It’s no secret that technology is reshaping the world around us. The evidence is right in front of our eyes. Teenagers are living lives today that would have seemed like science fiction just a generation ago, carrying supercomputers in their pocket that connect them to the rest of the world in nanoseconds. We have seen more changes in computing in the last five years than in the previous 20, and we’re just getting started. We are at an amazing moment in history.
Consider the figures. Today, 2.8 billion people are connected; that number will balloon to 7.6 billion in 2020. By all accounts, those of us who are already online are addicted, checking our mobile phones more than 1,500 times per week and consuming more than 5 hours a day of digital content, surpassing even the time we spend watching TV. Within 5 years, we’ll have 32 billion connected devices, double what we have today.
These changes bring challenges for today’s business leaders. The fast, frictionless customer experience is no longer a differentiator. It’s an expectation. Disruption is not just a buzzword. It’s a market reality. Technology is unleashing unprecedented opportunities to reimagine businesses: distribution barriers are falling globally; customer engagement models are being transformed by the ability to share data and interact anytime, anywhere; and scaled infrastructure is available on a pay-per-use basis.
Virtually every industry will be challenged to reimagine itself in the next five years. Stunning examples of reimagined industries are emerging already: WhatsApp reconceived messaging, amassing 400 million users in five years with a staff of only 50; AirbnB redefined hotels with rooms in 34,000cities—a broader footprint than Hilton without any physical assets; and Kickstarter changed the fundraising game, channeling $1 billion to over 61,000 projects from 6 million investors in five years with 82 employees.
The most important characteristic of successful business leaders today is the ability to embrace, inspire, and manage this change. At Google, we’ve had 15 years of experience with these changes first hand. In my role as the president of our Americas sales team, I also have the good fortune of working hand-in-hand with leaders across industries who are actively reimagining how their businesses will work in the future. I’ve found six core values that I think set apart the leaders who are thriving in these turbulent and exciting times.
1. Put the user first. Building with a user-first mindset means being bothered by the way things are. Accept nothing as a given. Ask yourself, how would I build this if I were to build it from scratch, right now? One of my favorite examples of this is Meredith Perry, founder of uBeam. She dared to ask why charging devices couldn’t be easier—and created a new technology for wireless charging using the power of sound when we simply walk into a room. We start at Google with a relentless focus on delighting the user with unexpectedly fast, easy, helpful experiences.
2. Speed is a virtue. Users want things fast, so prioritize speed in your design. Are you getting your customers what they want as fast as you possibly can? Our search team asks themselves this as they reimagine the search experience with features like the ability to search while you type, or knowledge cards that show you everything you might want to know about, say, the Taj Mahal, as soon as you look for it. To build for speed, you also have to be fast. Is your organization structured around making your products more and more successful? Or are silos and cumbersome processes slowing you down and holding back innovation?
3. Set audacious goals. It’s easy to get bogged down trying to improve things by 10 percent when your focus should be on how to improve things by 10x. Setting your sights on a big, daunting target rallies people to do amazing things and ensures that the change you’ll see will be truly transformational, not incremental. Push your teams to ask “why not?” Are we building for today or for what the future needs to look like? As Larry Page says, have a “healthy disregard for the impossible.” Thinking like this is what inspires our team to invest in projects like Loon, which aims to connect those in rural and remote areas to the Internet with high-altitude balloons.
4. Overweight the future. Most leaders are biased to the present: pressures from the market for returns, too many backward-looking metrics, and urgent matters often trumping important ones. True business transformation takes three to four years, at least. Ask yourself, “what share of my organization is focused on the future?” If it is far less than the share of the business you want to build, it is highly likely that this alone may keep you from getting there.
5. Embrace failure to break boundaries. Advancements in technology make it far easier to test new ways of doing things. Breaking new ground typically requires relentless experimentation: test, learn, iterate. Instilling a culture of reimagination is underpinned by people not fearing that failure will hold back their careers, as long as they are in pursuit of a really big goal. Ask yourself: who is at the top of your organization? Are they risk takers or only from well-trod paths? Do you celebrate what you learn from failures as much as what you learn from winning?
6. Be uncompromising about people. When you are working to reimagine, success is driven by people. Technology is merely an enabler to challenge boundaries. Be uncompromising in pursuing the best people and screen carefully for the skills that really matter: great problem solving and learning agility, a bias for action, and comfort with ambiguity. Ensure you have a diverse range of perspectives. Do your leaders reflect your customers of today and the future? Are there enough people who ask unexpected questions, who sometimes make you uncomfortable? Move leaders regularly to refresh them. Most people do their best and most creative work when they are outside their comfort zone.
There is no perfect formula for leadership, but the future unleashed by technology will challenge us all to reimagine ourselves as leaders as well as to reimagine our businesses. If we embrace the challenge, there are truly incredible possibilities. I look forward to seeing what leaders today and tomorrow do with this remarkable opportunity.
Margo Georgiadis is president of the Americas sales team at Google.