Congress is wrapping up it’s anti-trust investigation, and has called the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google to testify. The most important question these CEOs should be asked, however, is “What is your vision for the future?” Will they make a collective dent in our society’s most pressing problems, or merely pursue growth for the sake of growth? Imagine this: an Amazon that uses its capabilities in technology and logistics to reduce want; an Apple that develops wearable medical technology that measurably improves health outcomes; a Facebook that helps people bridge their differences rather than provide them with cognitive and ideological bubbles; and a Google that lives up to its stated goal of democratizing the world’s knowledge are all inspiring. Can they turn those hazy aspirations into actionable and achievable strategies?
On July 27th, the House Judiciary Committee’s year-long anti-trust investigation will culminate with public questioning of Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The CEOs can expect to be grilled about their companies’ alleged monopoly powers and unfair trade practices, but I hope at least one member of the committee will press them on a different (but closely related) set of issues: I want to hear these leaders explain their vision of what their companies could become in the next decade — if they are not broken up — and why Americans should care one way or the other about what happens to them.
By vision, I don’t mean a vision statement — the platitudinous promise to be “the best” or the “biggest” or the “most innovative” company in their fields. All of them spend millions of dollars on advertising, PR, and lobbying; I know what messages and feelings they want their brands to convey. What I want to hear is how they actually think their companies can change peoples lives for the better in the years to come, as concretely as possible. In the best possible future, why will people be glad these companies exist?
My interest in this goes way beyond idle curiosity. As a business strategist, I’ve spent decades helping firms develop the long-term visions and plans they need to successfully navigate disruption. But I’ve never looked into a future that is as potentially disruptive as what is before us today. Thanks to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, our hyper-polarized politics, and our winner-take-all style of capitalism, our system is facing its greatest existential threat since the 1930s.
Until recently, most Americans believed our free enterprise system was the most efficient and productive in the world, and that Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple represented it at its best. Twenty years ago, Steve Jobs’ digital hub strategy, based on his vision of the home computer and the emergence of mobile devices in the next decade, transformed Apple from a niche computer-maker to the world’s most valuable company of any kind, radically changing the way we work and play. Amazon has used its scale to help small businesses reach millions of customers. Google promised us that they wouldn’t be evil, and they brought a world of information to our fingertips; Facebook proposed to bring the world closer together, and, in a lot of ways, it has.
As they grew, most people believed, the whole economic pie expanded as well, spreading opportunity far and wide. But in the last several years, all four companies have lost a lot of that goodwill in the pursuit of sheer scale. Where Americans once celebrated their unstoppable drive to create and build, now many see an unrelenting march to total dominance, and even glimpses of dystopian, anti-competitive power. Amazon controls a third of the cloud business, 44 percent of e-commerce, and a staggering 70 percent of the smart-speaker market. Google controls over 90 percent of search. Facebook has become a conduit for political disinformation and Apple a symbol of conspicuous consumption and ruthless brand protection. As tens of thousands of small and not-so-small businesses face bankruptcy in the wake of the pandemic, all four companies continue to thrive.
Will they be driven over the next 10 years by the relentless pursuit of profit, or will they bring so much new value into the world in the form of advanced technologies, new applications, lower prices, enhanced productivity, and expanded potential, that people everywhere will count themselves as better off? Will they make a collective dent in our society’s most pressing problems, or merely pursue growth for the sake of growth?
Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook’s combined valuations are around $5.5 trillion and their leaders are among the richest people in the world. None of them needs more money, but America desperately needs all the resources, talent, ingenuity, and cash they can muster—provided that, in the words of the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, they’re harnessed to the task of serving not just their companies’ senior executives and investors, but all of their stakeholders: their customers, workers, and suppliers, and the countries and communities in which they work.
No one can predict the future, but the leaders of great companies can change it for the better by the choices they make and the investments they pursue, both within their core businesses and with their more venturesome moonshots. They can use their outsized resources to invent a world that is more sustainable, more equitable, and healthier than the one we live in today. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea, it’s in their own self-interest to do so. As corporations as diverse as Siemens, Unilever, and Tencent have proved in recent years, the more purpose-driven and socially responsible their aspirations, the more inspired their people, and hence the greater the results they can deliver.
Growth is not just about scale; value is not only about dollars. There is much that organizations can do to ensure a better future for generations to come, and they must continually change, regenerate, and grow in capability and focus. Whether their leaders are their entrepreneurial founders, like Bezos and Zuckerberg, or professional managers, like Cook and Pichal, they must adopt a longer view than their next quarterly earnings statement — and set goals that are tangible enough to grab hold of and bold enough to inspire. Jeff Bezos gave a speech a year or so ago in which he shared his grand vision of space colonies housing up to a trillion people. That’s not what we’re talking about. Imagine this: an Amazon that uses its capabilities in technology and logistics to reduce want on the planet we live on right now; an Apple that develops wearable medical technology that measurably improves health outcomes; a Facebook that helps people bridge their differences rather than provide them with cognitive and ideological bubbles; and a Google that lives up to its stated goal of democratizing the world’s knowledge. Can they turn those hazy aspirations into actionable and achievable strategies?
The jury is still out on what Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google can become. Do their leaders have the vision to imagine a better world for all of us, and the will and the wherewithal to work from the future back to bring it into being? Or are they content to merely push out from the present forward, opportunistically adding products and services to protect their existing advantages? I hope their visions are big and bold and achievable. Because whether they pursue them or someone else does, we could all use a powerful dose of hope.