Companies worried about disruption need science and technology to stay relevant in the 21st century, but speakers at the fifth annual Smith School Business Summit pointed to soft skills as the real competitive advantage. “If you get leadership, management and culture right, everything else takes care of itself,” keynote speaker David Williams told an audience of more than 300 faculty, staff, students and working professionals gathered Oct. 28, 2016, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The event, organized by the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, explored leadership in a VUCA world. The acronym stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — descriptions of the global economy in the age of big data.
As CEO of Merkle, a customer relationship marketing agency, Williams has led four pivots into unknown territory and already is making plans for a fifth course adjustment to stay ahead of changing market conditions. “We started as a mailing list management company,” he said. “Today that would be like making buggy whips.”
Along the way, he has watched major clients like Blockbuster and Borders misread industry trends and get crushed. “The ability to constantly change has become really important,” he said.
Along with flexibility, Williams said leaders need vision. “You’re seeing reality for what it is,” he said. “You’re constantly questioning what tomorrow is going to look like — it doesn’t really matter what happened yesterday — and you’re building a culture that’s permeating the company. So the company is not waiting for David Williams or the CEO or a chief strategy officer to make some decision about what to do next. It becomes everybody’s job.”
Other conference participants addressed the need for soft skills during six panel discussions following the keynote.
“You can have all of the tools in the world, but it won't help if you don’t have the right team,” said Kamran Loghman, chief global instructor of Apple and a senior executive education fellow at the Smith School. His panel, “Playing at the Cutting Edge Without Getting Hurt,” was moderated by Smith School professor Oliver Schlake.
Cheridy Bell, group chief operating officer at Merkle, spoke about the need to convert big data into language people can understand. "If you can't communicate in simple language, no one will buy it," she said. Her panel, “Now What? Converting Data into Insights,” was moderated by Smith School professor Wendy W. Moe.
Another panel, moderated by Smith School professor Anil K. Gupta, explored innovation in emerging markets. Panelist Michael Kahn, president of Orbital ATK’s Defense Systems Group, said he sees more opportunities the more he does business with emerging markets.
The event also included a brain warm-up activity, which challenged participants to innovate using just five standard Lego blocks. See the winners and runners-up in six categories on Smith Brain Trust’s Storify page.
Premier-level sponsors for the Smith School Business Summit included Aldi, NewDay USA and Northrop Grumman. Super Terrapin-level sponsors included AT&T and Pepsi.