Young global leaders: Manager training at the super league level

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For anyone involved in the World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual meeting in Davos is the pinnacle of the year’s activities.

Participants in the forum’s internal executive programme, or Global Leadership Fellows, have been helping to shape the agenda for this year’s event, which is being held this week in the Swiss ski resort.

Afterwards, they will go away for two weeks of academic studies, which may be less frenetic but will be no walk in the park, either.

The programme is all about “creating global leaders of tomorrow”, according to Gilbert Probst, dean of the programme and one of the forum’s managing directors.

It is a demanding three-year course. The fellows dedicate 80 per cent of their time to regular jobs at the forum, including management of its activities, and the remaining 20 per cent to academic training, provided by institutions such as Insead, Columbia Business School and London Business School, along with individual faculty from other schools.

The fellows get a different take on leadership from counterparts on MBA programmes. “Most of them are ‘community managers’ of a region or an initiative [at the WEF], and they learn about leadership there,” says Prof Probst. “But they also need reflection time and the inputs and challenges that come from the professors and trainers.”

LBS is the most recent school to have agreed a partnership with the programme, announcing a three-year deal late last year. Lyn Hoffman, associate dean for global partners, executive MBA and Sloan programmes, says there is “alignment and complementarity” between the two organisations.

“Our overriding goal is to have global impact on businesses, through developing new leaders, and the forum has a similar goal, to have global impact through looking at businesses, governments and society,” she says. “Both organisations have a global perspective, without being rivals.”

And faculty love participating, says Soumitra Dutta, Insead’s professor of information systems and dean of external relations. “The response has been uniformly extremely positive,” he says. “There is not one that hasn’t voluntarily chosen to go back to teach [at the forum] if given the chance.”

In some sense, says Prof Dutta, faculty are challenged by the fellows: “Their quality is very varied but also very high – I would roughly compare it to the top 20 per cent of an MBA class.” And because they interact with global leaders on a daily basis in their regular work at the forum, fellows are also “much more in touch with the latest issues than, say, a regular MBA class”.

Bill Duggan, senior lecturer in discipline in business at Columbia, taught his executive education programme at the forum last year and is looking forward to returning to Switzerland for a repeat performance.

The smaller class size, around 20 compared with 60 at Columbia, is an advantage, he says, as is the greater diversity. “The cohort is pretty diverse at Columbia in terms of their international background, but still half the class is from the US.”

“At the forum it is completely diverse, with each fellow from a different country, which is much better.”

Prof Duggan spent 20 years in international development before becoming an academic in 2001, and was very impressed with the maturity and enthusiasm of the fellows in this field: “They were probably the most sophisticated group in international development I have encountered in one room, ever,” he says. “I’ve been in lots of rooms with so-called experts but these people were very alert.”

The relationship between the WEF and the schools varies but each delivers a certain number of days of teaching.

Ms Hoffman says that, in return, LBS secures invitations to the annual meeting and some of the regional summits, where faculty may moderate panels or take on other roles. “For us to have a presence in a network such as that is important,” she says.

Insead’s Prof Dutta and colleagues have participated at Davos for several years and four years ago he proposed a broader relationship, feeling that the forum was missing out on the benefits of Insead’s resources and research base. This happily coincided with the foundation of the fellows programme.

The relationship now goes beyond teaching, says Prof Dutta, and is a “win for both sides. The forum benefits from new ideas, and we benefit from interesting opportunities for research and interaction for our faculty.”

Prof Probst says the forum has chosen its partner schools for different but complementary reasons.

Insead’s attraction is its prowess in leadership issues and training – it provides coaching for the fellows – while Columbia was chosen more for its expertise in areas such as macro-economics, international relations and geopolitics, and LBS for its strength in entrepreneurship, team leadership, finance and executive training.

The first group of 32 fellows graduated last year, and there are 64 in the next three cohorts – all with at least a masters or doctoral degree and five to seven years of work experience.

The strength of the WEF brand and the unique nature of the programme attracted 2,500 applications last year, but Prof Probst says he plans to keep each cohort at 20 to 30. “We would not take fellows in if there is not an adequate position for them,” he says. “People of this level would not stay if they don’t get an interesting ‘80 per cent’ job, so it depends on growth. The forum has grown strongly over the past five years, and now has 340 employees, 70 of whom are fellows.”

An edited transcript of an interview with three current and graduated fellows from the programme, Lara Birkes, Diana El-Azar and Arturo Franco, is available online at

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