Sunday, October 18, 2009

World Business Forum: Lessons Learned

What an experience to blog from the 2009 World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (see official Bloggers Hub in photo at right) to bring you insights from the world's foremost thought-shapers and opinion-makers. From Bill Clinton to Pat Lencioni, from George Lucas to T. Boone Pickens, there was no shortage of unique insight or rich perspective. From their powerful speeches and personal stories emerged four main themes.

1. Fail to succeed. Failure is a must-stop on the road to success. Several of this year's speakers failed at or quit something before finding their path and reaching the heights of their success.
  • T. Boone Pickens quit his job at a petroleum company at 26 years old. He ultimately started his own, shaping not just the oil industry but the concept of "corporate raider."
  • George Lucas was "up to no good" racing cars, before pioneering filmmaking magic.
  • Bill George left a potential (and much coveted) CEO position at Honeywell to run a much smaller (and at the time, much less proven) company in Medtronics. He eventually became a storied corporate executive, Harvard Business professor, and renowned leadership expert.
  • David Rubenstein quit his job as a lawyer in his late 20's without resistance from his bosses. He also failed in the Carter administration where he was responsible for fighting inflation and "got it down to 19%." All before starting one of the world's most successful and influential (if not controversial) private equity firms.
  • Pat Lencioni felt like he failed at Bain & Company for not being a numbers guy. It's that experience which led him to pursue organizational management and become one of the world's leading experts of it.

Failing and quitting - two things we're taught at an early age to avoid - were not only good, but necessary for these industry titans to, in fact, become industry titans.

2. Be human. Aligning what we do to who we are is critical. How we work must better reflect who we are as human beings - more emotion and creativity, less reason and structure.

  • Gary Hamel believes we're in the midst of a revolution in corporate management and leadership because corporations aren't human. They're not as adaptive or creative or engaging as we are, as people. They have to be to survive.
  • Kevin Roberts thinks emotion is actually more important than reason, particularly with customers. Reason leads to conclusion, but emotion leads to action.
  • George Lucas believes art - to be true art - is about emotional connection; It's about telling a story in a meaningful way. The same can be said of business, specifically the thing at its very core: persuasion. There's no such thing as persuasion if not for telling a story in a meaningful way.
  • Pat Lencioni believes that the emotional intelligence of an organization is its true competitive advantage. So many companies focus too much on how "Smart" they are and much too little on how "Healthy" they are.

The challenge here is how: How do we become more human as professionals, as leaders? As Jim Estill put it - he's a blogging colleague from the Forum, former CEO, and current Board member of RIM (the maker of the Blackberry) - "Leadership is messy." We want to know it in rational terms but we can't because it's not. Realizing that is the first step.

3. Challenge short-termism. We all know that taking the long term view trumps the short-term one. In fact, this year's World Business Forum opened with a Hollywood-style short film containing sage advice from proven leaders about taking the long-term view. But how do we do it in today's 24/7 world? It boils down to one thing: Leadership. Specifically, three key ingredients: Courage, Faith, and Commitment.

Take the case of Bill George, whose remarks opened this year's World Business Forum. When he was CEO of Medtronics, he did not shy away from telling his investors that if they were looking for a quick buck, they could invest elsewhere.

  • Courage. He had the courage to take the long-view, sacrificing potential short-term wins for long-term payout.
  • Faith. He had the faith to believe that, in the end, long-termism would win.
  • Commitment. He had the commitment to stick with it, even, when competitors with the short-term view might have appeared to be fairing better than his own company.

Ultimately, Bill's leadership paid off. In 10 years with Medtronics, he took the company's market value from $1B to $60B. It's no wonder his book, True North, about authentic leadership, is a critically acclaimed best-seller.

4. Do One Thing. In a more interconnected world, the little things we do have an even bigger impact. Several headliners at the Forum captured the spirit of this concept.

  • Kevin Roberts started the "Do One Thing" (D.O.T.) campaign at Saatchi & Saatchi where he has challenged employees to commit to doing one thing to positively impact their environment.
  • Jeffrey Sachs called for global scale cooperation for our global scale problems, particularly in finance. Because one thing that a banker in New York City does can collapse entire economies (see Iceland), oversight needs to be broadscale and shared.
  • Bill Clinton spoke at length about "shared costs and shared benefits" in an increasingly interdependent world: "No matter how constrained we are, we all have a role to play." He drove the point home with a story about a young man in Haiti who secured excess sawdust and paper from community businesses to make cooking brickettes. In doing so, he was able to sell them at just 1 cent a piece, down from 5 cents a piece. This young man - in collaboration with others - reduced the cooking bill for many by 80%. In a country where the average income is about $1/day, that makes a huge difference.

In the fabric of this year's World Business Forum lie true success secrets... personally, professionally, and as a global community: Be human. Take the long view. Embrace failure. Do one thing.

If we can do that, we can change the world.

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