Over the next decade, artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies will transform every aspect of business across every discipline. But as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gets underway, chief executives are asking questions about the impact this new era of disruptive technological change will have on their role and responsibilities as leaders.
They’re concerned about whether they are doing enough to build trust in their values — especially in this era where customers are more willing to buy from companies that demonstrate meaningful leadership. They’re wondering how best to harness the power of emerging technologies to optimize their companies’ performance. And at the same time, they’re concerned about what kind of role regulators might play in managing any AI-led disruption and its impact on the global economy.
Our Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Marc Benioff, recently joined business leaders at The New York Times 2018 New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, California, to explore these issues. In conversation with The New York Times Deputy Managing Editor, Rebecca Blumenstein, Benioff shared his insights on the evolving role of today’s chief executive, and the leadership that’s required for companies to succeed.
Technological advances continue to revolutionize the possibilities for humanity. But as technology companies touch more lives via products and services based on powerful AI algorithms, people are increasingly concerned about the potential for platforms to mishandle their personal data. This is leading to a growing “crisis of trust,” as Benioff put it.
Chief executives need to think very carefully about what they need to do to bridge this erosion of trust. The process starts with understanding how customers interact with the products they use, and the kind of trust they place in the companies that offer them.
Highlighting the powerful nature of this relationship of trust, Benioff compared some social media products for children to candy cigarettes, which he used to pretend to smoke as a boy.
“What do you think [the candy manufacturers] were trying to get us to do with those? They were building products for kids that then segued into their other products. I don’t think things are any different now. Companies are focused on the addictive nature of these user interfaces and on maximizing their advertising revenue. At some point, we have to say, ‘Hold on.’”
The technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution are ushering in a new era of accountability for business leaders. Empowered by these technologies, consumers and employees can make more informed decisions about the businesses they purchase from and the companies they work for. As a result, many have elevated expectations of those companies’ products and services.
At the same time, as AI-enhanced systems reach further into everyday life, people want reassurance that these systems are transparent and bias-free. One of the ways they now expect technology companies and the people who lead them to deliver that reassurance is to adopt a values-driven approach, thus demonstrating that they stand for something more than just the bottom line. Such an approach can position business leaders to achieve strong customer loyalty, while boosting employee engagement and productivity.
Salesforce has always strived to be a values-driven business, making it a pioneer for this trend. “The day we started, we took 1% of our equity, 1% of our profit, and 1% of our time, and put it into a foundation,” Benioff said. “That’s blossomed into something far more exciting than we could have imagined. We run more than 34,000 nonprofits and NGOs for free; we’ve given away more than $180 million in grants; we’ve done nearly 3 million hours of volunteerism. It’s provided the foundation for our culture and was probably the best decision we ever made.”
To stem any erosion of trust, technology leaders must consider the social impact of their services and act as ethical stewards of customer data. If they do not, it could be only a matter of time before consumers reject their products and services.
Benioff pointed to consumer giant Unilever’s recent threat to pull advertisements from social media sites as just the start of such a backlash. “You’re going to see the beginning of a movement,” he said. “When these crises hit, it’s like a tidal wave.”
At the same time, since the industry is not regulating itself and does not seem to be guided by what Benioff calls a “strong hand of ethics,” Silicon Valley is nearing a point where the government will need to draw the moral lines. As with the auto industry in the 60s and 70s, stricter regulation of the technology industry may be necessary to manage emerging risk.
“I think we are getting very close to that point,” he said. “I think companies have crossed a number of different lines and we’re in a very serious situation … I’m trying to protect our industry. If companies can’t regulate themselves, they should have external regulations.”
Benioff called on leaders to stay involved in guiding the technology their companies create. “The first, most important, and highest value at Salesforce is trust,” he said.
One of the solutions Benioff suggested was to move top decision-making away from algorithms and back to humans. He cited Facebook’s decision to disband its trending news curation team as an example of how doing the opposite could cause damage.
“Facebook had a team promoting, sorting, and focusing stories, that they removed. They put an algorithm in their place, and that started the downward spiral that they’re in today,” he said.
At the same time, some business leaders are going further. They have started talking more about the accountability they face as institutions, following careful reflection about company values and organizational culture. They’re also publicly engaging in political and social debates and taking up activist roles.
Benioff — one such activist CEO — described how Salesforce threatened to remove its business from Indiana after the state introduced its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave businesses the right to refuse to serve LGBT customers.
“We’re the largest tech employer in Indiana, and we’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s not going to fly with us. If you’re going to discriminate against our employees, customers, and partners, we’re going to exit your state.’ And that was enough to let hundreds of other chief executives say the same thing.”
Leading with values in the Fourth Industrial Revolution also means chief executives need to care about all their stakeholders — not just shareholders, but also customers, employees, partners, and the communities where they live and work.
“The first time I got a call [about thinking like this] it was shocking to me,” Benioff said. “Now, I feel like, ‘Oh, this is just my role.’ I need to be able to respond to whatever their needs are.”