The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language defines smart—as in smart businessperson—as "canny and shrewd in dealings with others." That conjures up a late 19th century robber baron or financier, a J.P. Morgan perhaps, who was always looking to outfox his competitors.
I'm not sure that definition encompasses the qualities that today's "smart" executives possess. To qualify as smart in the e-business era, you must be a visionary. No, you don't have to sit atop a mountain and wait for the clouds to part for a glimpse of the future. You must, however, be apprised of developments on the horizon and try to anticipate their impact on your business, your competitors and your customers.
Being smart today also means you know how to effectively deal with people. E-business is a collaborative enterprise. It involves creative types needed to produce compelling Web design and content; marketing people who have mastered their own discipline and can work in harmony with technical and creative personnel; senior managers who can effect change while retaining the core values of their companies; and techies who are eager to complement their own shortcomings by teaming up with partners when necessary.
E-biz execs must pick the right people for the right roles—people who can interact with one another seamlessly, even though they come from disparate disciplines and espouse differing viewpoints. Surround yourself with the wrong people, or align yourself with the wrong partner, and your company will miss the mark.
You also need to collaborate with suppliers, distributors, customers and even competitors to flourish in a virtual marketplace. Certainly, there's a measure of shrewdness needed to make those alli ances work while protecting your own interests. But you also must understand and appreciate your allies' viewpoints.
The successful company of a decade ago, say a US Steel or General Motors, was a monolith. Its CEOs were primarily concerned with deriving maximum stakeholder value for their own enterprise. That's still true today, but the savvy 21st century CEO also recognizes that his company's success is contingent on the viability of the other companies with which he's allied. E-business has broken down many of the traditional business barriers.
It's also redefined "smart."
Laton McCartney is editor, special projects, of Sm@rt Partner.