New leadership lessons in tech age: Stay humble, agile and learn from millennials

There are few things in the history of the recent humanity that have more exponential impact than Moore's Law.

Editor's note:

Will US-China trade tensions spill over into areas like international education and lead to stricter restrictions on the number of Chinese students allowed into the US? How will leaders of traditional organizations learn to embrace disruptive technology to stay in the game? Is 5G a new front in the global battle between tech giants or is it just a new version of the old rivalry in the telecom sector we have seen before?

Scott C. Beardsley, Dean of Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, spoke to Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao about these issues on the sidelines of the recent Global New Economy Conference held under the auspices of the Shanghai Changning District Government and the EO Company, a Beijing-based tech media outlet.

Q: The Trump administration is reportedly mulling curbs on the inflows of international students through a set of tightened visa policies. What’s the impact for US business education in general and a school like Darden in particular?

A: On the ground we have seen very little change, so far the impact is very low.

If you read the newspapers, you have a decline over the last three years of the number of international students, but we need to remember it’s because the job market is very strong. Education is counter-cyclical, especially graduate education, as the opportunity costs for quitting your jobs are high.

I’m not aware at Darden of any Chinese student ever denied a visa to study in the United States. In that regard, let’s think of it in two ways.

On the ability to get a visa to study in the US, I have seen no change. Sometimes there are more questions asked in the visa application process. Perception is one thing but the reality is quite another. The number of H1 visas (issued to foreign workers in specialty occupations), despite all the political rhetoric, has not changed. The supply of visas is not sufficient for the number of people applying.

At Darden we have a new program called management science specialization with MBA. If you complete it, you can apply for the three-year OPT (optional professional training) visa. Any student studying in the US at whatever level can get one year of OPT.

However, if you either have a degree in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field or a certificate or specialization, you can get a three-year OPT visa. And our Darden MBA programs with management science specialization qualify for the three-year OPT, which means that students have about 80-90 percent chance to get the H1 visa.

So I believe the fears you cannot get a visa are overblown, because the reality is different on the ground.

Q: The fundraising of top US schools has sparked some controversy due to a perceived lack of transparency. What’s your take on that?

A: First of all, fundraising in American universities is very common, it’s an important component of the financial model of many top universities in the US.

Often universities are raising billions of dollars in a campaign to make education affordable and accessible, so I believe that philanthropy overall does a lot of good.

However, as with any gift, it has to be done for the right reason. If you receive a gift from an individual, it needs to be understood what it is to be used for. There are laws governing philanthropy. So any philanthropy has to be legal.

Secondly, some individuals or foundations request anonymity, but every gift agreement at a university has to go through a sequence of approval processes to make sure the gift is from a real person or company. That level of transparency between the donor and the institution is absolutely necessary. But I doubt it is necessary for every donation and every detail to be known by everybody in the world. The requirements for transparency vary from state to state, university to university.

We certainly have our own requirements in the University of Virginia. Some donors do not mind being recognized, but a gift is a gift. A gift has to be for a purpose and that purpose only. If you have a scandal, maybe it’s because the gift is mixed with something else.

Q: How should leaders respond to challenges posed by disruptive technology?

A: Humility and understanding that no human being can know everything is very important. In the world of technology, there are many unknowns.

For me, that means leaders need to surround themselves with people that have different abilities than their own — complementary skills. And leaders need to encourage people to speak up and share opinions that they might not otherwise know, because sometimes it can be a very young person or somebody with less experience who knows something very important.

The opposite of humility is hubris, where you assume you know everything. Then how will you learn from someone who’s many years your junior?

In a very stable environment, things are much more predictable because there is no discontinuity. There have been times in world history where there was not so much change.

Right now it’s not one of those times. There’s a lot of very rapid change. There are few things in the history of the recent humanity that have more exponential impact than Moore’s Law, whereby things are improving 1,000 times, 10,000 times or 100,000 times over 10 to 20 years. This is very unusual.

In that environment, you need to constantly learn and have a number of people with different skills around you, and you need to be very humble.

For me that also means the mindset of the leaders has to be very agile; you need to think more in scenarios and less in terms of absolutes.

Q: Will flattened corporate hierarchy be one of the results of tech disruption?

A: It will challenge them in some ways and in other ways it will enable them.

On the one hand, the communication abilities and all the platforms allow information to circulate across organizations and geographies much more seamlessly than ever before, because everybody can be connected, share information and have virtual interactions across geographies in ways that were much more difficult 10 to 20 years ago. This is an example of flattening.

On the other hand, digitization is also able to centralize certain information and decision processes, because you have better information at the center.

A leader needs to have, so to speak, a telescope and microscope at the same time — the telescope to look deep into the future, the microscope to look right now. And it also depends on the organization. Smaller organizations are quite different from, say, the military.

Q: Are established firms prepared for the challenge brought by millennials?

A: Some are better prepared than others; again it depends on the age of the company.

The companies we talk about now, Tencent, Alibaba, Google, Facebook, 30 years ago they didn’t exist. They are more in tune with the millennials, because they’ve been started by people that are relatively younger.

On the other hand, you have institutions like governments, post offices or companies that have been around for a long time. They are learning to adapt because successful companies need to win the war for talent. Millennials, or the current Generation X/Y/Z, they are more tech-savvy, idealistic and impatient.

In order to win the war for talent, you have to adapt your company but millennials also need to learn.

I do believe in the wisdoms of elders as well. It’s not that only seniors need to learn from juniors. The current generation still can learn from the previous generation. It’s two-way traffic. Every generation is different and formed by the context in which they live.

One thing is common, though. Any company has to become customer-centric to attract talent. What do customers want? You have to be competitive.

Q: The Trump administration seems to be cutting itself off from international collaboration in sectors like 5G. What are the possible consequences?

A: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it’s useful to look at history, because each generation of technology in telecommunications has always had competition across borders.

After the first generation of mobile technology, you had 2G, 3G, the competition between CDMA and GSM, and now you have 4G and 5G.

If you look at the world and the implementation of technologies over the last 30 years, each generation of technology has new competitive dynamics. So in some ways I don’t see this as being that different from what we have already seen over the last 20 or 25 years. Each of the big countries in Asia, Europe and the US is trying to establish their technologies as the standard. And there are some rivalries. This is not new.

Another way of seeing it is to ask: Who is the mobile operator in China, the US or Europe? Actually it’s very interesting, very little overlapped.

Do big operators like AT&T operate heavily in Europe, Asia or Africa? No. Does China Mobile operate heavily in other countries? Actually not so much. What’s the difference? The 5G technology is like the previous generation of technologies; it will have implementations by country or region. There will be different regulations and standards developed.

The other thing is that we need to remember there is a presidential election coming in the US.

Everything tends to be viewed through the lens of the election.

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