Leading through disruption requires ‘the gene for change’

Lila Snyder became the CEO of Bose in September 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still very much affecting people’s lives. Undeterred by disruptions, she launched a corporate transformation to focus the consumer electronics manufacturer on creating distinctive audio products and experiences that would address customers’ needs. In a recent conversation with McKinsey chief client officer and senior partner Liz Hilton Segel, Snyder outlines the institutional capabilities that are helping the company adapt in a changing market, how she built a leadership team that is ready to embrace change, and the AI-driven technology that’s taking the company in new directions. The following is an edited transcript of their discussion.

McKinsey: Lila, tell us a bit about the journey you’ve been on to change where Bose is going.

Lila Snyder: It’s been an exciting couple of years. I joined right at that point in the pandemic when we all thought we were about at the finish line and were going back to the office soon. I did most of that first year by Zoom and Microsoft Teams, working remotely. But we spent a lot of time thinking about our long-range vision and refocusing the company on the things that matter most to our customers and what we think we’re best at.

McKinsey: What are some of the changes that you’ve implemented over the past three years?

Lila Snyder: What matters most for us is launching products that we’re proud of, so we’ve refocused our energies on areas where we think Bose is distinctive. We talk at Bose about our three technology franchises. The first is noise removal—the ability to have the kind of immersive quiet that’s so important, whether you’re trying to focus on something or listening to your favorite music.

Second, immersive, lifelike audio is super important to what we do. We’re always thinking about ways to innovate the experiences that we create for our customers while staying true to how the artist intended that music or that content to be delivered.

And the third area is something new that we call “hear what you want,” which is AI driven. It’s the marriage between noise cancellation and noise removal, allowing in the sounds that you want to hear—because we don’t always want blissful silence. Sometimes, we want to be able to hear the emergency vehicle on the street as we’re walking, or our kids shouting in the other room. Using AI, we’re starting to make progress in allowing customers to pick out the sounds they want to hear.

McKinsey: We often talk to clients about the idea of building superpowers—one or two capabilities that differentiate them from competitors or address changes in the marketplace. How are you thinking about building capabilities at Bose that can become such superpowers?

Lila Snyder: We actually use that word, “superpower,” and we talk about sound as our superpower. The reason why that’s so important is that we have amazing competitors, but we are one of the only companies that’s focused solely on sound. For us, sound is not an accessory or something we do on the side. It’s everything we do. This mindset allows us to understand the nuances of what customers want and how they feel about the devices that help them connect to sound. That’s where we find the differentiating space for Bose.

McKinsey: Bose has a long history as a hardware company, but you saw an opportunity to do more on the software side. What role does software play in enabling you to lead in sound?

Lila Snyder: We talk about experiences now, not just products. All of us as consumers think not just about what the hardware is doing or what the software is doing but about having a seamless experience. For us, the hardware piece comes naturally; we’ve been doing that for decades. The software piece is newer, and as we marry those two, it gives us the ability to create distinctive experiences. And that integration is tricky, right? The way you develop software is different from the way you develop hardware, and how you line up those processes is a key to success. There’s more work to do, but the software capabilities are unlocking a lot of exciting customer opportunities.

McKinsey: I know you have thought a lot about how to build effective teams. How have you approached it at Bose?

Lila Snyder: It’s one of my favorite parts of the job. If you have the right team, with a diversity of thought and the right passion and capabilities, everything else will fall into place. My team has a mix of diverse backgrounds, capabilities, skill sets, and experiences. A good portion have been at Bose for 20 years or more, and some have come from the outside.

We’re in the middle of a transformation at Bose, so our team leans toward people who thrive on change. Transformations are hard, and you need people who have a level of grit and resiliency beyond what you might need to run a business in a steady state. I looked for people with the gene for change and a desire for change to be a key element of what they do. And once everybody was in place, we spent a lot of time on team building. People underestimate how much time it takes outside of the day-to-day work to build the trust and candor necessary to get through difficult things. We’ve invested a lot of our time in building that trust. And it’s not something you do just once; it’s a continuous process as new members come in and others leave and as times change.

McKinsey: I love that expression, “the gene for change.” You talked about grit and resilience. Is there also a need for intellectual agility or the willingness to think about decisions from a new perspective as market conditions change?

Lila Snyder: In some ways, that’s the gene for change—you’re constantly looking at how the market is changing. We’re in a market with some fast-paced, successful competitors and we’re a fraction of their size, so the ability to look around and pivot quickly is so important. Between the pandemic, the supply chain crisis, the war in Ukraine, there are so many things coming at us. It requires every leader to be agile and to be able to pivot when the times and the market change.

McKinsey: As you mention, we’ve all had to deal with lots of disruptions recently. What do you think are the most important CEO skills for leading through an era of disruption?

Lila Snyder: A steady hand is important. You can’t get too high or too low. When challenges come, the company is looking to see how you react. If you’re panicked, that will create chaos in the organization, so the ability to take that in and say, “We’ve dealt with other things before, we’ll deal with this,” is incredibly important for a leader.

At Bose, we often talk about how the CEO is at the center, and the organization is at the end, and the more emotion you create centrally, the more that will feed into the field. The leader needs to take each thing in turn, recognize you’ve got a team that can handle the challenge, and just get to work figuring out how you will deal with it.

McKinsey: I want to talk about what it means to be a role model as a woman CEO. Any messages you would like to convey to the next generation of women who are eager to become corporate CEOs?

Lila Snyder: The great news is that there are more and more women CEOs every day. I certainly don’t feel like a pioneer or alone. I tend to focus on two things. One is being authentic. For many women, and certainly for me as I was growing in my career, seeing other women talk about how they make it work and being themselves is a huge part of how you figure out your own leadership style. I talk about the challenges at home. I talk about the fact that I have kids. I try to make sure people understand that every leader at every level is the same as everyone else. We all have a life that we’re trying to manage. I think that authenticity comes through in the way that you lead, and people appreciate that you have empathy for what they’re going through.

For people who want to get far in their careers, there’s nothing more important than taking risks every single day that make you uncomfortable.

The other piece of advice I always give is to take risks. I tell everyone—women and men—that the only way you can grow is by pushing yourself to do things that you don’t already know how to do. Put yourself out there and take on opportunities that you don’t feel ready for. Sometimes, someone else pushes you into those, and sometimes you need to raise your hand and step forward. Taking those risks is how you fail, how you learn, and how you develop new capabilities. And in a finite career, the faster you can develop yourself and your skills, the farther you’ll go. For people who want to get far in their careers, there’s nothing more important than taking risks every single day that make you uncomfortable. I still try to do that.

McKinsey: Tell us about a risk or two that you’ve taken that was meaningful to you.

Lila Snyder: Certainly, taking this job was a risk. CEOs bear responsibility for everything that happens in the company, and stepping into this role was scary and uncomfortable. I was joining Bose from outside. At that time, very few senior executives had come from outside. Bose very much had a culture of growing its own leaders. I was nervous about being a new CEO in a situation where there could have been organ rejection. There are small risks, too, like taking on opportunities to speak at conferences. I recently spoke at MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s] graduation, which was hugely scary but a great opportunity.

McKinsey: What are your daily rituals?

Lila Snyder: Practically speaking, the one daily ritual I am committed to is reviewing the sales report. It’s probably the first thing I look at on my phone every morning. I’m always looking to see how we’re doing against our targets.

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