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G100 Network Notebook | January 2016

Chief Beta Tester

That characterizes Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ active participation in a digital transformation positioning the publication to be “the new newspaper of record,” says a front-page Wall Street Journal story. The Amazon CEO’s push for customer focus, experimentation, and building scale seems to be working. Steep gains in web traffic show the paper bypassing The New York Times and closing in on BuzzFeed:

At the heart of the newsroom hangs a towering data analytics board detailing the patterns of Web traffic—a sight common at new digital media companies, but less so at most legacy outlets. Analytics dashboards will soon be added to reporters’ computers, and traffic figures will eventually be looked at as part of performance reviews, editor-in-chief Marty Baron said.

Foreign Policy and Improvisation

Words that rarely go together, unless it refers to US strategy in Syria, according to former Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel. In the first interview since his unceremonious exit, the two-time Purple Heart recipient offers a stunning – and controversial – account of his tenure. Hagel reveals, for example, how “politically motivated micromanagement” by the White House caused indecision on critical issues, from enforcing our red line on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to defending US-backed rebels from Assad attacks. With no resolution on the latter question, Hagel improvised an answer during a Congressional hearing, says an exclusive from Foreign Policy magazine:

I said what I felt we had to say. I couldn’t say, “No” [to defending US-backed rebels]. Christ, every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East.

Unlocking the Market Value of Leadership

Leadership now accounts for about 30% of investment decisions, yet investors lack the tools needed to measure leadership quality, finds research from University of Michigan business professor Dave Ulrich. His new book, The Leadership Capital Index, helps fill this void with an innovative method to evaluate leadership that offers investors, HR, and business leaders greater insight on valuation and managing risk. He explains in this brief video:

Boards of directors and senior leaders in the c-Suite should be assessing leadership capital. HR professionals and consultants should be advising on leadership capital that investors will value.

The Geopolitics of Cheap Oil

Record low oil prices unseen since 2003 will not last, reasons Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, who expects the price to eventually stabilize with Saudi production cuts. In the meantime, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping ranks as the biggest benefactor because low oil prices afford him more time to implement economic and political reforms. From an expert take on the winners and losers of cheap oil:

Xi can increase tariffs and pull back government credit lines on major strategic state players without undermining their comparative profitability. On the consumer side, he needn’t pass on the entirety of the economic benefits of cheaper oil to citizens—he can constrain the price reduction somewhat, channeling the difference into increased energy efficiency and efforts to combat air pollution.

Did 2015 Mark Peak M&A?

Perhaps not, argue major dealmakers bullish 2016 may break last year’s record of $4.59 trillion in mergers and acquisitions. It is not all good news. Private equity buyouts fared less well, totaling $300 billion last year, half the amount in 2007. The Financial Times adds:

This may change next year, but not dramatically, according to Steve Baronoff, chairman of global M&A at Bank of America. Lazard CEO Kenneth Jacobs says: “The last cycle, toward the end, was skewed toward financial sponsor activity. When the financing environment dried up and valuations became too rich, it ended.”

How does private equity evaluate investments? That is the subject of forthcoming research based on a survey of 79 firms that collectively manage over $750 billion in assets. Preliminary findings in this chart show the metrics and strategies of private equity do not always comport with conventional wisdom.

How Bitcoin Failed

The decentralized, peer-to-peer cryptocurrency aims to make transactions more seamless, private, and inexpensive. Much of that promise remains in doubt after a well-regarded Bitcoin developer cashed out and declared it a failed experiment. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, explains why he agrees, for the most part, placing primary blame on “pure greed” among “some venture capital zealots.” From his Washington Post op-ed:

The Bitcoin system has deteriorated into a fight between interested parties over a pool of money. In the beginning, Bitcoin was a noble experiment. Now, it is a distraction. It’s time to build more rational, transparent, robust, accountable systems of governance to pave the way to a more prosperous future for everyone.

True to form, Marc Andreessen wasted no time tweeting a line-by-line rebuttal from the operations lead at OpenBaazar, a marketplace designed for Bitcoin.

More people are using Bitcoin now than they were last year, and more than the year before, etc. These growing pains are where the divisions in the community are coming from. It’s hardly compelling to be claiming that “Bitcoin is a failure because it’s grown large enough that decisions aren’t made easily anymore.”

Top CEO Roles for 2016

Faced with mounting complexity from the need to balance multiple stakeholders, CEOs today must exhibit a wider range of expertise, says our friend Stephen Miles at The Miles Group. His synthesis of the most relevant CEO functions illustrates how the demands of the top job continue to evolve. An excerpt:

The world demands a CEO who is always looking outside and bringing new insight and ideas back into the company – and challenging everything the company is doing every day. Many of the most successful companies that ultimately run into problems are inwardly focused; this starts with the CEO and becomes a model for the culture as well.

A Founder’s Thoughts on MLK

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield sent an inspiring memo to staff recently. In it, he explains how closing the business to observe Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday relates to company values, such as solidarity, because the struggle for civil rights continues today in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. This deserves time to “recognize, remember, and recommit” to King’s legacy, says Butterfield. An interesting fact:

Only about a third of private businesses make it a paid holiday, while several states mix the observance of Dr. King’s birthday with that of the confederate general Robert E. Lee.