How Leaders Future-Proof Themselves

FEI Daily spoke with futurist Jack Uldrich about the trends that will transform the world of tomorrow and the concrete actions businesses can take today to create tomorrow’s opportunities.


In the near future, the greatest challenge for leaders will be the accelerating rate of change. At the FEI’s upcoming Current Financial Reporting Issues Conference, global futurist, speaker, author Jack Uldrich will share insights on how to prepare for an uncertain and unpredictable future. The answer is that you and your organization must think and act in unorthodox ways.

FEI Daily: What does a future-proof leader look like?

Jack Uldrich: A future-proof leader is someone who takes the time to become aware of how fast the world is changing, aware of various trends that might affect his or her business. Another trait centers around humility. What I mean here is, in a rapidly evolving and changing world, what worked well yesterday might not be sufficient moving forward. Businesses are changing. Business models are changing. Customer expectations are changing. New competitors are emerging. We have to begin challenging our assumptions. We have to be open to unlearning, seeing the world from a different perspective. I think that the best future-proof leaders have that element of humility.

Jack-Uldrich-headshot-2015-(1).JPGThe final trait centers on action. The only way to predict the future is to create it yourself. The most effective leaders are those that future-proof their business, those who are willing to take action, specifically action in the face of less-than-perfect information, and they're willing to drive action and not necessarily consensus within their organizations. The acronym that I always use is the AHA. The AHA is awareness, or stands of awareness, humility, and action. I think that those three principles or characteristics best reflect a future-proof leader.

FEI Daily: How can a leader becomes more aware and in-tune with what’s happening in their space? 

Uldrich: The first and most important thing centering on awareness is to recognize that, if your business is not changing as fast as the external environment in which you operate, you are not long for this world. Become aware of how fast the world is changing. Today is the slowest rate of change any of us will ever experience again. Tomorrow's just going to be a little bit faster, and the day after that is a little bit faster. Leaders need to really take that principle to heart. 

The greatest change out there is the rate of change itself. What that means is we're transitioning to a period of constant transition. This is discomforting to a lot of people, but leaders need to be aware that today and tomorrow's world is going to be significantly different than the way things have operated for the last five, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years.

FEI Daily: Where do you see leaders consistently fail?

Uldrich: Leaders who fail don't take enough time to think, and have a closed-door policy and just think strategically about the future. Too many people think that putting their feet up and closing their door and just thinking is a waste of time. I would argue it is the leader's primary responsibility and they have to give themselves permission to think about how fast the world is changing. I always say, once a day take 15 minutes to think about the future. Once a week, take an hour to close your door and think strategically about how your world is changing. Then, once a year, take an entire week to think strategically about the world and how it is changing and evolving and how your business, business model, customers, and new competitors might be poised to significantly change your world.

Where leaders fail, and I think this is really important for finance and accounting people, is they overinvest in what is today at the expense of underinvesting in what could be tomorrow. It's very comforting to focus on optimization and efficiency. But the really successful leaders understand that innovation is incredibly important, and you have to spend some time not just dotting the i's and crossing the t's and pursuing six incremental improvements. You have to think really differently and focus some time and energy, effort, and money investing in those things that aren't yet in existence. The organizations that do that are the ones that continue to not only thrive but survive in the future.

FEI Daily: What are some of the trends you’re planning to speak about at the CFRI conference?

Uldrich: There are a lot of trends I am going to be mentioning. This is in no specific order, but I'm going to talk about the transition from 4G to 5G wireless technology and how that's going to change a lot of business models and the expectations of customers. 

I'm going to talk about how certain businesses are leveraging augmented and virtual reality. I'm, of course, going to talk a lot about advances in artificial intelligence, continuing trends in data analytics, blockchain technology, the Internet of Things, quantum computing, super computing. 

I will also briefly mention continued advances in robotics, autonomous self-driving vehicles, 3D printing, really from the perspective of how that might change many businesses, the global supply chain, other things like that. Really get them as leaders to connect the dots. If they have any responsibility in risk management, if your entire business is at risk or your business model is at risk, and if you're in the manufacturing world as a leader you need to be aware of that. 

Not every trend will affect every member in the audience. But I would say that those first ones will clearly affect everyone in the audience. And it’s not enough to be aware of these individual technologies. The challenge is all of these technologies are accelerating and they are converging into one another, and they are going to spin off in some unexpected ways that are going to challenge businesses, business leaders, and even regulators. A lot of people, especially on the financing and accounting side, tend to think, ‘Yes, the world is changing. But we operate in a regulatory environment and there are rules that we absolutely have to follow.’ I don't want to disagree with that, but some of these trends are going to be potentially so powerful that they obliterate business models and businesses. Yesterday and today's regulations won't matter.

The perfect metaphor is Uber. 10 years ago, that company could not even have existed. The technologies it relies on today are GPS technologies, smartphones, and cloud computing. All of those trends existed 10 years ago, but in the last 10 years they converged into a point where now strangers are giving strangers rides and it's a $100 billion a year industry. But the taxi industry thought they were in a regulated industry, and the regulators and the politicians were going to protect them. They tried, but customer expectations grew so powerful when they saw how easy and better the platform was, that it didn't decimate the business model, but the price of a taxi medallion in New York City in the last three years has gone from $1.3 million to less than $200,000. That should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks that that they're in a regulated business. Just because your business has existed for 200 years in roughly the same way doesn't mean that it will continue on in the future.

FEI Daily: What do you typically hear from your audience after a presentation?

Uldrich: They tend to thank me for making them aware of how fast the world is changing, help them see things that are essentially right in front of them. That, as business professionals, they're focused on their specific responsibility, so they thank me for lifting their heads up and seeing how fast the world is changing. 

They tend to really resonate with the change management aspects of my talk, getting them to challenge their assumptions and open their mind and see the world from a different perspective. 

Many people are cynical about the future. What I don't like about cynics is they think they know the answer. I encourage my audience to remain skeptical of everything that I say and everything that they hear about the future. Skeptics keep an open mind. They keep asking questions. They keep asking themselves, ‘What don't I know? What aren't I seeing? Who aren't I listening to? How might my world be changing faster than I'm expecting? How might some of my customers leverage some of these new platforms in ways that are unexpected?’

But the most common comment I hear is they say, ‘That was a great presentation. It both really excited me and it also really scared me.’ And I say, ‘Good. The future should do that.’ 

Some people are motivated by the opportunity of the future. Other people need a kick in the pants. If it takes a little scaring to get them to open their mind and to change and to see things differently, well then I have served my purpose.

At the very end, I'm actually really, really optimistic about the future. One of the most common concerns, especially around artificial intelligence is: is there going to be a job for me? Is this going to take all of our jobs? The answer is no. That's not to say it's not going to take some jobs. But I think those who can become aware, challenge their assumptions, take action, are going to be those who can continue to create a future for themselves, their companies, and their broader communities.

Jack Uldrich will be a keynote speaker at the November 12-13, 2018 CFRI Conference