, “bring yourself to work” today: whatever you think you need to leave outside, bring it in”. Stewart Butterfield

The negatives:

·     Fake company cultures can develop

·     The “geek” ego gets out-of-control e.g. “I’m young, super-smart and get paid really well”.

Conclusion: big data is integral but soft skills need to be valued too and the ego that comes with being data-driven needs to be in check.

and finally…..

6.    Silicon Valley’s relationship with China will become increasingly important

There’s a Guanxi-like network developing in Silicon Valley, resembling an ecosystem. Guanxi (关系) is a term essentially meaning “networking” or “trust”. It’s used to describe business relationships that result in exchanges of favours or connections beneficial for the parties involved. Good guanxi can be crucial in opening doors that may otherwise be closed and is offered voluntarily; it’s not used for blackmail, nor is it similar to freemasonry.

“Guanxi” in Silicon Valley carries amazing possibilities but there’s a risk that it will become trapped in the SV “bubble”, stopping short of ever reaching its full potential. We need the knowledge and expertise realized in Silicon Valley to reach the rest of the world.

“It’s a unique time for the world and it’s taking more leadership than ever to ensure we have a society and community that can be collaborative and inclusive in allowing people to fulfil their dreams and opportunities”. Aaron Levie

Next year I’ll be spending more time in Silicon Valley – it’s a hub of innovation and inspirational people that I think all CEOs should try and patch into. If you’re a CEO and you’re interested in developing soft and hard skills, find out what I do as CEO of Xinfu. See our website or contact Sarah McDonnell: sarah@xinfu.com.

COMMENT: What do you think of Silicon Valley from what you know already? Is your company making moves similar to those I’ve talked about?


follow me on LinkedIn as I bring to life what’s happening in the world of CEOs on a weekly basis, along with regular leadership, social media, career, hiring and productivity insights.

By Steve Tappin

Chief Executive, Xinfu, Host BBC CEO Guru




Steve is a personal confidant to many of the world’s top CEOs. He is the host of the award winning BBC ‘CEO Guru’, which features in-depth, on-the-record interviews with the CEOs of the biggest and fastest-growing companies. Steve is the author of ‘The Secrets Of CEOs’, which interviews 200 CEOs on business life and leadership.



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