Lessons for Leaders

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Do you want to be a Millionaire or a Billionaire?

As consultant working with the leaders of large organizations, it is often my role to ponder the leadership of the future. In doing so, it is crucial to closely monitor trends and developments in the world, as the world is changing incredibly fast. Seemingly futuristic developments such as DNA-tests or machine learning have become a reality long before most people had realized they were even a trend to consider. As a leader, it is important to be aware of this speed. It will go even faster, even more fanatic. The question is: are you curious enough as a leader? Do you want to be ready, or will you cease to be fit for the job?

If this trend of fast changes continues, I expect that leaders will need to start worrying soon about whether they will be replaced by young(er) people. As we are slowly transitioning to the ‘world of the future’, leaders will have to become more data-driven and more truly ‘tech-driven’. As a leader, you need to start thinking about this now: how will you develop the competencies that leaders of the future should possess? Because you need to start developing them sooner rather than later. And that’s quite a conundrum.

If I look at what’s currently happening in the world, I would like to challenge all leaders to consider the question: do you want to be a Millionaire or a Billionaire?

The Millionaires of this World

Let’s start with the Millionaires. Who are the current Millionaires? Let’s say that they are the CEO’s of the companies currently mostly focused on satisfying the needs of their shareholders. What occupies the mind of these Millionaires? Each year, the biggest leaders of the world convene at the World Economic Forum (WEF). During this year’s edition of the Forum that took place last January, the central question was: “How to cope with a fractured world?”. If I ponder this question, my insight is that the world is right now much more ‘on fire’ than it was a year ago. Globally, people worry immensely about the economy, partly because it has grown so much over the past time and people are afraid that it will soon have reached its peak and will start to deteriorate again.

Further, cybersecurity is an important concern. We face huge risks on a daily basis when it comes to cybersecurity, for instance because of the danger that extremists could paralyze our systems. This risk deserves top priority in leaders’ minds and deserves attention from all of them.


Combining the worries about the economy and cybersecurity uncovers the third area of concern: a possible uprising from the lower societal classes. This group appears to become much poorer and the gap between this group and higher societal classes seems to increase as well. The risk of reaching the point where ‘enough is enough’ for the lower classes, is thereby increasing as well. This will lead to more and more social unrest and labor unions will demand an increase in wages as well.

Finally, the Millionaires of this world have yet another big concern; a concern that they are becoming aware of iincreasing capacities. I am talking about the concern that the Billionaires of this world will start their hunt on them and that the Billionaires will come to disrupt the systems in which the Millionaires have grown to become the success story that they currently are.

The Billionaires of this World

Who am I talking about then, when I am talking about the Billionaires? There are several companies which have grown excessively over the past years. They have become irreplaceable in the lives of many people, almost completely out of nowhere. I am talking about companies such as Facebook, AirBnB, Netflix, Amazon, Uber, Alibaba, etc. I am intrigued by the leaders of these types of companies: what kind of men are they (because surprisingly enough, there are no female leaders in this group)? How could you explain that they have become Billionaires? What behavior do these Billionaires exhibit? My four most important observations are that Billionaires are completely obsessed by what they do, they think in business models, that are supported by a venture capitalist and they gather and use data in a clever way.

First and foremost, my observation is that these men are often completely obsessed by what they do. To be more specific: Billionaires are often obsessively customer-centric. They completely dive into the world of their customer, they evaluate and map all moments that the client interacts with their company and they then improve this as much as they can. Often, they focus on one specific part of this ‘customer journey’ and make sure that they become extraordinarily good at this. Think about for instance Jack Ma of Alibaba or Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Billionaires truly want to accomplish something valuable and really want to change the lives of their customers.

Second, Billionaires always think in business models. When they discuss the ‘what’ of their company, there are talking about the question: “How can we turn this into a business model and truly get this to work?”. To draw a comparison: Millionaires often focus more on ‘what to manage’ when they talk about the ‘what’. Billionaires more often are entrepreneurs who truly think business-minded, stemming from their obsessive customer centricity.

Moreover, Billionaires are often supported by a venture capitalist: an investor who uses his capital to invest in an innovative, disruptive start-up with a scalable business model. These venture capitalists often impose three things on the companies that they support. First, make sure to gather a strong team around you. Billionaires are trained to always find a team with very skilled people who are better in specific areas than they are themselves. They strive to recruit and retain the real top talents. Second, venture capitalists put pressure on speed: everything always must go faster and faster. The third thing that venture capitalists tell Billionaires is to always keep growing. To always look for possibilities to make their company bigger and better. Venture capitalists as such introduce three trains of thought into these organizations: find the best people, go faster and grow. All with the intention to conquer the world.

