16. Learning from the past to prepare for the future of work with seasoned executive and investor Linda Fayne Levinson




Linda Fayne Levinson discusses how business leaders need to start searching for change to prepare for an uncertain future of work. How will people process working from home, moving back into offices, and balancing work and life in a post pandemic world.


Woman with white hair, black striped jacket and red lipstick

Levinson is a seasoned executive, investor and non-executive director of both public and private companies. She is domain agnostic, having worked in multiple industries both consumer and business-to-business. As a board member, she works at both ends of the business spectrum. For legacy companies, she has helped drive transformation of skills, processes, digitization and culture. This has meant refocusing strategies to adapt to new competitors and stave off disruption; becoming customer driven instead of product driven; digitizing processes and accelerating the cadence of decision-making; and on occasion, changing out management. For start-ups, she is often the “adult supervision” helping a company mature which can include building management teams, developing effective processes that will scale, and helping bridge the gap between start ups and their enterprise customers.

Levinson serves on the Jacobs board where she was formerly Lead Independent Director. Previously, she served on the Boards of NCR, former Lead Director and Compensation Chair; Hertz, former Chair of the Board; Western Union and Ingram Micro among others.

Levinson serves on the Boards of the following private companies: AZA Finance, plc, Clearpath Robotics, Knotel, Kount, and PDC Brands



Linda Fayne Levinson: Perhaps where we’ve evolved the most, there’s a huge amount of conversation about talent and people, if you’re not working on something that’s driving the company forward and if every employee can’t figure out how what they do, ultimately, hits the top line or the bottom line, then they’re not focused on the right things. Too many new executives have gone into companies sure that however they did it in their last company is the right way and they don’t take the time to find out what actually is. And they make some really bad mistakes.

Doug Foulkes: Welcome to The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at, you guessed it, the future of work. It’s brought to you by WNDYR for their blog, Chaos and Rocket Fuel. WNDYR are productivity and human behavior specialists who use technology to help us humans on our digital journey from disruption to transformation.

Doug Foulkes: I’m Doug Foulkes, and along with WNDYR CEO, Claire Haidar, we meet up regularly with industry experts and mavericks to get their take on work in the future.

Doug Foulkes: This week, we’re learning from history with seasoned executive and investor Linda Fayne Levinson. Linda serves on the board of both public and private companies. She has experience in consumer and business-to-business (b2b) industries, and lends her expertise to both legacy and startup companies. She has a serious wealth of knowledge and practical experience which we can all learn and benefit from.

Claire Haidar: You have insights into many companies and you’ve also got access to a lot of data. What do you feel are some of the most critical assumptions that companies and business leaders need to be making at present based on the patterns that are emerging?

Linda Fayne Levinson: I think that they have to truly abandon notions that things will go back to whatever “normal” means to any executive. They have to just assume that they will live in a highly volatile world, that the pace of change will continue to accelerate. And so they have to build their structures, their organization, to be very agile, very flexible, to actually search for change instead of trying to keep things the same, which makes for a very challenging environment where you’re also committing to shareholders that you’re going to deliver growth and profitability.

Linda Fayne Levinson: It’s a very challenging time for executives. Once upon a time, a business would have a strategy session once a year and they would set down their three year plan and be quite sure that at least for the first year, not much would change. And maybe even for three years. Now, companies are replanning every three months sometimes. You just have to be very, very open minded to seeing what’s happening in the environment. And there are lots of assertions now people sort of deciding what the future would be like. But I’m not sure we know.

Claire Haidar: You’ve just made a very powerful statement. Business leaders need to actually start searching for change. If you look at what’s happened in the last six months of our lives, from my perspective, very much looking at it through a future of work lens, we’ve pretty much fast forwarded almost through a decade. What I genuinely believed a few short years ago was going to take about 10 years to happen, has happened in the space of about six weeks at the start of this year. What do you think are some of the things that are going to fast track because of this constant change that we’re seeing? Like what are things that are going to emerge that have not really been that obvious?

Linda Fayne Levinson: It’s not clear what the new work environment will be. There are people saying “everyone is going to want to work from home forever.” There are people saying, “no, we need the energy of the office. And anyhow, people don’t want to work from home.” And there are people saying, well, we want to work from home some of the time, but not all of the time. I don’t think people know what the collective future will be. And I actually don’t think individuals really know what they want. They’re enjoying the work from home now. They’re imagining that they’re not going to have to get on a bus or train or in a car to get to work. Are they really going to feel that way six months from now? Someone said, “I never want to go to an office where I spend eight hours and hate all the people there.” On the other hand, are people going to want to look at their bedroom or whatever office at home they stare at, and those are going to be their four walls for ever? Seems a little isolating.

