Leadership vs Technology: Where is the Balance?

by Jack Burke, Sound Marketing

When my philosopher friend Mike Manes of Square One Consulting talks about change, he reminds
people about those big and bad dinosaurs that couldn’t survive climatic change and died.

Recently I received a letter from a partner in an insurance agency, who wrote:

” I have one business partner who thinks
that to be successful in the future, you must merge with other agencies, open up
non-standard offices and hire new producers. I have to agree with him about all of those
options. We did merge with another agency over two years ago and with another agency just
over a year ago. We have also looked at opening up another office and hiring a new producer.

However, my biggest concern right now is being
prepared internally for the future, and keeping up with the latest technology. My partner
is in his 50’s and does not want to change the way he does business. He still requires the
CSR to pull the file and come into his office to discuss the file or for him to ask a
question. He has very little computer knowledge and does not want to go to t-filing in CL
or to start using a scanner.”

This problem is not a new one, in fact it is
legion. And it is not relegated to the pages of the insurance industry. It is rampant in
nearly every industry. In fact I have frequent conversations with many experts and
consultants about this specific topic–the inability of a business owner to change.

Does this mean the owner must jump into the
electronic pool with both feet, attend classes to learn computer technology and begin
subscribing to hi-tech newsletters? Not a bad idea. Hearken back to an earlier day as ask
yourself how well a business owner might have survived if he refused to integrate that new
technological contraption of a telephone into his business. Or how productive might that
business have been if the secretary had to write letters in long hand because the owner
didn’t trust typewriters.

Unfortunately, many of us baby-boomers cling
to our first impressions of the initial computer technology, where it seemed that
computers (think data processors) merely doubled the workload. After all it meant doing
everything twice — once for the computer and then again for the old methods because we
didn’t trust the computers. Those days have thankfully changed and only a true
“dinosaur” doesn’t appreciate the productivity factor of computer usage.

The Job Description

Before we totally castigate the recalcitrant
business owners as described in my opening correspondence, let’s first look at the job
description of an owner. I believe it can be summed up fairly easily:

  1. Provide the great vision upon which the future of a company will be built.

  2. Provide a nurturing, motivational and empowering environment for staff.

  3. Provide the philosophical framework to serve the clientele.

  4. Generate a fair return on investment for the company.

This may seem a bit over-simplified, but those three categories cover just about
everything a true leader must do without getting into the daily minutia.

To use a metaphorical example, the CEO of a
national bakery can run the company without ever having baked a loaf of bread — if he
fully understands the process and is keenly aware and sensitive to both his employees and
his customers. The conundrum, in the case of our friend’s partner, is that technology is a
quintessential component to every facet of that job description.

The Vision

The future is being built by technological
block by technological block. Forget the retail side of Internet commerce, think in terms
of communication, information resources and back-end supply chain. Some pundits say that
Jack Welch of General Electric blew his chance to retire with a bang when the deal to
merge with Honeywell fell through. I disagree. Jack Welch has already given GE the most
valuable farewell gift possible — an introduction to the Internet.

Initially blind to the possibilities of the
Internet, gentle spousal coaxing opened his eyes to a remarkable vista of electronic
opportunity — not necessarily in selling stuff on the Internet, but in using it to more
effectively manage the business of GE’s far-flung empire. My guess is that by his
retirement party this Fall, GE will be saving nearly a half billion dollars per year
through more efficient management over the Internet. By coordinating all travel
electronically, they are already saving in excess of a million dollars per week — and
that’s only one small area.

Even if a computer keyboard is never touched,
a true leader must understand and appreciate the value of technology both today and in the
future. How can one envision a future if ignoring the tools with which it will be built?

The Employees

A friend of mine manages one of LA’s top
Hispanic radio stations. When the corporate ownership made the switch from
English-speaking rock to Hispanic, he was soon the only person there who didn’t speak
Spanish. Within a month he had a tutor arriving at his office daily and culminated his
training with two weeks of immersion learning in Mexico City. He knew that he couldn’t
manage a staff that spoke a language he didn’t understand.

We baby boomers grew up in an analog world.
The youthful people we are hiring have grown up in a digital world. We not only speak
different languages, our brains are hard-wired differently. A true leader must acknowledge
this and adapt to it. A true leader knows that he cannot re-wire them, but he can adapt
his own wiring to understand them. To that extent, there’s a wonderful prayer that I rely upon:

God grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Even if you cannot perform the most simple
task on a computer, a true leader will establish a high-tech environment that will enable
the employees to maximize their productivity and usefulness to the company. That same
leader will encourage their experimentation and support their accomplishments.

The Clients

Here is the rub! Business is not about you —
the owner. Business today is all about the customer. A business that is not sensitive to
the needs, wants and desires of the clientele will soon be out of business. You, as the
business owner, no longer set the expectations of your clients. They already have their
expectations and it is up to you to meet and exceed them.

Today’s customers, having learned from the
Internet and from the performance of countless companies, expect speed, expertise and 24/7
service. A company’s electronic presence and performance is not optional, value-added
benefits. It is merely the opening entry fee to do business in today’s world.

There’s a wonderful television commercial that
ran this past year in the Los Angeles area. In the dark of night, a crowd of people began
gathering in a parking lot. As they exited their vehicles, a look of profound amazement
came over their faces as they stared in disbelief at a dark store with a closed sign on
the door. Today’s consumer wants you to be there when they need you. And apart from
manning offices on a 24/7 basis, the only viable way to do that is with technology.

The enlightened leader knows that the true leader is the customer and
the successful business leader is a follower trying to keep pace.

The Profit

This one is simple. Unless you embrace the new
technology, there will be no profit to manage. The dinosaur will merely be managing the
process of placing the company in bankruptcy court, while others use technology to
increase efficiency, better serve their customers and decrease expenses to create greater profit.

A recent study showed that CEO’s are no longer
taking the long vacations that were common in the past. Most successful CEO’s today feel
that about five days is the longest period that they can be away from the business. The
reason is that information and change is being processed so quickly, it would be foolhardy
to absent themselves any longer than a week.

I reiterate that leadership does not mean the
leader has a PhD in computer technology or is the brightest electronic star within the
business. Leadership means a willingness to embrace change, so that the daily journey of
business can be navigated with the most powerful tools possible. Remember, it’s not about
you — it’s about the customer. If you can’t get them to where they want to go as quickly
and as comfortably as possible, they’ll be looking for another ship on which to make theirjourney.

Jack Burke is the president of Sound
Marketing, Inc. and the author of Relationship Aspect Marketing: Building Customer Loyalty
In The Internet Age and Creating Customer Connections. He can be reached by e-mail at
jack@soundmarketing.com or by phone at 1-800-451-8273.