Is Communication the Key Ingredient for Disruption?

According to Fortune 500 Panelists at Brainstorm Tech, Yes.

It’s been a week now since I returned from Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, and reflections from the event come often. One of the most impactful sessions was a breakfast roundtable titled Can You Disrupt Yourself? which focused on how big companies are learning from the methods of cutting-edge startups to leverage new technologies and increase entrepreneurship inside their own enterprises.

Roundtable participants were a who’s who of innovative company leaders, including Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice President of Business Development at Microsoft; Mike McNamara, CEO of Flex (formerly Flextronics); Siobhan McFeeney, Vice President of Business Transformation at Pivotal; Mark Papermaster, Chief Technical Officer at Advanced Micro Devices; and David Wadhwani, CEO of AppDynamics.

I came to Brainstorm Tech expecting to hear about pivots & product innovations, market research & entrepreneurial-minded product teams, and leadership strategies for being a step ahead of the competition. What I heard instead was a conversation focused on culture, empathy, and ultimately communication.

I came away once again feeling that Communication is Elemental

With 200,000 employees in 30 countries at Flex, Mike McNamara kicked off the discussion saying, “You have to have a culture that embraces change throughout the organization. You need to train every single employee to not only be highly adaptive to change, but also to look for change.” He went on to describe an environment where the majority of the big ideas don’t come from him or his product team, but from all over the organization. Front line workers that are close to customer interaction are on the real-time pulse of the market in ways that a CEO or product manager never can be. Gaining insights into this knowledge is crucial to constant innovation and reinvention. According to McNamara, “a culture of agility is key to staying in the Fortune 500.”

Siobhan McFeeney recounted her time as COO of AAA when she decided the only way to truly understand how to innovate for tow truck drivers was to become one herself, which she did for several months. She described the experience as impactful in her ability to lead and drive positive change, but also incredibly challenging and time-consuming. This empathy allowed her to lead better and institute changes in processes, technologies and offerings that helped not only customers, but also the drivers. But it came at a price.

Peggy Johnson shared how Microsoft attributes much of their continued success in large part due to Satya Nadella’s purposeful shift from having a “know-it-all culture” to a “learn-it-all culture.” He regularly seeks feedback and input not just from customers, but also from employees up, down and across the organization.

Again, we are back to talking about connections. Asterios Satrazemis, CEO of Blueline Rentals, and a customer of ours at Zinc, likes to use the phrase ABC. But he doesn’t mean the age-old mantra for sales teams “Always Be Closing,” rather he means “Always Be Connecting.” He is quite demonstrative in his belief that strong connections between management, partners, customers and his 2,000 field-based workers are the recipe for their success. And he’s willing to invest in technology to help those communications thrive.

Building connections and communication are also top of mind for yet another speaker at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech show, Jamie Miller, CEO GE Transportation. She has the not small task of driving a major shift from industrial to digital at GE. On stage, she too iterated how strongly she prioritizes strategies for communicating with her workforce, explaining how “employees want and need to hear the vision of the move to digital clearly articulated.”

Front-line connections drive innovation, reinvention and company success

According to Dawn Lyon, head of corporate affairs at Glassdoor, whom I met at the bar later that night, executive’s connection to the front-line drives not only innovation and reinvention, but also company success. Glassdoor regularly releases data proving the link between employee sentiment and financial success across all industries. And what are the main drivers of employee engagement and passion? Feeling they are both connected to and have a role in shaping the overall mission of the team and company.

Thoughts on Brainstorm Tech 2017

It’s easy to see how listening to the workforce can be highly effective, but talking about a culture of agility, and actually having a method to gain insights from +200,000 people is another thing entirely for an enterprise. Certainly, we all can’t drive tow trucks for the better part of the year like Siobhan McFeeney. As Erica Ruliffson Schulz, fellow Brainstorm Tech attendee and EVP at New Relic (and a friend of mine) chimed in, “we have to find the systems we can put in place to listen to employees, not just customers.”

I remember early in my career working at the front line for a tech startup. The CEO took me under his wing and mentored me, but also regularly asked me questions to get at the pulse of the company. He wanted to know both how people were feeling and what was going on in rooms and conversations where he wasn’t. I was thrilled to have the mentorship and happy to share my thoughts and experiences in return. I was certainly never shy with my opinions on what we could be doing better either.

Now that I sit in that CEO role myself, I realize how important and truly fundamentally important communication is. Whether it’s peer-to-peer, top-down, or field-up, having those full circle insights drives not only innovation and reinvention but also tangible business results. I’m thrilled that I can have my finger on the pulse of my relatively small company, and even more passionate about how technologies like Zinc can make effective communication a reality even for companies at full scale.