Lastly, it strikes me that Billionaires live and breathe the mantra ‘data is everything’. In addition to being obsessively customer-centric, they are obsessively data-driven as well. They have adopted the mindset that they believe in data for 100%, they search for opportunities to clearly leverage the power of data and they gather people around them who know how to work with data, both data scientists as well as data analysts.

The Billionaires versus the Millionaires

So, that is what you will be fighting against as a Millionaire at one point or another: against those types of players. As you can imagine, this results in a huge problem for the Millionaires, as they are by nature not built for something that Billionaires excel at: taking risks, seizing opportunities, thinking without constraints. Many Millionaires are predominantly risk-averse: they avoid taking risks, because they are afraid to lose their proudly earned millions. They have worked incredibly hard to reach the position that they are currently in and logically do not want to risk losing their millions all in once. They stay close to themselves and think ‘let’s cherish the things that we have, because we are not ready yet for the new things’. Retaining and guarding what you have, and not taking too many risks. That is what the Millionaires do.

Billionaires have another big advantage in their battle against the Millionaires: the language they speak is very simple. If you read between the lines, what they actually say is: “I want your time.” “I want your money.” “I want to have data about what you are consuming.” Amazon also says: “I want your health.” If you look at it this way, these Billionaires actually think in a very simple way: “I want everything. I want speed. I want to completely ‘own’ consumers and I want to possess all their data.” I find it fascinating to see that they are able to expand on this train of thought and build their companies around it. They are sometimes even able to fill one business model with another and they are optimizing their ‘ecosystem’: the composition of different areas in which they operate and the different players that they encounter while doing so. In addition, these types of companies are supported by a fund that fosters their growth and happiness as well.

All in all, it becomes more and more difficult over time to decide who you want to include in such an ecosystem. When you are outlining your own ecosystem as a company, you often place yourself in the center. There is, however, another relevant question: where is your company located in ecosystems of other companies? Is your company located in the middle as well, or do you find yourself somewhere on the outskirts? That is important to think about. As a Millionaire, you are always used to being ‘the biggest one out there’, yet after the Billionaires have entered the playing field, you are just one small player in a much larger competitive landscape. This requires different attention. You need to be smarter than before and you need to select the right partners to include in your ecosystem.

Looking at all these elements: this is how the Billionaires win. This is how they conquer the world. This is how the competitive playing field suddenly turns uneven when a Billionaire knocks on its door.  It is of crucial importance that not just the Millionaires of this world, but that all the leaders of this world are aware of the fact that we are dealing with people like Billionaires these days. They are incredibly intriguing players.

Lastly, another complicating factor in the battle against the Billionaires is that they come from different cultures. Earlier on, these players were mainly Americans, whom we as Dutch people could still understand: we speak their language and we share various aspects of the same Western culture with them. Suddenly, however, the Chinese Billionaires have entered the world stage as well. My observation is that the Chinese capitalism is even going ten steps further than the American capitalism. The Chinese are going harder and faster, and they think bigger. They take a perspective of 100 years in the future and they dare to make tough decisions on the short term. These are the Billionaires as well that you need to deal with as a Millionaire.

What Does a Billionaire Do Once He Has Become One?

That is the big question. Basically, a Billionaire generally makes one of two choices: 1. He wants even more, or 2. He wants to be the Messias.


If I look at Amazon, at CEO Jeff Bezos, I think: this Billionaire simply wants more. He wants to rule the world and he will go great lengths to do so. In fact, he is well on his way to achieving this. What does Jeff Bezos do? He is growing fast, he is selecting the very best people and he thinks carefully about everything that he does. The world has become his playing field. By owning all the data of the world, you own the world. It is important to see that these types of players ‘lure you in’ as a consumer, and at one point in time you cannot get out anymore.
This ‘more principle’ can be identified in the behavior of many Billionaires.

This is also the case at Google. Google is data-driven: the company has adopted the mission to make information available in the entire world. They are definitely helping the world with this, but they are also helping themselves: actually, they also want to have this data for themselves. The nice thing in the case of Google is that everyone contributes to creating this hegemony. And we are happy about it as well! In case you are wondering if Google does something with all this information as well: of course they do! Google uses all the information that users provide to build its own systems and to optimize its services.

The second choice that a Billionaire can make is the one of the ‘Messias role’. Those Billionaires are even more interesting than the ones that ‘want everything’. A good example of the ‘Messias-type Billionaire’, is Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba. He told a beautiful story at this year’s World Economic Forum. The story started with all the intelligence and data that people possess and he explained how important this is. After a while, his story shifted, and he focused on the fact that companies need to hire many more women. He explained that his company has about 39% women on the payroll. According to Ma, women understand consumers much better. It is important for companies to also find a place in your company for the softness that women often possess much more than men do. It is very important for the success of your company to consider the complementarity that women can offer in a world in which often more men than women work, Ma explains. He introduces an interesting concept: he believes that there is something much more important than IQ, namely LQ: The Love Quotient. The crucial question here is: how can you transfer real love as a company?

