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Chris McCann knows a thing or two about flowers and gifts — and about leadership. He’s worked for 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc. for more than 30 years and served as CEO since 2016. Chris helped lead the company as one of the first successful e-commerce sites and a global leader that includes numerous gifting mainstays. His transformational leadership of more than 5,000 employees is based on staying ahead of trends and using algorithms and data to drive success.
As part of the research for my new book, The Future Leader, I interviewed more than 140 CEOs around the world, including Chris. You can learn more and get a copy of the book with all of the insights and research at GetFutureLeaderBook.com. Chris and I had a fascinating discussion about the future of leadership and how all future leaders need to understand and leverage data.
Jacob: What trends do you think are going to impact the future of leadership?
Chris: What we’re seeing today I think is really accelerated change in technology, and technology moving at a faster and faster pace. When I look at what’s happening and how technologies are being adopted, they’re really being adopted at an accelerating rate. This not only enhances the need for, but it drives transparency. And with transparency, comes a different way of leading. A leader is no longer given the benefit of having a table of knowledge that is not widely known and widely shared with others. So they can’t come across with that wonderful wisdom of, “I’m the only one in the room that knows this,” because data is generally transparent. So I think that poses different communication challenge which is wonderful, because I think transparency also fosters more collaboration in any environment, certainly in a work environment.
What people expect of business leaders especially is different than what they expected of business leaders in the last five or 10 years. They want to know what’s the social statement that our business is making? What’s the reason why we exist in society besides the goals of a business of tracking and retaining customers? What is the social benefit? So for us it starts with, and as we look at that we say, well for our impact in the societal framework, it has to be relevant and tangential to our business.
Closely tied to that is the shift in employee loyalty tendencies. What employees are looking for out of their business. It’s the work environment, it’s no longer just what’s the compensation, and what’s my opportunity to advance as an individual. It’s the work environment. Is it a collaborative environment? Is it an environment that’s driven by values? Is it an environment where the company is having an impact on society? So I think those employee loyalty tendencies are changing, and will certainly influence leadership strategies. And that’s I think closely related to just workplace flexibility, and how people are looking at that, and what kind of environment it provides them.
Jacob: How should leaders be thinking over the next decade?
Chris: I think first and foremost, they need to be thinking that they’re in a constant state of change. How is my business being changed, and therefore how do we adapt our business to that change, I think is the most important mindset. That means recognizing that change is taking place and embracing it.
Jacob: What skills do future leaders need to have?
Chris: An algorithmic approach and realizing that you don’t want somebody else to come along with a better algorithm and take part of your business. You have to be applying that approach to your business constantly. How does an algorithmic approach change the processes of how you interact with your customers, your supply chain, and your vendor network? CEOs need to really be data geeks. If it’s not your core skill set, you need to have somebody close on your team whose core skillset it is. Data and the analysis of that data will not only help us keep up with the accelerating pace of change, but will forecast some of the changes we need to make.
Jacob: What do you think the main differences will be between leaders today versus leaders in the next decade?
Chris: I think the main differences are going to be that they’re more driven by data and algorithms and understand an algorithmic approach. They’re going to be masters at communication, both internally and externally. Communication happens through different channels, and they need to be masters of all of those channels. If I go back in time again, in our company understanding when social media really first started taking hold, understanding not only the impact it would have on how we engage with our customers, but the impact on how we would engage with our employees, and how we embraced social communication tools early on in our company. It changes the way leadership communicates with the rest of the team.
Jacob: What do you think a day in the life of a leader is going to look like over the next decade?
Chris: It’s going to start with a morning readout of what’s taking place in the business. Combing through the data, seeing a visual dashboard of the pulse of the business. Fostering the conversation around that, taking care of any internal issues or objectives that need to be met. And then spending the rest of the day externally in the community.
Jacob: What do you think some of the greatest challenges are going to be for leaders over the next decade?
Chris: Understanding the incredible acceleration of technological change and how that’s impacting changes in consumer behavior. We see that constantly in how people adopt new platforms and migrate. I think it’s always important to be on the forefront of change, even though by doing so you’re going to make mistakes and have failures. But the last thing you want to do is have a societal change of consumer behavior and then try to react to it afterwards. You have to really have the mathematical capabilities, and the understanding and utilization of data and analytics.
Jacob: Are there any leaders today who you think illustrate what leaders will be like in the future? Anyone you particularly look up to and admire?
Chris: One I just had the opportunity to spend some time with last week was Dr. Jim Goodnight with SAS. He is now 77 years old and is the founder of the company and has been their only CEO since the beginning. I admire his tremendous approach right off the bat of building the company and really paying attention to the people. One of his great quotes is he recognized early on that he’s in the information business and the creative business. And that 95% of his assets drive out of his driveway every night, so what can he do as a leader of his company to make sure they come back in the morning?
It’s just a novel approach, and his company has always been written up as one of the great places to work, both domestically and on a global basis. So from an employee-focused point of view, as well their impact on society, he’s made it a conscious effort of his company to really focus on education.
Jacob: Internally, are you talking about the future of leadership?
Chris: We’re talking about it, but I think maybe just a little bit differently. I’m still in the early days of learning to be an effective CEO. I’ve been with the company forever, and I’ve ran all aspects of the business. But it is a different challenge being the CEO. So clearly my board is focused on that with me. I work with other external advisors to make sure that I’m developing my leadership skills for the future. And I think it’s important that with our board, we have a good cross section of people, especially a couple of people that are very focused on how technology changes leadership.
Jacob: How do you define leadership?
Chris: To me, leadership starts with responsibility. A responsibility to lead and the responsibility for achieving your business goals and metrics, while at the same time developing and leading the people on your team. If you come away on any given day where you feel you’ve motivated or inspired someone to do more, then you’ve acted as a leader.
Jacob: Do you have any leadership hacks that have worked well for you?
Chris: I learned early on that the best way to lead someone is to try and coach them into leading themselves. It’s always better to ask questions than to give directions. That’s one of my key tenets of leadership. I never want to come across as knowing everything. I think we’re better off if you get people to throw their ideas on the table in a very collaborative manner.
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