Linda Fayne Levinson: I think there are societal issues in terms of people’s ability to relate to other people, to hold conversations that aren’t asynchronous. I know in some companies I’m involved with, they’re really wrestling with what is in office. What should it be used for? If you’re just sitting at your computer and doing tasks, do you need to be in the office? What are the roles of meetings? Are they as effective when they’re when you’re sitting in front of a screen? Are you paying as much attention as you are if you’re actually sitting in a room making eye contact? One of the things this crisis has shown us is there have been clear winners and clear losers. Some of that is structural. So searching for what other structural changes are likely to impact businesses is really important. But some of it is behavioral. And companies being able to grab on to those opportunities or find the little niches where they are and capitalize on them has been really important.

Linda Fayne Levinson: And then I think the last thing, if you go back to many other crises, they have a very searing effect on the generations that experience them. And so behaviorally, it is not clear how people will process this and what this will mean in terms of how they spend their time, how they spend their money. I think it remains to be seen. You hear about Depression-era behavior or Holocaust behavior or 2008 financial crisis behavior, and each one has had a behavioral impact as well as a financial and economic impact.

Claire Haidar: You serve on the board of multiple startups, including our own, which is an absolute honor. Why have you chosen to dedicate your time to the world in this particular way, now, at this juncture of your life?

Linda Fayne Levinson: I actually love startups. I got into the startup world when—years ago when I joined what was then called GRP Partners. It was a venture firm in Los Angeles. And I got to know, founders, they’re a special breed. I spent much of my life prior to that and certainly since in the big public company world. I learn a lot from founders that I take back to the big company world and vice versa, and at this stage of my life, I believe I really know how to help companies grow and scale. I think it’s important to give back, but I just love it. So this is also selfish. I think it’s great to be around the energy and the optimism and the determination of the startup world and the cadence of it, which is certainly much faster than in the big company world, is very energizing and refreshing.

Claire Haidar: Have you been very deliberate in your choice to defy your generational norm and to keep reinventing yourself over and over?

Linda Fayne Levinson: Yes, I absolutely have. I just don’t believe in staying and doing things when I get tired of them. And I think it’s important to keep reinventing oneself. So that is what I do.

Claire Haidar: Are there certain signals that have become repeat patterns when you know you’re getting tired of something

I’m not sure there are patterns. Certainly when I left McKinsey, I had realized that. All the problems started to look the same. I wanted to do something instead of advise people, clearly I’ve come full circle. I like both of them, but I like to alternate.

Doug Foulkes: You mentioned McKinsey there. What set you off on the consulting path?

Linda Fayne Levinson: When I got out of college, I truly had no idea what I wanted to do. And I had majored in Russian studies and I had a Masters in Russian literature. And so, in that instance, I actually chose the wrong objective function and decided, really, I had to settle for being able to speak Russian. Turned out to be very fortuitous. I went to work for a travel agency that specializes in travel to the Soviet Union, it was the only place in the US where you could get a Visa. That’s how long ago it was. I got to speak Russian. It was a very—being a travel agent—it’s a really tedious job, but I learned it from the ground up very, very effectively.

Linda Fayne Levinson: Fast forward, this doesn’t answer your question, but when I joined McKinsey, the first engagement that they put me on was with American Express, which was obviously a big seller of travel with their new chief executive, Jim Robinson, actually their new executive vice president and a new McKinsey partner, Lou Gerstner, who subsequently went on to be the CEO of IBM. That actually was the most important thing in my McKinsey career. But anyhow, going back to the travel industry, I sort of wandered around the travel industry and I kept not getting promoted. And young men, who were I saw it, not as capable were getting promoted. And I decided I’d go back to school and get what I thought was a union card, which was my MBA. When I got it, I had, while I had been at Harvard, some young women at a program called the Harvard Graduate Program in Business Administration for Women, because in that year, Harvard Business School didn’t accept women. There was a few young women had gone to McKinsey, not on the professional staff because McKinsey didn’t accept women, but as analysts.

Linda Fayne Levinson: And somehow that stayed in my head and I got my MBA, I knew that McKinsey had literally just started hiring women on their professional staff and I decided that’s where I wanted to go. So I ended up in the very first class of women that McKinsey hired. They hired us only in New York. There were about 15 of us, or maybe a few more. It was an interesting time.

Claire Haidar: Linda, there’s so much that I want to dig into there and I’m going to come back to the McKinsey piece. But hang on a minute. We have to Segway back to your childhood. Russian—let’s explore that a little bit. Why Russian? Tell us a little bit about your childhood.

Linda Fayne Levinson: I grew up in Brooklyn when it wasn’t fashionable. It is very fashionable now. My one set of grandparents actually were immigrants from Russia, but they were Jewish. And I suspect that when they came to the US, they spoke Yiddish and not Russian. I only knew them speaking English. So I don’t know. And I grew up in an ordinary middle class family. I had one—I still have—one younger brother. And I went to Barnard College, which is the Women’s College of Columbia University. And that is a classic liberal arts college, which told us we should study whatever we wanted to do because we were there to be well-educated.

Linda Fayne Levinson: I started out as a chemistry major and—

Claire Haidar: Linda, this just keeps getting more and more interesting!

Linda Fayne Levinson: And somewhere along the line, somewhere about just before organic chemistry, I decided that was not the highest and best use of my talents. And I loved literature and I thought Russian was interesting in Russian studies, was really interesting. And so, there I was, having not a clue what I would do with it. And then I went off to Harvard and got a Masters in Russian Literature and studied such really practical things as old church Slavonic. And by the end of that, I was thinking, why am I going to get a PhD since, really, I don’t want to be an academic.

Linda Fayne Levinson: That actually coincided at the end of that year, my dad died unexpectedly at the age of forty five, and so I came back to New York and ended up, as I mentioned, working for this travel agency.

Claire Haidar: My goodness, I love stories like this that just meander in the most interesting ways. You’ve just shared some really frightening and somewhat astounding but not surprising facts about the working world that you entered into. When you started there, when they took in that first group of women, were your eyes set on partner?

Linda Fayne Levinson: Absolutely.

Claire Haidar: So, again, coming back to that intention, you were like, “I’m going to go the full way.”

Linda Fayne Levinson: Yes. I mean, I had gone and gotten the MBA. I had been tired of just sort of floating around and I was determined to do what it took, which meant one: doing more than anyone else. And two: the culture of McKinsey, is you go where the client is, you travel no matter what. So, as part of that, I got married. I joined McKinsey in September, August, September, and I got married in March of the following year. And I said to the then-CEO of Bristol-Myers with whom I was doing this study, I said, “Dick, I’m getting married this weekend, so I won’t be in on Friday. But don’t worry, I’ll be back in the office on Monday.” And that encapsulates the whole story.

Doug Foulkes: Linda, we’ve been talking about sort of the last six months going forward. I’m going to just jump back in time. The workplace—and you did allude to it a little bit earlier—that the workplace that you entered versus the workplace that we occupy today, can you sort of sum up what you think the primary positives are, where we are, and where we’ve evolved the most?

Linda Fayne Levinson: Perhaps where we’ve evolved the most? There’s a huge amount of conversation about talent and people. I hear a huge amount of conversation about how to develop people, how to deal with their engagement, because it’s very expensive to have employee attrition. It’s not good for your customer if your employees are not happy because they will in some way or other tell the customers that this is a horrible place. And so I think that focus on the health and well-being of the talent asset and the awareness that that talent is easily as important and maybe more important than capital is probably a very big difference. I don’t think we’ve solved it. I think a lot of it is still talk track. But I think companies really are trying to figure it out. And I think the younger generations are more vocal about what they want. That’s a big change. We were very well behaved.

Claire Haidar: Major change has never really happened without a significant fight. You know, just going back to Doug and I’s past in South Africa, Mandela really had to fight to bring about the change against apartheid. You’ve watched these people who are so adamantly protesting and there really is validity in what they’re doing. But it’s such a fine line between, you know, taking it too far, but also at the same time making the point that actually eventually leads to change.

Claire Haidar: People right now, specifically with regards to work, are in a holding pattern because, you know, we’re kind of like still trying to scope the environment out. But I think we’re going to see some very interesting “protests” (and I’m putting that in inverted commas) from the work force around what needs to change.

Linda Fayne Levinson: I think you’re absolutely right. By the way, the other big change that happened certainly before this crisis, but has accelerated, is the whole distributed workforce. Your company is a classic example where you have employees all over the world and you never really all came to an office. You started that way. And there are a whole bunch of companies that have started totally distributed. So for digital companies, that may indeed be the future. And it’ll be interesting to see. I think there’ll be case studies of what happens in a fully distributed company that really works and what doesn’t, but the leadership qualities that are required when everything is at a distance, a frequently asynchronous and more honorably … person is very interesting. You know, a CEO who can stand in front of a group of people or talk to them face-to-face, does that make a difference as opposed to a CEO who has those same skills but never sees their employees?

