Can a CEO Get Away With Just a Smartphone?

Can a leader pull off his or her job without a laptop or even a tablet in tow? In one prominent case, the answer is yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is yes for you—and it probably isn’t for your staff.

Right now might be one of the most interesting times in the world of laptops and hybrids, with Microsoft’s Surface line quickly turning into an MVP for many offices, Apple expected to make improvements to its MacBook and iPad line in the coming weeks, and even Google coming out with some heat in recent days.

And that’s to say nothing of tech manufacturers like Dell, HP, and Lenovo, which are making pretty great machines at the moment. There are lots of good options for laptops in 2018 (even from lower-profile brands like Huawei), and you can even score one with battery life in the tens of hours or a 4K screen.

A laptop, hybrid, or high-end tablet is an essential tool for many executives, but what if I were to tell you that one of the most high-profile, modern-tech CEOs, a man in charge of not one but two public companies, doesn’t use a laptop or tablet at all?

Square and Twitter head Jack Dorsey, fittingly, made the revelation known on Twitter last week, after Quartz reporter Dave Gershgorn asked about the laptop, and Adweek reporter Marty Swant followed up to ask about the tablet. The questions came up after Dorsey announced the departure of Square’s CFO, Sarah Friar, on Twitter using a series of screenshots from his iPhone.

It wasn’t the first time he made his laptop-free workflow known, but the point has only occasionally gained notice. In May, he explained that his reason for doing so was about time management. He doesn’t type on a keyboard; he uses voice-dictation tools to handle most of his writing, and importantly, he turns off all of his notifications.

Dorsey argues that laptops hit you with more of these notifications, and that consumes more of your time. As he’s the CEO of two companies, he has limited room for any distractions.

“I think anything can consume all of your time, but definitely the devices we have just have so much on them, so much interestingness, and you can certainly go down a hole,” he said, according to Mashable. “So I’ve developed a lot of personal practices: I don’t check my phone in the morning until I’m about to walk into work and when I’m working on my phone I turn off notifications so I’m not constantly reacting to what’s coming at me.”

As a guy who lives and breathes tech, I think this story is interesting. I also worry that leaders who only begrudgingly embraced tech in the first place will take the wrong lessons from it. Soooo, with that in mind, let me offer some caveats to bosses looking to pull a Dorsey:

What works for the boss doesn’t always work for the rank and file. I think a real risk for leaders is trying to winnow their own work style or worldview down while failing to understand the way everyone else works. It can hint at a broader divide between what sounds good and what’s realistic, something highlighted by, of all things, a recent debate in the world of religion. Recently, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received criticism for encouraging women in the church to take a 10-day “fast” from social media, despite the fact that many have jobs that require them to use it (and despite the fact that he didn’t ask the same of men in the church). The call, while intended as an invitation rather than a requirement (and certainly something that meant well), had all sorts of ripple effects—on political campaigns, on people’s businesses, even on the release of a high-profile film in the community. In the secular world, I could see a similar kind of call made by a leader who isn’t in the tech trenches—perhaps by pushing away from tech-based solutions when possible. But not everyone works the same way. I think about my own habits: I’ve tried working a tablet into my routine in the past, but after a few tries, I’ve ultimately found myself back on a laptop again. There needs to be room for flexibility in how both you and your staff work.

Consider the infrastructure. The reason that Twitter and Square can be managed by a plugged-in guy with a smartphone is because both companies have infrastructure that supports some employees delegating through their phones. If your email server frequently goes down or your technology is built around an outdated paradigm, Godspeed—you’ve got a tough time ahead. It’s the same equation that allows for virtual work: If your enterprise can support it, it’s possible, but you have to put the legwork in.

Consider your own work style. It’s one thing to hear that a tech-forward CEO can pull this off. But in a way, it’s Dorsey’s knowledge of what the tech can do that enables his light touch when it comes to gadgets. After all, he built it. He’s not like the tech-phobic leader of yore; he minimizes his use of tech because he knows its weaknesses, along with its strengths. If you don’t have a handle on that knowledge, you might find switching tactics a real challenge. On top of that, if your muscle memory is already designed around a laptop, you might just find yourself extremely limited by the Dorsey approach.

To be clear, I don’t think Jack Dorsey is an exceptional case here (well, not for this, at least; he does lead two public companies). I can see CEOs embracing tech in a thoughtful way like this.

But it has to make sense—and it can’t come at the cost of your work, or your staff.

Jack Dorsey doesn't need a tablet or a laptop. (Mike Bloomberg/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!