3 ways to confront modern business challenges

Leaders highlight the importance of continuous improvement, applying lessons from technology processes, and striving for humility.

By Rita J. King
March 23, 2020
big systemic thinking post

I interviewed four business leaders in late 2019 to get their perspectives on the biggest obstacles and opportunities organizations are facing.

Craig Lemasters was the president and CEO of Assurant Solutions. Under his leadership, Assurant Solutions doubled in size to $4B, underwent a digital transformation to expand an offering of risk management solutions in the connected living space, and became established in 25 new markets around the world. After Lemasters left Assurant, he bought a company called GXG where, as the chief executive officer, he focuses on accelerating the growth of companies through rapid-cycle learning. (Disclosure: GXG is a partner of Science House, a consultancy I co-direct.)

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Jen Bruno is the SVP of culture and human capital at LPL Financial, a firm founded to help entrepreneurial financial advisors offer independent financial guidance. Early in her career, Bruno was a florist who dreamed of working at the Walt Disney company. The dream became reality. (Disclosure: LPL is a client of my consultancy.)

Dana Codispoti is the head of HR transformation at AIG. Previously, she worked at BNY Mellon and Morgan Stanley, and in multiple industries spanning consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and hospitality. With an engineering background and a mind for data and analytics, Codispoti is adept at leading change in processes that have scaled across large companies, with an eye for both humanity and technology.

James Jorasch is the founding CEO of Science House, a New York-based consultancy that I co-direct. For 14 years prior to founding Science House, Jorasch was the head of inventing at Walker Digital. He’s a named inventor on more than 750 patents, including the patents at the core of Priceline, and his innovation work spans many industries, including retail, health care, and gaming. 

Below, you’ll find notable themes that emerged during the discussions. You can see the full interviews here.

Continuous learning and continuous improvement

When people ask Craig Lemasters how long he ran Assurant Solutions, he says 44 quarters rather than 11 years.

“That’s how we think,” he said. “How do you free up time to think beyond a quarter or two or a year or two? We can do that. We can get to that place.”

But when Assurant’s distribution model—big box retailers—started collapsing, Lemasters wondered how he would shape the company’s future while focusing on the short term.

He knew it started with him as a CEO, but he didn’t know that other “lonely CEOs” were stuck in the same place. He engaged GXG (a company he later purchased) to help him over the hurdle by exposing him to the wisdom of others who navigated the same path. Continuous learning, especially from others who have developed wisdom from being in the same position, helps leaders get unstuck and become more agile.

Continuous learning is also required to understand the relationship between humanity and technology.

“Technology is driving and enabling at the same time,” Dana Codispoti said. “It’s a matter of how we use it. We need the human mind.”

From an HR perspective, Codispoti said, we need to go faster to get our minds ready. Companies should understand, among other things, the power of robotics and AI, along with the art of the possible, “while they are fixing the foundation,” Codispoti said. Too often, companies try to grasp at the next big thing without laying the foundation for learning first.

“There’s a whole world of things to learn,” Codispoti said. “I look at it as an enabler.”

Jen Bruno agreed. “Every business professional should consider themselves a continuous learner,” Bruno said. She noted that people need to be “change ready,”and get better at applying what they know in different areas for the greater good. Every company should get employees excited and engaged to learn because change keeps happening “faster than we can imagine.”

What makes a company a world-class learning organization?

“When people truly are in a mindset of continuous improvement,” Bruno said. “We can learn something from every person we meet. That’s good for business. Share talent and knowledge, and foster collaboration for greater outcomes.”

Business lessons from technology processes

Companies need a clear vision in a complex world, Codispoti said. “Create a north star that people can align to, that gets people excited about solving a problem,” she said. “Without it, they spin and spin and spin. If people don’t know how their work is value-add, you lose engagement. It ties to the enterprise vision.”

As more companies shift to Agile software development and, more importantly, an Agile mindset, the culture of companies has begun to mimic the iterative nature of technology. Smaller, granular pieces need to communicate with each other in the most effective way. This is true for microservices architecture, for example, and for people across teams.

Codispoti said that creating a process requires an end-to-end vision, but silos often lead to fragments being created piecemeal. “Once [a broken process] is enabled through technology and you want to make changes, it’s hard and people blame the technology,” Codispoti said.

Huge problems, James Jorasch said, need to be “distilled down to something that a client can understand and take action on.” Science House works with large enterprise clients, often on transformational software projects that can span years. The parallel between technology and people applies here, too.  Making complex projects and transformations more modular creates a parallel impact on people and organizational structures, changing the nature of their responsibilities and spans of control. Bringing modular pieces together, whether the modules are temporal or functional, changes the role of traditional hierarchical organizational structures as they adapt to increased complexity.

“The nature of management is changing, and not just because of Agile,” Jorasch said. “It’s a different way of thinking. Managers have gone from managing people to managing processes, mindsets, skills, and problems.”

They also need to manage information flow into and from these groups.

“There are lessons learned from tech that will be applicable to people,” Jorasch said. “Where are the bottlenecks? What are the styles of thinking you need? Focus on what’s essential. How do you get the right information to the right person at the right time?”

Humility is an asset

One of the themes that came throughout the interviews was the need for humility. Without it, companies tend to stay inward looking and siloed.

“Companies struggle with cross-collaboration,” Codispoti said. “People tend to work in silos. They need to partner with experts in other areas. They don’t need to do it on their own, and they’re missing opportunities.”

Bruno and Lemasters both cited humility as a critical trait for leaders. Humility gives people the energy to cross over into an unfamiliar area, Bruno said, and creates the capacity for empathy.

“I look for the humility quotient,” Lemasters said. “A willingness for leaders to embrace outside thinking and ideas. Some would call it criticism, but it isn’t. Have the humility to accept people who have wisdom in their swim lanes. We learn quickly. There’s goodness in humanity, and people want to help.”

Jorasch often cites the need for not taking ourselves too seriously during innovation sessions, for example, because one person’s silly or half-formed comment gives another person a great idea. Humility helps prevent people from having to project authority or expertise every time they speak. With humility comes better listening; more honest, authentic input; less defensiveness; and more collaboration based on respect for one’s peers’ opinions.

Be sure to check out the full interviews for additional insights.

Post topics: Future of the Firm
Post tags: Big Systemic Thinking, Deep Dive

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