Claire Haidar: And, you know, even smaller nuances than that, because it’s like, you said earlier, there’s like these little interesting microcosms that are popping up like you talking about like these extravagant CEO visits. Even if you just look at the way people are dressing. Retail fashion sales are down significantly, yet sweatpants are up 80 percent.

Linda Fayne Levinson: I walked up Madison Avenue. I was in New York last week. And you have lots of empty storefronts. You have any number of very upscale Madison Avenue shops with stilettos and evening gowns in their windows. And I sort of say, where are they going? And the smart ones have very expensive sweatshirts. Will we want to go back? I mean, I’m getting sort of tired of my torn jeans

Claire Haidar: Because we’ve been a virtual company for four going on five years at this point in time, we don’t in any way mandate a certain dress code or anything like that to our people at all. The only thing like guideline that we put in and request is that when you’re customer facing or external facing in any shape or form, that you look respectable, you know, as if you are in a work environment. But something that I’ve personally done for myself is that I know Tracey, as my co-founder, does the same thing, we actually do make an effort to get dressed for work. Often there are times where we are in meetings and are still in our gym clothes, and that’s OK. But on the whole, we do make an effort to not appear in our pyjamas.

Linda Fayne Levinson: If I am sitting in a room with people at a meeting, I am totally focused. I watch the body language, I watch who gets restless or looks away when a subject they disagree with is being discussed. When I’m on a Zoom call that goes on for three hours or two hours, or sometimes if it’s a big board meeting, five hours, it is really hard to focus in that same way. Half the time that people will put a document on the screen, I have that document on my computer anyhow, but now I can’t see anybody. I will probably check my email or I will go up, get up and put put people on mute and go get a cup of coffee in terms of really paying attention and picking up the important details, I’m not sure that’s happening as well. On the other hand, in the work that you’re overseeing, having tasks done quickly, appropriately, and having the right tasks done is a really important thing. So I think that as opposed to embracing digital as perfect for everything, we really have to segment it and say for people who are working from home, dealing with documents or writing RFPs or figuring out the scope of a project, a lot of that probably can be done work from home. Customers on sales calls, McKinsey would say that customers are saying they like the efficiency of a sales interaction online. And I think that that’s true for both sides in terms of eliminating—making much more time for salespeople because they’re not spending so much time on planes and in cars, etc.

Linda Fayne Levinson: In the life cycle of an enterprise sales transaction, there probably are a few times where being in person really matters to develop a relationship to really focus on what’s needed. And then there are lots of times where the digital work, and I think we need to segment that and not just whole hog embrace one end of the spectrum or the other.

Claire Haidar: Doug, I’m actually going to do something which you and I don’t often do in this call. But I’m actually going to ask you a question. Because you have actually experienced directly what Linda is referencing in that most of the work that you’ve done to date in your production company has actually been in person. I mean, you excel at large sporting events and things like that, and you’ve made this transition to a fully digital, completely remote, fully removed environment. What’s it been like for you to make that transition and moving back into a new norm? Do you see it being a blend or are you wanting to go back to that fully in person at the event type of work?

Doug Foulkes: South Africa had a very strict lockdown—starting to come out of it now. So literally we couldn’t go out of our houses for four months—out of the out of the front gate. So so I couldn’t film. So then that’s basically half of my job that I can’t do. So then you’re reliant on using stock footage or the client creating footage for you, which is obviously really a compromise, or trying to record off Zoom, which you could then use in productions. And it just meant that the whole quality of everything dropped. So what it forced me to do, in fact, was then look at my own offering and reinvent that. So as to say what could I do with my existing clients or new clients that could still add value to what they do but doesn’t rely on me physically being there. So that was really, in my case, looking a little bit more at, maybe, helping companies get a little bit more involved with social media, creating some of their own content. You know, everyone’s a content creator these days. You just have to look at anyone’s photo on their on their mobile or cell phone.

Yeah, it’s almost that helping people lift the quality of what they do themselves, but still offering to do the editing or to be involved in some way. There’s no replacement for a good cameraman who can go out and create that imagery that you want.

Claire Haidar: That word quality is a critical one. The danger that a lot of companies are going to have to work through, how do we maintain our quality at a level of excellence in a distributed way?

