During this year’s Fast Company Impact Council meeting—an invitation-only collective of leaders—several executives participated in a roundtable on the “New New Rules of Leadership,” led by executive editor Benjamin Landy. These leaders shared their strategies for doing business during a pandemic, maintaining hope mixed with practicality, and discussed what attributes are important for entrepreneurship.
The speakers at this June roundtable included Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts; Niren Chaudhary, CEO of Panera Bread; Leslie Blodgett, founder and former CEO of bareMINERALS; Ben Ellis, SVP of strategy, Visa Business Solutions; Cindy Eckert, CEO of the Pink Ceiling; Gail Becker, CEO and founder of CAULIPOWER; and Jenna King, CEO of Amionx. These excerpts from the roundtable have been edited for length and clarity.
Niren Chaudhary: What do entrepreneurs do that prevent them from getting caught up in a bureaucratic mess? Their dreams are bigger than their resources. . . . They always think of more possibilities than what they’re able to do. And that creates a positive sort of friction between the constraints [they face] and the ambition they want to unlock, [which] creates the sense of dissatisfaction and urgency that is so valuable.
Rob Katz: We run into that issue a lot, which is leaders who do somehow equate being authentic with saying everything that’s on your mind. The pivot we try to give people is that, as a leader, you’re here for other people. And what happens to you in that moment is not that relevant; what is relevant is: What is authentic to you but would [also] be helpful to other people?
We want our leaders to show up in a way that motivates people for the future. If you’re nervous and kind of stressed out—maybe it’s okay to share a little bit, but it’s your goal not to just get things off your chest. It’s “How are you going to make people show up better?” And getting that balance right—authentic versus motivation—goes back to that principle around being honest but optimistic.
Cindy Eckert: Everybody’s guard is a little bit down. I think that authenticity is here to stay. It’s wonderful. We used to have this image of what you’re supposed to look like, [in] your professional life versus personal life. It’s magnificent that we’re seeing everybody with their kids interrupting them and their dogs barking—mine is snoring right next to me. That’s wonderful access.
And as a leader, you have to play—vocally—the long game. You have to speak up with your vision for the future, even if behind [closed] doors you’re biting your nail and thinking, “How the hell am I going to get the cash?” You’ve got to paint the picture of the long game, but you can, very authentically, ask for help in solving the short ones. So, while you can still [draw] on the board the vision of the future, you can have little solutions to the short-term challenges. I hope this is here to stay.
Gail Becker: When I think of my business, which was basically grocery and retail, and had to turn on a dime [when] the industry turned upside down within a matter of minutes. I loved what happened, which was innovation was no longer just my responsibility or the responsibility of those that have “innovation” in their title. Innovation became something that the supply chain needed to do.
Some of the most innovative and fast things we had to do as a company came from the very people who really never had to do it before. And that was something to celebrate within our company every night, because every night, trying to keep pizza on the shelves was a major win, particularly because a lot of other [businesses] were not able to [do that].
Benjamin Landy: In our conversation of community—and expanding out, stakeholder versus shareholder capitalism and models of management—there’s also this question of environmental sustainability. How do you think about the importance of the environment as another piece of the puzzle?
Jenna King: I’m in clean energy, so obviously that’s very important to my company. And looking at the others in the roundtable that are B2C, versus B2B—like myself—I think it’s important to the customers and it’s important to our employees. So it becomes part of our corporate culture, and it’s really important we address it as leaders.
Benjamin Landy: There’s been a period in which businesses privileged the importance of data analytics in leadership and management. I wonder if that is less relevant today, or if there’s some kind of balance between hard data and emotional intelligence that the modern leader needs?
Chaudhary: The analytical piece has been very important for just survival. It has been such an unprecedented pressure on the business and brand. Will I go bankrupt? and How do I prevent my franchisees from going bankrupt? This requires deep analytics, and a really good acumen for problem-solving. But I think that alone is not enough; there has to be this survival and also healing.
We had to furlough so many thousands of people, and that wears quite heavily on any leader. But I do believe that it’s possible to treat things with care and respect, heart and compassion; and if you do, that in turn gives you the emotional energy to keep going. Otherwise, as a leader, you become emotionally depleted, and it’s very hard to inspire the organization to keep moving forward.
Ben Ellis: Analytics is essential, but you also have to realize what it’s good at and what it’s not. It’s good if you have a series of data points and [you can tell] what’s the trends, what’s the regression. But how can you understand the impact of one more unit of X or Y; what it’s not good at is discontinuities. Analytics, almost by definition, if the context or the environment in the feature is markedly different than the data set, it breaks down. So, I think you need to use analytics, but you also have to understand context.
The power of really good leaders are those who can say, “I know what the analytics say, but the context is different. Here’s how we need to take it, inform it, not just be a servant to it, and then use the analytics to better understand what the future can be.”
Leslie Blodgett: Taking a risk in how we use language—bold, risky language. I think we’re seeing that people are trying to take that leap. What is an inspiring way to talk about “new business”? We’re already getting there, with “EQ” and “empathy” and “trust.” Those are those values we have as humans. How do we bring that into business now? Love is the word that comes to mind. I know that’s a risky word—but I think people “love” their job, they “love” the people they work with, they “love” their customers, and they “love” what they do every day. And that’s not a word I hear or see enough in business.
Read more insights on the New New Rules of Business from Fast Company’s Impact Council members here: