Audio Quick Take: AWS’ Phil Davis on Navigating the “Never Normal” – Authentic Leaders, Anti-Fragility & Innovation

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Julie Devoll, HBR

Welcome to the HBR Audio Quick Take. I’m Julie Devoll, Editor of Special Projects and Webinars at HBR. I want to thank everyone for joining us today. As part of a new executive program, Amazon Web Services sat down with more than 30 CEOs, CIOs, CDOs, Founders, Distinguished Professors, Authors and Work Futurists across a variety of industries. The conversations delved into the challenges facing leaders and businesses worldwide as they experiment with new strategies to respond to the pandemic and build for the future.

In this Quick Take, we’re joined by Phil Davis, Managing Director, APJ at Amazon Web Services, to discuss some of the most interesting themes and common threads that came out of the ExecLeaders conversations worldwide.

Phil, thank you so much for joining us today.

Phil Davis, AWS

Thank you, Julie. I’m thrilled to be here.

Julie Devoll, HBR

During your time interviewing leaders from around the world, what were some of the most interesting themes or common threads that came out of those conversations?

Phil Davis, AWS

As you can imagine, there were a lot of different themes and threads. If I tried to distill it down, I think there were probably three key themes that consistently came through.

One, if you think about digital transformation, and the way people were approaching digital transformation before the pandemic, a lot of it was just taking things I normally do day-to-day and digitizing them. If I normally fill out a form, I’ll put that same form online. And now it’s a digital transformation. Not too much of a transformation, just basically digitizing what I always have done.

What we’re seeing is that companies are using this as an opportunity to take a step back and rethink what they’re doing, rethink how they can transform their business and make much more fundamental changes.

I’ll give you a great example. We’ve been working with Korean Air, and they’ve been exploring how they can move to a touchless check-in process. How do they make it so that people don’t have to physically touch anything in order to minimize the possibility of transmission of Covid-19? They’re also rethinking the entire in-flight experience, so they can still deliver an incredibly positive experience, but do that with much less physical interaction.

The second key theme is clearly that technology is at the core of all these changes. 30 years ago, I decided to enter the tech industry because I fundamentally believe that tech has the power to fundamentally transform and improve the human condition.

Look at, for example, CEO Tony Lombardo from Lendlease, and thinking about the role, location and structure of the office of the future. My own view as I distill that down is that people inherently miss that human interaction. They miss being able to be physically close to other people. What I think you’re going to see is the use of technology to allow us to go back to an older type of normal and get more of that human interaction we crave, while still leveraging tech.

If you think about the third key thing that we see, I don’t know if you call it the new normal, I don’t know if it will be going back to the old normal, or if it’s the never normal, but we are certainly seeing people continue to want that human interaction. How do we leverage the power of technology to enable people to go back to some sort of sense of normalcy and the ability to go through a more human experience while still being safe and maintaining the best practices that we’ve learned through the pandemic?

If you look at what Rajan Anandan, the Managing Director of Surge and Sequoia Capital in India was talking about, he spoke to how the EdTech space has really developed. If you think back prior to February 2020, that entire space didn’t exist before. Now you’re able to reach over 100 million users in India who are consuming online educational content. As a result of leveraging the power of technology, it’s not just about doing the same things we were doing before, but about fundamentally doing different things and improving the human condition as a result of it.

Julie Devoll, HBR

I’m going to turn to innovation now. What is innovation through the lens of the leaders from the AWS ExecLeaders Program? And how have their perspectives changed?

Phil Davis, AWS

As you might imagine, there was a lot of discussion around the way people work, the way they lead and even the way they manage other people. I think that it comes down to a few different key areas. First, there is communication. I think people have really embraced digital technologies and used them as platforms to increase communication.

One of the things I think people saw, is they took a lot of things for granted, because it’s the way we’ve always done them. Now with the challenge of not being able to get on a plane and be close to other people, not being able to actually call an instant meeting and physically jump into a conference room, people have had to be more thoughtful about how they communicate, and their leadership style.

Also, a lot of discussion about what work from home means, both today and in the future. What does it mean for diversity and inclusion? There was a lot of discussion around the fact that we tend to gravitate toward people who look, or act like us. That could be very easy to do with social distancing. How do we continue to maintain a very diverse and inclusive environment?

If you look at Prakash Mallya, MD, of Sales and Marketing for Intel, or Brant Carson, the Head of McKinsey, they both talked about how work from home could actually open up talent pools for organizations, or give opportunities to individuals who otherwise might not be able to participate in the workforce.

I think the final consideration was put forward by Shayne Elliott, the CEO of Australia New Zealand Bank. He was talking about how work from home, in local communities, could have the negative unintended consequence of reducing our exposure to diverse people and cultures, or even diverse thinking. We’ll need to make sure we go above and beyond to maintain that connection.