Linda Fayne Levinson: I agree. And that actually goes to a much broader issue, which I think lots of companies don’t understand. Every company says they have a strategy and then every company does a lot of stuff, if the strategy is whatever it is A, B, and C, then all that stuff should map to what does it take to accomplish A, what does it take to accomplish B, and what does it take to accomplish C. And all the other things that people think are essential should be secondary. In lots of companies, you will say to employees, our strategy is (and I’m going to make this up), but our strategy is we need to grow and we need to do that by getting new customers and increasing the share of our existing customers. Anything you’re doing that doesn’t focus on one of those two things. Why are you spending the time? Strategy is allocation of resources. It is not what’s put on the paper. It’s how you allocate your capital, your talent, etc. And in what WNDYR and Pattyrn are trying to do, you’re trying to give companies the information to say your people are spending too much time on X, Y, and Z when you’ve told us your strategy is A, B and C. Why are you still doing this? And in fact, in terms of what CEOs need to search for in this new volatile environment is you really have to question why are we doing all the things we’re doing and which ones are no longer relevant. Get to the why, and does it aline to this strategy? If you’re not working on something that’s driving the company forward and if every employee can’t figure out how what they do, ultimately hits the top line or the bottom line, then they’re not focused on the right things.

Doug Foulkes: Here’s my big question: if you’re building a company today or you’re taking over as a leader of an established company, what would you say the first five changes that you would make regarding work, irrespective of the specific context?

Linda Fayne Levinson: Hard to know the changes until I know the situation. The first thing I would do is try and understand what the underlying assumptions are that we’re driving, the business’s strategy, and execution and really see if those underlying assumptions are the correct ones. Because if they’re not, then everyone’s charging in the wrong direction. And that would sort of be sad. I try and really understand what the employees thought about the company, what they thought they were doing and why they were there. And I’d go talk to a lot of customers and find out what they thought, because outside-in is always very insightful, frequently more so than inside-out. And until I knew those things, I’m not sure what I would change. Too many new executives have gone into companies sure that however they did it in their last company is the right way and they don’t take the time to find out what actually is and they make some really bad mistakes.

Claire Haidar: I’d like to end our podcast today with one of your topics that you frequently talk about. Why is governance so important in today’s world of work and why do you take it so seriously?

Linda Fayne Levinson: I take it so seriously because companies that are sloppy in their governance are usually sloppy in the way they run their businesses in things that they think are not governance. It has to do with integrity, ethics, but it also has to do with just being very rigorous in how you assess what is going on, how you communicate what is going on, so that you’re honest with yourself.

Governance is everything from who you hire and how you hire them, how you look at your financials, and how rigorous you are in understanding what really is happening. I mean, there’s been a trend in the corporate world for a long time. People make up metrics because the true financial metrics look ugly. So they say really I mean, go back to the early days of the Internet. Clicks and eyeballs were critical and it was, well, we really don’t have to focus on revenue. Well, really, ultimately you do. And ultimately you have to report on what are the things we’re doing that ultimately drive top line expenses bottom line. The honesty and the clarity with which you both look at your business and communicate your business, both internally and externally, I think is critical.

Claire Haidar: The reason why I wanted to end there is because as I’m watching this new future of work evolve in front of us, I genuinely believe that very, very rigorous governance is going to be one of the defining characteristics that really sets apart the winners from the deuces.

Linda Fayne Levinson: I absolutely agree. If you think about big public companies—which is totally different than where you are—when they are putting together their financials to be reported, there is a process, a disclosure process all the way up and down the line where there is a meeting and their salespeople will say, yes, this really is the pipeline. I’m signing this. Yes, these really are the orders. I’m signing this because, you know, you look at something like the wire card scandal where three billion dollars or two billion just disappeared because it was a subsidiary somewhere in a different part of the world. And I think in terms of a digital. Distributed world, having serious controls so that people can’t hack the data so that what is on that digital screen is also reality and how we prevent fraud is crucial.

Claire Haidar: Linda, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve learned a lot. I think my favorite piece is learning that you had Russian as a subject.

Doug Foulkes: And there you have it, an insightful look at the future of work through your rearview mirror. A big thank you to both Linda Levinson and Claire Haidar for their time today. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast and found a value, please pop back for more top of mind conversations. Just a reminder, for more information about WNDYR and the integration services they supply, you can visit their website. That’s WNDYR.com. And so for me, Doug Foulkes and Chaos and Rocket Fuel, stay safe and we’ll see you soon.

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