I started hearing it years ago: “We’re actually a technology company with [fill in the blank],” CEOs of every kind of business were saying. “We’re actually a technology company with wings,” United Continental CEO Jeff Smisek told me in 2011. Others were running “a tech company with wheels,” “with rails,” “with refineries,” “with stores.” And they were all correct.
Today, we’re surrounded by new evidence that leaders in every discipline are actually in the tech business. Jeff Immelt’s GE yesterday announced a new business that will analyze massive amounts of data generated by industrial machines—GE’s or anyone else’s—anywhere in the world, predicting and improving their performance. GE is aggressively repositioning itself as an industrial company, but now that encompasses predictive analytics software. Its competitors include IBM and Google.
Travis Kalanick’s Uber announced on Wednesday that his company is losing money, but investors don’t care; they value the company at $50 billion or more. Leaders of every taxi and limo company in the U.S., and soon the world, are running tech companies now. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has formed a Defense Innovation Unit in Silicon Valley to learn more about robotics, additive manufacturing, big data analytics, cybersecurity, and more; he knows what business he’s in now. Adidas, the athletic apparel firm being reinvigorated by CEOHerbert Hainer, announced yesterday it’s buying Runtastic. It doesn’t make athletic apparel; it makes apps and hardware for athletes.
Even a coffee company is a technology business: Shares of Keurig Green Mountain, which has built its business on innovative brewing tech, plunged 29% yesterday on weak earnings and outlook. Now much depends on its introduction of a new cold-beverage machine—which, the WSJ reported on Wednesday, “marks a major test of Keurig’s technology skills and Chief Executive Brian Kelley’s effort to position the company for long-term growth.”
Being the leader of a technology enterprise doesn’t demand deep tech skills. Smisek is a lawyer; Immelt came up as a marketer; Hainer majored in economics. (Carter, though, is a theoretical physicist.) It does demand an ability to speak the language of technology and an ability to evaluate people. Most important—and generally most challenging for leaders—is that it demands an ability to imagine what might be possible. Technology’s capability is outrunning our ability to use it.
Strange to say, but fearless imagination is becoming a key competency for leaders of tech-enabled enterprises—which means pretty much all of them.
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