a16z Podcast

Systems Leadership for Disruptors and Incumbents

Robert Siegel, Jeffrey Immelt, Jeff Jordan, and Sonal Chokshi

Posted July 23, 2021

There’s been a false dichotomy in technology and management lore over the past decade, between “brain” and “brawn”, digital and physical, independence and interdependence, software culture versus industrial culture… or so observes Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer, former big-company executive, and startup founder Robert Siegel in his new book, The Brains and Brawn Company: How leading organizations blend the best of digital and physical.

Whether you’re an early startup or a Fortune 500 company, we live in an increasingly complex world — which means embracing digitization is not enough. But logistics, supply chains, and infrastructure are messy, ugly, and hard. So today’s leaders have to think completely differently, in terms of ecosystems; and they’re often in the position of having to influence but not have control. So when and how do they assert power in an ecosystem? When do they try to shape it? When do they sit back? What to do if their channel partner suddenly changes? When do you want to stay frenemies and when do you wanna be enemies? These are just some of the hard questions companies today have to wrestle with… All boiling down to when and where to partner, when to go it alone?

So in this hallway-style discussion among Siegel and fellow Stanford b-school lecturers Jeffrey Immelt (former CEO of GE) and a16z general partner Jeff Jordan — in conversation with host Sonal Chokshi — the group wrestles with these questions, spinning through several different company examples such as Instacart and Stripe to Apple and Android/Google to Disney, Peloton, and others. But we talk too much about the outliers; we need to also talk more about the tools, and mindsets, that leaders of all kinds — not just the once-in-a-generation leaders! — can use. After all, argues Siegel, “Incumbents are not doomed and disruptors are not ordained.”