Tim Leberecht is a German-American author and the co-founder and co-CEO of The Business Romantic Society, a strategy firm that helps leaders and organizations foster their humanity to thrive in an age of machines. His book, The Business Romantic (HarperCollins, 2015) has been translated into nine languages . He is a frequent speaker and his most recent TED talk has been viewed by more than 1.5 million people.
Previously, Leberecht served as the CMO of NBBJ, a global design and architecture firm. From 2006 to 2013, he was the CMO of the product design and innovation consultancy Frog Design. Leberecht served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values and also recently contributed to its Renew Europe initiative. He is the co-founder and co-curator of the dinner series 15 Toasts and the House of Beautiful Business. Leberecht recently agreed to speak to The Innovator about how businesses can reinvent themselves, find their purpose and create a culture that will allow them to succeed in the age of automation.
Q: So how do you build a human company in the age AI?
TL: We’re witnessing the massive automation of work and the rise of digital labor. As many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation by 2030, a recent McKinsey study estimated; in the U.S. alone this may affect one third of the workforce. We are now at a level of sophistication that really threatens to do away with a significant number of human professions. It is no longer just the seemingly menial jobs of factory workers but also professions that involve creativity and decision-making, including ethical decisions. We are really at an inflection point. Our standard response so far has been to compete with the machines and apply efficiency as the dominant paradigm for our own behavior in business and even our personal lives. The thing is: machines are getting better and better at performing tasks that are linear-thought driven, and they do so more efficiently than we humans are able to. What we need to nurture instead are inherently human qualities: imagination, intuition, a predilection for ambiguity and, as [Alibaba’s] Jack Ma said in Davos, love and empathy. Let’s do our work beautifully, not just efficiently. Soft skills are the new hard skills. Social and artistic intelligence will become ever more important and give us agency, This will profoundly change how we educate and train the business leaders of today and tomorrow.
Q: What does it mean exactly to interject romance into business?
TL: First of all, the romantic knows the value of the invisible. In times of Trumpism and winner-takes-all market societies romance has a subversive quality, which is why I find this concept so timely and relevant again. And it comes with concrete business benefits: I would make the case that the intense feelings we experience in love — mystery, intimacy, vulnerability, even the loss of control — are crucibles of our work and customer relationships. Such romantic qualities are important in business because they are the ultimate differentiators in a culture that is designed to maximize and optimize. They give us permission to bring our full selves to work and help us create products, services, and brands that our customers truly love, far beyond a merely benefit-driven relationship.This means we need to change how we reward performance, by introducing holistic measurements, not just purely financial goals. It means creating space for the full range of human emotion, for fluid, deep, and wide identities that do not just reduce us to data sets. And it means aligning a bold, idealistic vision with micro-interactions that bring it to life every day for employees and customers alike.
Q: How does this impact the way companies treat their customers?
TL: We are social animals. We all crave human contact and are delighted if people do something that surpasses expectations such as a random act of kindness. When this happens, we feel very human and alive. There is an opportunity for companies to do this in their customer service, as opposed to focusing on efficiency and mere convenience. It is not just about the destination, we want the journey. Skin care firm Aesop, for example, understands the aesthetic excellence of its brand as a moral obligation. Online retailer Zappos rewards its call center employees for how long they stay on the phone with a customer. Another example is the Dutch care giver organization Buurtzorg. It eliminated all manager roles and hierarchy. Instead it assembled small teams of caregivers and encouraged them to do what they thought was in the best interest of their patients. As a result the company has very high customer retention and the cost per customer has actually decreased. This is because the decisions were not only based on lean data but on the rich intuition of the people in the field who had a close relationship with the patients. Human businesses create moments of beauty and intimacy in everything they do.
Q: What advice do you have for big corporates?
TL: It doesn’t matter whether you are an automotive manufacturer, a bank, or big pharma. We are now at the point where no one has any answers. Everybody is confused and in transition, even the once invincible Silicon Valley giants. Now is the time to redesign your business. So be the boldest version of yourself and open yourself up to new ideas. Listen to people with different perspectives and challenge your own thinking. Have activists and artists meet with managers and techies. This is especially important in light of the recent revelations and betrayals of consumer trust: from Uber to Theranos to Facebook. There is a big disenchantment with business. It doesn’t matter whether some of it may be overblown. You must take people’s feeling seriously and not just respond with facts and figures. Respond emotionally. Revisit your values and do not just put them on the wall — apply them in the way you code your software, how you treat each other and your customers. Start with incremental hacks, little modifications that make a difference. Launch a dinner series where different voices have an opportunity to be heard, play with alternative meeting formats, experiment with AI and set things in motion without knowing where they will lead. Always study the data. But also retain the courage to act against it. Ask yourself every day: how can I run my business successfully and beautifully?