Active Leadership with Views from APCO’s Global Team

February 18, 2019

Agility starts from the top: companies and organizations seeking to be agile in today’s complex and ever-changing world need to have active and curious leaders.

Curious leaders are visionaries who know how their decisions impact the business, employees, partners and customers. What if and why not are part of their everyday vocabularies. They are sympathetic and understand the impact of their decisions on their employees, customers and partners.

Given that active leadership is such a key component to organizational agility, members of APCO’s global team took a closer look at which leaders are best positioned to succeed in a range of sectors and industries.

Active Leaders in the CSR Space – James Robinson, New York

The agile leader inherently understands sustainability. They derive success from positioning their organization to perform both in the short- and long-term; they are not only responsive to investor needs, but also to the expectations of an array of stakeholders, including customers, employees, business partners and wider society.

With failures in the social safety net and the degradation of traditional institutions such as governments and the press, businesses and their leaders are increasingly expected to play a wider social and environmental role. To do this, they must be careful students of the world around them. They must be acutely aware of the context in which they are operating and able to re-calibrate and adapt to the fast-changing external environment while remaining true to their long-term corporate mission or purpose.

Indra Nooyi, until recently the CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo*, understands this.  The Performance With Purpose program she piloted is a blueprint for agile and sustainability leadership – laying out a transformative long-term agenda for healthier products and accountability that responds to social trends and expectations while nimbly capturing business opportunities as they arise.

Satya Nadella of Microsoft* is another posterchild of agile leadership. He has led the company’s turnaround by focusing on cloud-computing and creating a more open Microsoft platform. He has also taken a stand on and invested in issues that are directly relevant to Microsoft’s business, such as immigration reform and education.

*APCO client



Active Leadership in the Energy Sector – Nic Labuschagne, Dubai

The energy sector in the Gulf has historically been dominated by a handful of multinational oil companies and state-owned national oil companies. However, the sector is undergoing a massive transformation into an integrated and holistic energy ecosystem driven primarily by the emergence of cost-effective renewable and clean energy alternatives.

Successful leaders in the energy sector have adopted a completely different management style from that of their predecessors. They have repositioned their organizations to become much leaner, more cost-effective and more responsive to fast-changing market conditions. This has been done while continuing to generate long term sustainable returns on the major capital investments made to prospect, extract and process traditional carbon-based energy. They have also invested so much more time in communicating and building trust that the new, dynamic approach will yield the necessary results.

In a region where innate respect for authority has traditionally perpetuated organizational hierarchies, they have invested in building a culture that invites the constructive questioning of directives and provides the opportunity to collaborate across all levels of the organization. Most importantly, they have helped to build a culture where mistakes made as part of the learning process are both tolerated and encouraged.


Active Government Leadership — Kelsey Suter, Washington

Political campaigns and corporate leaders have long embraced new technologies as they communicate their narratives directly to voters and consumers – but governments remain behind the curve. Rather than relying on traditional tools of diplomacy and media outreach, governments need new strategies for communicating not only to voters at home, but directly to populations and allies abroad.

These efforts matter even more in a time of geopolitical instability, when political polarization and “fake news” are shifting public perceptions and undermining support for the status quo. In today’s environment, alliances are being tested and tensions between governments are hindering communication through traditional diplomatic channels. To ensure strong bilateral relationships and popular support for foreign policy objectives, governments are increasingly seeing the value of sharing their stories directly with the global population.

Innovative governments are beginning to embrace new forms of public diplomacy. Denmark recently hired Casper Klynge as the world’s first tech ambassador to serve as an envoy between the tech sector and governments, and France quickly followed suite. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau won hearts and minds around the globe through authentic, approachable social media content. Pope Francis uses the papal Twitter account to communicate directly with Catholics around the world. And Germany* has built digital outreach and storytelling into its yearlong Deutschlandjahr in the U.S., which is celebrating US-German relations.

As geopolitical relationships continue to shift and change, expect more governments to put greater resources into direct and digital diplomacy with populations abroad.

*APCO client



The Auto Industry as a Shining Example of Active Corporate Leadership – Seiko Indo, Tokyo

At a time when change is the constant, successful companies look ahead, anticipate and adapt, and put themselves in the driver’s seat of change. They show boldness in redefining themselves within today’s interconnected and evolving ecosystems. By responding to the changing values, motivations and expectations of their stakeholders, they aim to remain relevant and “fit” for the future.