Julie Devoll, HBR

Let’s talk about the new “never normal” as you called it, and the positive unintended consequences as a result.

Phil Davis, AWS

Once again, I think this is where the positive power of the human spirit really comes through. Not just with the leaders we spoke to, but even as you talk around the region. People acknowledge it’s tough, and they acknowledge it’s hard, and it’s certain that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on so many people’s lives. But consistently, you see people thinking about the world as very much half-full. What are the positive things that we can drive forward as a result of this?

I think one theme that came through is a lot of the leaders have gone that extra mile, and they feel closer to their staff. It’s been easier to talk to staff all around the world by leveraging digital technologies, which have now become more pervasive and have improved in a very short span of time.

Whether that’s virtual one-on-ones, team meetings, town halls, even social interactions like virtual happy hour. I think it continues to reinforce some of the themes I was talking about a moment ago. That at the center of all of this is technology, and technology can improve our human interaction and the human condition. I think it’s really heartening to observe how the leaders we spoke with in the series have used technology rather than hampering it and have really leaned in to see how they can better harness the power of technology. I think that’s among the things we’re going to see in this “never normal.”

Julie Devoll, HBR

How do you see leadership evolving in this “new, never normal”?

Phil Davis, AWS

At Amazon, we talk a lot about day one. Which is about not being encumbered by decisions of the past, particularly decisions that could have been wrong. About looking at every day as a new start. And starting with our customers and working backwards. Jeff founded the company to be the most customer-obsessed company on the planet. I think one of the things that represents day one thinking is removing as many of the proxies, as many of the layers, between a leader and the customer.

I think that this newer normal is an opportunity to do that. It’s an opportunity to leverage these digital transformations and digital technologies, to get closer to, and more frequent feedback from, our customers. It’s not just us, the leaders we talk to also see this as an opportunity to get closer to their customers.

I also think that it’s a time when we’re going to need more human, more empathetic, leadership, and more listening. I think people are going through a tough time. As these lockdowns have continued, and they’ve continued over multiple months, I think it’s put more pressure on people. Look at some of the statistics around mental health and mental well-being, not just physical. People are yearning for more support. I think that it has put a lot more pressure on leaders to be empathetic.

You look at, once again, what Rajan Anandan from Surge and Sequoia Capital talked about. He says leaders need to make critical decisions about controlling costs and maintaining liquidity, all the usual financial metrics. But it’s also important that leaders look after themselves in this pandemic. It’s too easy to get focused on the business and too focused on our teams. And then we start to fall apart as leaders. We need to take the time to establish a self-care routine. Take the time to just reflect. Take the time to exercise. Take time to spend with family and friends. I also think this was a key thing that came out from all the leaders, both for themselves and for their own leadership teams.

Julie Devoll, HBR

What lessons did you find most surprising from the show, and what questions did it leave you with?

Phil Davis, AWS

I alluded to it a little bit. I don’t know that it was a complete shock. I was certainly left with the strength of the human spirit. I think that you look back through history and there’s the old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. And we’re certainly seeing that. This has been very difficult on people, on businesses, on health, on livelihood. It’s been positive to see the human spirit really rise up and meet these unprecedented challenges.

If you look at the adoption of these technologies, we’re seeing some of these startups rise up at twice the pre-Covid levels. While it’s created a lot of hardship and challenges on one side, it’s creating opportunities on the other side. We’re seeing all sorts of new business models and new companies spring up to kind of harness the opportunities that are being presented.

I think it’s funny, it’s interesting. We’re in the ’20s. Again, if you look back to the last ’20s, following World War I, which added incredible devastation and negativity, the world kind of came back with a renewed sense of optimism, and you saw the Roaring ’20s kind of take off. And my own view is that we’re facing a new Roaring ’20s of the 21st century, as we emerge from Covid-19.

To end on optimism, many thought leaders that we talked to felt the crisis would provide a catalyst. A catalyst for new ways of thinking about our relationships with each other. A catalyst for new ways of working. And really a catalyst for harnessing the power of technology to address global warming, address feeding developing countries, address the digital divide with education, address so many of the challenges that the human race is facing.

Julie Devoll, HBR

Phil, this has been a great interview. I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

Phil Davis, AWS

Well, thank you again for the opportunity. I really enjoyed it, Julie.

Julie Devoll, HBR

And for those listening today, if you would like to watch the ExecLeaders interviews that Phil referred to, such as Navigating the Never Normal and Leadership During Crisis, please use the URL at the bottom of this page.

If you would like to join the ExecLeaders conversations, including Navigating the Never Normal and Leadership During Crisis, please click here to register for the program.

Audio Quick Take: AWS’ Phil Davis on Navigating the “Never Normal” – Authentic Leaders, Anti-Fragility & Innovation

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