Our mission at the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) includes continuous learning for directors. In pursuit of that mission our staff also seek out the most exciting events across the country to learn more about the disruptions that will impact members’ boards. I caught up with Erin Essenmacher, NACD’s chief programming officer, after her appearance at SXSW to discuss takeaways from the conference and how corporate directors can continue the conversation on technology disruption.
Erin moderated a panel, in partnership with KITE, entitled “Innovation: the Board Director’s Cut,” featuring leadership representatives from Spredfast, OurOffice, and Capital Expert Services. The panel discussed the strategies directors should take in order to best manage technology disruptions at their companies. Highlights from our conversation follow.
Katie Swafford: What led your panel to discuss technology disruption? What do you see at NACD—or among NACD’s members—that surfaced this particular topic for the panel?
Erin Essenmacher: Across the spectrum of industries, companies are being disrupted because they are not focused on how new technologies, paired with shifting trends, are completely changing business models. My first major takeaway from the panel was the need to focus on disruption. I don’t even like to say technology disruption, because I think that makes the issue sound too small and prescribed, which it is not. While technology is a big driver of disruption, so are issues like social and demographic shifts and other market-shaping forces as they intersect with technology. Disruption is a huge challenge to navigate for boards at companies of all sizes. We are reaching the point where the swift changes are blurring the lines between industries, and directors should be raising questions with managers about what is on the horizon for their companies, and if their companies are thinking sufficiently about the big picture and the nature and impact of those changes.
In terms of the discussion here at SXSW, the panel was really focused a lot more on flipping the script. A lot of the folks in the audience were on the boards of early-stage companies, and the panel really looked at how boards can add value to companies of all sizes. The panelists brought many perspectives—some are involved on the inside of early-stage companies, some are making investments in start-ups, and they all serve as directors at companies of various sizes, so it was a really interesting discussion.
Swafford: Are there specific skills gaps that NACD has seen when it comes to handling technology disruption or innovation?
Essenmacher: I would say the biggest skill gap is very low tech, but critically important: a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be a continuous learner. When you get to the top of your career and you’re on a board, you’re extremely seasoned and experienced. You’re an expert in many things that relate to the company business model or to the industry you serve, and it’s easy for that expertise to make you complacent. When you have a business environment like ours where things are changing so quickly, I think the most successful boards are the ones that acknowledge that disruption is happening. Most importantly, they acknowledge that because the environment is new, they will not have all of the answers. They are willing to get serious about what’s happening, they are willing to get curious about the gaps in their own knowledge, and they are willing to challenge the management team to evaluate the existing assumptions and expectations of the company culture and business model.
Swafford: Is there an ideal board composition that’s best able to navigate disruption? Is there a leading practice when it comes to board composition?
Essenmacher: I wouldn’t say that there’s an ideal board composition, because every company is different. Composition is going to vary widely depending on industry, company size, and many other factors. An overarching leading practice is to continually consider the board’s composition compared to your long-term strategy as a company. It’s not just about bringing in people that have the latest and greatest technology expertise. There is a critical role on any board for business judgment and experience. We need all of that in our boards. Once you start to dig into how you can think differently about your business model in the face of disruption, you can start to think differently about your board composition. It’s also not just about defaulting to a former CEO or CFO. Boards need to think critically about how diversity of experience, perspective, and expertise can help elevate their strategic discussions to map to where consumers and the market are headed.
Swafford: Where do you foresee some of the topics that came up in the panel flowing over into the Global Board Leaders’ Summit? I would think diversity, board composition, and growth, among other topics, will really flow into the conversations you will be having at Summit.
Essenmacher: We need to challenge ourselves to learn about new trends from the ground-level up. Our panel here at SXSW discussed topics that are important for board members to engage in, so how can we extend this conversation? At the NACD 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit we will be hosting the third annual “Dancing with the Start-ups” pitch competition. This event allows us, as board members, to hear what the leaders of start-ups are creating from the ground level—how they are using technology, how they are leveraging or setting trends, and how their ingenuity is disrupting the industry of the company on whose board you might serve. Yes, it’s a fun format and very exciting, but there is also a lot of great content. I think of it as a “meet the disruptors” session. It’s really an opportunity for directors to see the earliest stages of the next iteration of products, services, and trends that are disrupting their industry.
Our Summit theme this year is transformation. The theme provides a wonderful opportunity to keep engaging in this conversation on disruption, but to also look at disruption through a proactive lens. How can we take what we know about the shifting business landscape and leverage it for strategic advantage? On the risk side, we will learn from people who are experts on the important issues of technology and privacy, enabling us to delve into what those issues mean for public trust. We will discuss how new regulations are shifting what disruption means, including the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). I believe this shift in how companies market their products and how business models are changing is creating an opportunity for large and small companies to learn from each other.
There will be a lot of opportunity to discuss disruption at the 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit happening September 29 through October 2 in Washington, DC. Don’t miss out on our early bird pricing through March 31 to save on registration.