As one example, consider the world’s leading automakers and their efforts to move beyond their product category and into opportunities that extend their expertise into other dimensions of the mobility ecosystem. In the process, these legacy car manufacturers are becoming technology firms, energy companies and city planners. Toyota and Microsoft work together through Toyota Connected to “make technology human” and serve the new consumer. Volkswagen has launched Elli, its energy and charging unit. Ford City Solutions works with cities to address their mobility challenges. And CES last week gave us a glimpse into what mobility might look like in the future, both near and far.

At the same time, these automakers are not undertaking these initiatives on a whim, but rather through purposeful identification of market challenges and opportunities where they can contribute a solution. To do so, they are monitoring how consumers are changing their styles of consumption from ownership to subscription and listening to what people really want in city life, which could actually be fewer cars. At a societal level, they are setting a vision and roadmap for how autonomous and electric vehicles could be part of distributed energy systems, reduce traffic fatalities and congestion, and lead to a higher quality of life for an increasingly urbanized world.

Adapting is, of course, not just about offering new services or developing new messages.  Active leaders within any industry must reconfigure their organization, form strategic partnerships and make forward-looking investments that anticipate real needs and challenges at both the individual and societal levels.


Active Leadership in the Technology Sector – Kelsey Harclerode, Washington

While the impulse to stay agile may seem obvious to a sector as groundbreaking as tech, the likelihood of falling victim to the status quo is as strong in tech as it is for other, more traditional sectors.  Emerging unscathed – and, for the lucky few, stronger – amidst growing scrutiny requires tech leaders to truly be as prepared for disruption as their products claim to be.

Tech leaders can no longer hide behind the immediate brilliance of their tech. A successful, active leader in the tech space must understand the broader implications of their products. This means seeking out and hiring diverse candidates, empowering employees to challenge business decisions at every level of product development, and engaging with the communities using their tech.  Building this awareness into your company culture better protects your company from the social and geopolitical risks that cause significant damages to your business.

Just as new technology benefits from a consumer’s willingness to accept change, tech leaders must also be willing to take a step back to reevaluate and adapt.  This could mean changing your products, your culture, or your entire mission. An active tech leader could accomplish all three.  You just need to listen.


How Leaders Can Be Effective Advocates in 2019 – Dan Meyers, Washington

Leaders in both the private and public sectors face an incredibly complex advocacy environment in 2019. Being heard through the cluttered conversation and fast-paced news cycles has never been more challenging. Adding to the complexity, we live in a time where leaders, both corporate and political, are increasingly scrutinized for doing either too much or too little – or both.

Leaders can be more effective advocates for their company, employees, shareholders, stakeholders, or constituents by considering several key approaches to be mindful of in 2019.

Employ empathy.  When advocating, whether for business purposes, societal change, or policy, a leader not only needs to hear directly from those affected, but also to understand them. One cannot overstate the personal touch in advocacy.

Work together. Rather than go at it alone in this complex environment, consider a coalition-style approach. Partner with likeminded allies seeking the same end goal. The chorus of voices will help elevate your objective and diversify the conversation.

Leverage experience.  Leaders often shift the focus to others.  While that is important, it is equally necessary to leverage your own strengths and strategically bring them to the table in your advocacy strategies. Don’t forget the attributes that made you the leader you are today.

Highlight passion.  Whether through your own voice or by partnering with others, expressing passion for your cause will help you cut through the noise. Combine your passion with credible evidence and you’ll rise above the cluttered conversation with a powerful and personal story that has passion behind it.

Think opposition. While it is incredibly important to think about your advocacy strategy, it’s essential to remember that advocacy is not solitaire. Be sure to think about your opposition and how they will react to your strategies and plan accordingly.


A Health Care Business Leader’s North Star is to Generate Health – Nancy Turett, New York

Business leaders specializing in health care have always had a complicated relationship with health. It is both the essence of life and the lifeblood of our enterprises. The way we fulfill others’ needs and how we line our own pockets. The way our work both advances health and at the same time challenges society to pay for this advancement.

The one thing that is crystal clear is that the North Star for health care business leaders should be to generate health. We need to continuously ask ourselves how are we actively redefining health through science, technological and social innovations; how are we actively leading our teams and partners to build both great treatments while genuinely contributing to prevention of the very diseases our products and services address; how are we actively driving both unfettered thinking and responsible action.

Sure, health has moved from being something to wish for and worry about, to an ever-expanding array possibilities and pursuits. Yet these forces have implications for those in the business of health. With intersecting customer, financial, stakeholder, and societal demands, the successful health leader, brand or enterprise, is one who approaches this mandate with curiosity, agility, and vigor – by actively, always, aiming to generate health.

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