How This Leadership Mindset Can Make or Break Your Company in the 21st Century

What it takes to be a successful company in the 21st century is totally different than what has been required in the past. Just look at the S&P 500: in 1958, the average firm stayed on the S&P 500 for 61 years. By 1980, it was only 25 years. Today, it’s 18 years. At the current churn rate, 75% of the current S&P 500 will be replaced by 2027. Clearly, we’re living in a different business world than we were in the 20th century. So what’s changed?

Well, a lot. Namely, over the last ten years, since the birth of the iPhone and with the constant advancement of the microchip and other breakthrough software innovations, we’ve seen a new era emerge: the era of the relentless consumer. Think about it: every day, we get unprecedented levels of service at the push of a button. How easy is it to re-order something on Amazon with just one click? And take that one step further – are you excited when you summon an Uber and it’s less than two minutes away, or do you now just expect that?

Not only do we love that ease and level of service, we come to expect a comparable standard from everything. The minute Amazon, Uber, or Instagram delights us in a new way, it simply raises the bar and we apply that same standard against every good and service we consume.  As companies across all industries wrestle with this new customer reality, a new factor has emerged as the most important currency in business: speed.

“We are entering an age of acceleration.  The models underlying society at every level, which are largely based on a linear model of change, are going to have to be redefined. Because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress; organizations have to be able to redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace.”

– Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google

What do I mean by speed?  It’s the ability of companies to take fresh market insights and pivot priorities, new features, or services accordingly. As you reflect on your company’s culture, do you have one where:

  • Your front-line is passionately curious about the customer experience?
  • The frontline has the freedom and trust to do the right thing for the customer and to escalate their insights to the right teams setting the list of priorities?
  • The leadership team listens to these market insights and immediately shifts the priorities, instead of waiting until mid-year or end-of-year to review?
  • The leader of a team who dropped in priority readily transitions some of his/her team members to the projects that increased in importance, instead of holding on to them and fearing they won’t be as successful?
  • The leadership team quickly evolves the order of priorities?

These are all major attributes of speed and an agile company culture. For the past 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of partnering with executive teams in tech and non-tech industries, and I’ve been fascinated by seeing how these attributes and the shift towards speed are being addressed by the leaders of these different companies.

In the past 5 years, I’ve been particularly interested in observing the fast-growth tech execs whose people are very engaged and the non-tech execs who are ahead of their peers and already leading successful digital transformations.

There are a handful of attributes both groups of top-performing executives have in common. One of these attributes was described well by an EVP at Microsoft: After two years of leading a big transformation and reflecting on his 18 years with Microsoft, he shared, “I have really shifted how I think of my role as an executive. In the past, we’d take notes, watch emerging competitors, and wait until the fall to agree on our strategy. I would then take the strategy, translate it into actions for my business, and the troops would march.

Today, I have realized that the ideas, product roadmap, and strategy actually come from the team. They come from the people who are closest to our customers, and it is my job to create the environment that makes this happen. It means that I have to be comfortable not having total clarity in our direction, and after I’ve agreed to a plan, that it will shift – sometimes weeks later.”

As he said, the role of the executive has totally shifted in recent years. There are many ingredients critical to this way of working: true customer-obsession, a “test and learn” approach to getting work done, a transparent prioritization process, authenticity, and more. But above all else, and at the core of these critical ingredients, is one thing: a Multiplier mindset.

What’s a Multiplier mindset? Basically, it means that you actually believe your people are smart and will figure it out – as opposed to a Diminisher mindset, where you believe “People won’t figure it out without me.” You can probably imagine how these two deeply-rooted beliefs manifest in leader behaviors and in how leaders engage or disengage their organizations.

According to Liz Wiseman, the author of “Multipliers,” “Multiplier leaders don’t necessarily set the strategy themselves.  They make sure the strategy gets set.  By asking the right questions, they allow answers to bubble up from across the organization and build the intellectual muscle their teams need to respond quickly when speed matters most.” Multiplier leaders actually see their job as increasing the intelligence of their teams. People who work for multipliers get smarter under their leadership.  They do things they have never done before, they drive breakthroughs for themselves and their teams.

Being a Multiplier leader is more important now than ever before. As Thomas Friedman shows in “Thank You for Being Late,” we’re at an unprecedented, accelerated rate of change. This chart (below) models the pace of technological advancement in blue (think the exponential nature of Moore’s Law), while the red represents the pace of human adaptability.rate of change 21st century

His point is that humans learn and adapt in a linear fashion. For the first time in human history, the pace of technological advancement is now superseding our ability to understand it – at a societal level, a company level, and an individual level. Which means all of us – individuals, companies, and governments – have really no choice but to learn faster and govern smarter.

The only way to be competitive in this environment is to create a business culture where your people are learning at a pace of change faster than the rate of change in their environment. What Multiplier leaders do is simply that: they increase the intelligence of the people who work for them and create a hyper-fast, relentless learning culture, and environment.

In summary, to be a successful, competitive company in the 21st century means having a culture that moves quickly and adapts. The Multiplier mindset ensures that leaders (who shape the culture every day) engage and empower their people because deep down they believe they are smart, and create a diligent, relentless learning environment where people are upskilling, trying new ways of working, pushing the boundaries and getting smarter every day.


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