EMC’s tireless appetite for continuing education programs, worldwide innovation contests, and other clever vehicles for building a culture of creativity demonstrate how senior leaders embrace two core concepts that chief talent development officers at other organizations would do well to adopt: encourage employees to speak up, and enable them to take smart action. I asked Smith to share EMC’s secret formula for success, as well as essential hints, tips, and inside advice for creating an equally forward-thinking culture of creativity and innovation that organizations of every size in every industry can learn from. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: How do you and your organization adapt to fast-changing times and trends?
Things are constantly changing and evolving today—nowhere is this more true than in the IT industry, which Moore’s Law was actually created to describe. The best way to adapt is to continuously keep your finger on the pulse of trends. By casting wide nets both internally (employee ideas across our 66,000 person federation of companies) and externally (academia, startups, and our enormous customer/partner ecosystem), we’re able to canvas each environment and build educated predictions of “where things are going.” Then, EMC can mobilize against the major trends in advance of them occurring.
Q: What’s the best way to innovate and stay ahead of the curve?
The best way to stay ahead of the curve is to invent the curve. We’ve been particularly adept at predicting major trends before the occur, and taking a stance on the way we think things are moving—through the creation of products, services, and solutions that don’t have large markets now but will be extremely large in the future. If you wait until you’re on the bell of the curve to address the trend it is predicting, you’re already too late. You need to be proactive and address a growth market before it actually grows.
Q: What one simple change can any individual or business make that can have a hugely positive impact on their ability to achieve success today?
I firmly believe in the importance of fully tapping any company’s greatest resource—it’s employees. Many organizations, both large and small, hire someone to fill a specific role. Then, the organization asks that individual to take a somewhat myopic approach to their work, with a very “that’s not your job,” or “focus on the task at hand” type of mentality toward work outside of their given role. That’s a very tactical way to approach problems, and it doesn’t empower or enable the employee to think strategically about the company’s greater purpose.
If your company is publicly traded, in addition to their day-to-day jobs, it should be the objective of each and every employee to increase shareholder value. A company, like anything, is the sum of its parts, and the human capital is the most important “part.” If you have a complex problem to solve, you might be surprised with the kind of responses you get if you ask all of your employees, even those who have no “official” link to the problem at hand, for help in solving it.
Q: What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever been given?
The best job to fill is the one you write the description for. Find an organization or team that values you for what you bring to the table—and gives you enough leeway to propose and execute against new things. The most important thing is that you share a vision and common sets of goals with your team, both executives above you and direct reports who work for you. How you mobilize to best achieve that vision/goals should be based on each individual’s passion, drive, and interests.
Q: What is the best way to deal with professional challenges or setbacks?
Take a deep breath and reassess what matters. Take some time to reset, as worrying about the same problem (especially if it’s something that’s already happened or is beyond your control) over and over again is a vicious cycle that will not lend itself to anything good. You can never take yourself too seriously, and something that seems like a catastrophic challenge or setback now might end up leading you to make a decision that leads you on a much better path.
Q: What is your advice for getting ahead in an increasingly uncertain world is?
Hedge your bets—especially in innovation, where not every project/incubation is going to succeed. If they all did succeed, you’d have to start questioning if what you’re doing is really innovating. The trick is to have so many things going on that if one or more of them fail, you have numerous others to fall back on.
If you have a “singular focus” mentality, this may be tricky at first so attempt to put as many irons in the fire as you can. Put the most backing behind the things you are strongly convinced are the winners, but don’t be surprised if things that you were sure were going to succeed falter. Just be ready to pivot and either transform something that failed, or move on to the next big thing.
Q: What do market leaders do differently that sets them apart?
They take risks. All “large company” market leaders likely got that way due to one or more big risks that went “right” and enabled them to break away from the pack. The tricky thing is for a market leader to stay at the top. As a company gets bigger and bigger, the innovator’s dilemma becomes more of a problem. That’s why the companies that are able to consistently stay nimble, and emulate a fast-moving startup mentality, are often those that remain market leaders for the longest.
Q: When things don’t go as planned, what’s the best way to proceed?
One of my favorite quotes, by William Arthur Ward, is “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” I try to live by this maxim, and actually have this quote hanging in my office. “Planning” is based on the future, which is, of course, unknown. So it’s always based on uncertainties. You can make the best educated guesses you can, but at the end of the day, there are always so many variables that it’s fairly likely that things won’t go according to plan. All that you can do is assess where things went wrong, and adjust the sails to make them go right.
Q: What’s the smartest decision you or your business ever made?
For both EMC and myself, I’d say that the smartest decision has been to make many decisions. This gets back to the “many irons in the fire” philosophy. EMC has made over 70 acquisitions over the past decade, invests constantly in early-stage startups, backs university research, and always seeks out and advances employee ideas.
There is a healthy paranoia that needs to take place in order for people and companies to be truly successful these days. This doesn’t mean that you should actually fear every little thing or every new technology that may eat into your market share, it just means being aware of them and building contingency plans based on their potential trajectories—investing where appropriate and divesting where appropriate. I try to do the same with regard to the time I spend on different projects and programs.
Q: What is the most important thing businesses should know about competing today?
Today’s startups are tomorrow’s incumbents. We live in a world of unparalleled access to resources globally. The advent and rise of social networks, high speed internet, cheap web design, and 3D printers enables nearly anyone (with a rich uncle or other financial backer) to rapidly scale a business up. Be sure that you’ve got the right research in place to recognize the true threats, and the right resources in place to compete quickly and effectively.
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