I arrived at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos with a great sense of expectation. This year’s summit – under the banner “The great transformation: shaping new models” – was the first in the wake of some major upheavals in the business and political worlds: the Arab spring, the eurozone crisis and the awakening of Africa. Here, in the beautiful Swiss ski resort, some of the world’s most influential people gather to discuss the big issues. So I wondered if I would hear the first answers to the big questions: that the spring would turn to summer; that the major European leaders would find a way through their currency troubles; that Africa, so long dismissed as a basket case, would be recognised as a fast emerging market.
My reaction so far? The discussions – in the formal halls and in the corridors — have been buzzy, thought provoking, and focused. I get the sense that, after so much talk over recent years, senior leaders are feeling that it’s time for action – and soon. Key themes come up time and time again: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, job creation, volatility, the talent gap, income disparity, innovation and technology and the connected world are just a few of the buzz words on the lips of delegates.
There is a feeling that we really cannot afford to return to the status quo. Great ideas are all very well, but bold steps to put these ideas into practice are critical. We face a once-in-a-generation test of leadership. In essence, it is “take control and transform or lose control and be transformed”.
It’s happened before. As one high-profile chief executive said, there are not many companies around today that were in the Fortune 50 in the 1950s. Those that are, have changed – and they are changing once more. But this is not easy to do. As several people have made clear, leaders face a web of competing priorities. For instance, in a debate on “The Global Business Context”, we heard how business leaders are frustrated by an apparent contradiction: on the one hand, facing the challenge of creating jobs to overcome the looming threat of a lost generation, and on the other hand, facing a barrage of regulation and anti-entrepreneur comment that arguably prohibits the job creators.
Along similar lines, another panellist reinforced the point that it is no longer sufficient to deliver a good product at the right price – now, corporate social responsibility must be considered a pre-requisite. But the paradox – as John Chambers, the chairman of Cisco, the technology company, rightly pointed out – is that companies do not want to be seen to be “bragging” about what they are doing in terms of societal contribution. This reminds us that action may not always be self evident but this does not mean it is not happening.
The World Economic Forum’s decision to impose a minimum quota for female attendees is certainly setting a good example in terms of challenging the status quo, but let’s not put too much emphasis on quantity here. When we look at the women in attendance at this year’s event it’s an impressive roster. This year’s key note speaker, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is emblematic of the contribution women are making to this year’s meeting. I have been lucky enough to rub shoulders with some very inspirational women this year. For example, I had the opportunity to talk to Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee. She was awarded the prize in 2011 for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work in Liberia. Listening to her talk about her own experiences of effecting change put the issues that the developing world has to contend with in stark contrast. If anything motivates boldness in tackling the challenges in the context of business and economics hearing about the extremely difficult situations that are all too prevalent in many parts of the world certainly does.
The airline industry has built planes for 1bn consumers but there are 6bn more in the world that it is just beginning to serve. An interesting thought from Tom Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, which neatly summarises the context of this year’s meeting. Large parts of the world are awakening – economically and politically – which reminds us we all need to take bold steps to ensure that the opportunity is not lost to turn great expectations into great transformation and for our action to meet our ambition. What’s more, engagement of the other half of the world in this process is critical. If women are not part of the solution, there will be no great transformation.
Miki Tsusaka is senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group
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