This is where it is becoming truly dangerous. If you have the cleverness and the data, it could be that the success of your company will fade at some point. However, if you connect the cleverness and the data to something spiritual and to love, you have found the golden egg. And that is the start of something dangerous. That is where you touch people’s heads and hearts. This is a very interesting lesson for leaders and for the way in which they give meaning to their leadership: on the one hand you need to have the IQ, but on the other you need to include the LQ as well.

Moreover, it strikes me that – regardless of whether the Billionaire chooses owning everything or he plays the role of Messias – every Billionaire goes fast, fast, fast. They work differently than Millionaires do, because they feel more independent and they are better at collaborating. Millionaires are often still afraid to lose. And if they really must go faster, Millionaires often think: how can I walk faster. Billionaires think differently: they think, how can we go faster together. Because in the long term, the mass will go faster than the individual. An important challenge for a Millionaire who aspires to become a Billionaire is therefore: how can you start thinking in terms of ‘we’, while you also keep going fast, fast, fast?

Finally, when you look at the way in which the companies of Billionaires operate, you see that they are looking at new methods for this. They look for new ways of working that anticipate the exponential growth of digital possibilities. At the moment, the most popular organizational philosophy is ‘agile’, which is based on the principles of lean. Other ones include ‘holocracy’ or the ‘responsive organization’. Billionaires understand that efficiency is no longer the most important criterium to be successful. Agility (the ability to adapt to a changing environment) has become much more important. This requires you to look at a way of organizing your company that differs greatly from the methods that classical business schools have traditionally advocated for.

An important characteristic of these new types of organizations is that they organize their teams around customer journeys or products rather than around functional specialization. Employees have a large degree of self-steering and responsibility in these teams. This allows them to quickly make decisions and adjustments based on new insights. Moreover, these teams often work iteratively (for instance in sprints). They include time for reflection, learning and adjusting after each iteration. For leaders looking to work with these new types of organizations, it is important to realize that this requires a big shift in mindset to be able to do that, both when it comes to constantly experimenting and learning, as well as when it comes to continuously thinking customer-centric.

Conclusion: What Do You Have to Do as a Leader?

After hearing this epistle about the question if you want to be a Millionaire or a Billionaire, the challenge for leaders is to think about the question: how can you hire Billionaires? And I am not talking about the old guard of Billionaires that I discussed here, but the next generation Billionaires that are extremely good at something: data scientists, customer experience experts, really unique talents.

Unique talents aspire more than the B-players do. Unique talents want a different working environment and culture, they do not want to be disciplined by their leaders, they want leaders who facilitate them, they want leaders that help them to make a contribution to the world. If you succeed at doing that as a leader, more and more talent will eventually gather around you. I believe that is the biggest challenge for leaders at the end of the day: you need to surround yourself with unique talents. A data scientist who is extremely good, is about thirty times as good as someone who is ‘just’ good.

This requires real change from leaders: suddenly, you need to start working with unique talents that will just do what you say. You cannot tell these talents: you are not allowed to work from home, you cannot attend another training course, or you cannot hire those five or ten extra talents that you need. As a leader, you need to inspire these unique talents. You need to make sure that these people want to work for you. Hiring a data scientist is easy but hiring a really good one is a whole different story, not to even start about retaining them afterwards.

I think it is an important task for leaders to be aware of the fact that this, now, is the time of new talents. Talents that you do not even understand sometimes, that might even have a completely different look and personality, that have a completely different frame of reference and that want to work at night rather than at day. These types of extraordinary spirits are the ones you need. That is what the Billionaires are doing: they surround themselves with anarchists. They surround themselves with inspiring and special people.

I believe that is what the challenge for leaders will become: will you become a Millionaire who is very good at something in the new world, or will you become a Billionaire who understands: I take big risks, I dare to fail quickly, and I make sure that I am always surrounded by the best people around. That is a mindset that all leaders should go through.

Finally, it always must go faster as well. But faster is sometimes also quieter. Moments of peace and quiet and of reflection are incredibly useful and necessary. If you walk around the office of Facebook, you will think: what are all these people doing here? People are playing volleyball, they are having fun, they are practicing yoga. If you listen to Jack Ma, you will hear him talk about Buddhism. Billionaires perfectly understand that extra quietness can bring extra speed.

I wish all leaders a lot of joy in their journey to the mindset of the Billionaires.

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