Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nando Parrado: Survival is a Choice

Nando Parrado blew us away on Wednesday at the World Business Forum. His speech caught most everybody by surprise – amidst talks on leadership and management from some of the world’s brightest luminaries, Nando’s incredible story of survival (as captured in the movie Alive (1993)) and powerful lessons on humanity, put the entire Forum in context.

“I’ve run companies,” he said, with a seasoned levity, “but there are no challenges in business – only issues.” The audience responded with enlightened chuckles. “This,” he continued, referring to his 72 days in the Andes – hungry, freezing, and left for dead – “was a challenge.”

On Friday the 13th, October 1972, a plane - carrying Nando, his rugby team, and loved ones - crashed into the Andes mountains – 14,000 feet high, deep in snow. Nando survived the initial impact – he was in row 9, the last row still attached to the plane. His mom, his sister, and his three best friends were sitting behind him - they did not survive. Over the next 72 days, the survivors rationed food (in one three day period, each survivor had only one chocolate-covered peanut to keep them from starving); they heard on a radio that the search for them had been called off; and they lived through an avalanche that took more lives. Temperatures would reach as low as 35 degrees below zero.

Two months into the 72 day ordeal, Nando could no longer sit still. “I’m not going to die here,” he would say. He knew it would be up to them (really, him) to get out alive. He wanted to summit the mountain they crashed into, in the hopes he would see the green fields of Chile on the other side, and find a path to rescue. He took a friend with him. In three days they reached the top. From the summit, they saw nothing but snow-covered mountain ranges in all directions. His friend cried: “We’re going to die, Nando.” Again, Nando said, “I’m not going to die here.” He then “took the biggest decision of (his) life” – he decided to just walk, walk until he took his last breath in search of rescue. Nando and his friend proceeded to trek 65 miles over 10 days. Nando lost 90 pounds. Finally, they ran into a man near a river, who took them in and helped facilitate the rescue of the others. In all, 29 would die; 16 would survive.

What is it about Nando that drove him to trek 65 miles across the Andes mountains in 10 days, losing 90 pounds along the way, after having already spend two months stranded and starving and freezing, without hope of rescue, hovered in the small space of the fuselage of the crashed plane that his mom, sister, and three best friends perished in? Simply put, what drove Nando to survive?

In a word: commitment. A commitment to survive; a refusal to die. “I’m not dying here,” Nando would say, “Not now.” When others lost hope, he chose to keep going until death or rescue. His fellow survivors have said that it was Nando’s confidence in their survival that kept them alive.

This experience helped Nando understand what was truly important in life – the love of those around him. As he told the audience: Never lose connections. Embrace those around you. Love is the reason for living.

He ended with: “Life is not measured by number of breath you take, but the moments that take your breath away… and those moments are connected to love.”

He walked off stage to a roaring standing ovation – the only one in our two years at the Forum.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Steven Levitt: Find your niche

Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics and celebrated economist, kicked off the second day of the World Business Forum inside New York's Radio City Music Hall. He engaged us with his Malcom-Gladwell style of storytelling (“I want to start by telling you story about a man named John Salvaggio…”) and self-effacing humor (“I’m an irrelevant economist.”). He told entertaining stories that ranged from the IRS to prostitution to convey his key messages – innovative ideas are simple and obvious, admit you don’t know when you don’t know, people in business need to think more, social incentives are usually more effective than financial incentives. But it was his personal story about how he got to where he is today – and the key learning we can all pull from it – that most grabbed us.

Steve had dreamed of becoming an important economist – an economist like Alan Greenspan who could move markets with mere words. But there was one problem – he wasn’t good at math. His high school teacher told him that his AP math score was the lowest of any of her students… ever. (He still doesn’t know how he got into MIT’s graduate economics program, having only taken Math 1A at Harvard as an undergrad). Soon after entering MIT, he knew he was in over his head. He seriously considered a different path.

His father gave him an inspirational talk, Steve said, “for the first and only time” of his life. His father said that when he began his own career as a medical researcher, his boss, a well-renowned doctor in medical research, told him he didn’t have what it takes to be a medical researcher. Then, the renowned doctor advised Steve’s father to focus on an area of research that nobody else was focusing on – intestinal gas (true story). Steve’s father did just that – and became the world’s foremost expert on intestinal gas (when Steve was in high school, GQ featured his father in a two-page spread entitled, much to Steve’s chagrin, “The King of Farts.”).

With that, Steve received the moral of the story from his father: “I have no talent. You have no talent,” to which the audience erupted in laughter. Steve, channeling his father, continued, “If you want to succeed, you’ve got to find topics that are so embarrassing, so undignified,” the crowd roared again, “that other more talented people in your field wouldn’t do it.”

As entertaining as Steve’s story was, it contains a powerful message – to be successful, you’ve got to find your niche. In fact, the message was similar to one of the many insights Jim Collins highlighted the day before. Jim had described the hedgehog concept, the idea that a fulfilling career is one in which you:
* Do what you love (What do you love?)
* Can be the best in the world at it (When you do it, do you feel you are made to do it?)
* Drive our economic engine (Are you useful in a way society values (not necessarily profit)?)

Steve Levitt, while not Alan Greenspan, has become famous for making economics mainstream with accessible language and engaging stories. He’s also a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for. He found his niche, and he’s an incredible success because of it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

World Business Forum: Themes from Day One

Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America, was the breakout star today at the World Business Forum inside New York’s Radio City Music Hall – and she wasn’t even presenting. Jim Collins and David Gergen, independently, called Wendy out as one of the best leaders of a generation. Coming from these two men – Jim Collins, who has researched a combined 6,000 years of history in business leadership, and David Gergen, a witness to four decades of political leadership serving presidents Nixon through Clinton – that’s quite an endorsement.

And that leads us to the first of three main themes of the day:

1. Social enterprise

Jim Collins, former faculty at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and author of classic business books Built to Last and Good to Great, set the tone early in his speech when he asked members of the audience if they were involved in a social organization, a charity, a group outside of work that helped the community. He stressed the importance of being involved. “We have come to believe,” he said of himself and his staff, “that if all we have is great companies, we may have a prosperous nation, but not a great nation.” He continued by implying that what makes a great nation is the success of building society outside of the board room – the need to build and deliver social good, the need for “great K-12 education… and not just for some.”

David Gergen, former advisor to four US presidents and now a CNN analyst and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, made clear his optimism for the next generation of leaders – the Millennial Generation (those born between 1977 and 1998) – the generation of young people who are more concerned with serving their country than any generation since the WWII generation, what Tom Brokaw calls the “Greatest Generation.” And while these Millennials aren’t necessarily as interested in serving in uniform, they are very interested in serving nonetheless in the social and civic sphere. (Bill George, professor at the Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic, shared a similar point with us in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year at the World Economic Forum).

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, in a wonderfully direct interview with Alan Murray of The Wall Street Journal, raved about Waiting for Superman, the new documentary, made by “this Liberal producer” of An Inconvenient Truth, which highlights the plight of public education in the US. Asked by an audience member (a Millennial who used to work in finance and is now a teacher) what he would do to fix the education system, Welch said he would challenge the tenure system, reward teachers on merit, and weed out the weak. He reminded us that in education, students are the product, not the teachers. (The audience applauded).

Overall, the trend toward social enterprise will likely only grow as Millennials come of age and take on more leadership roles.

Which leads us to the second theme of the day:

2. People

Jim Collins, with mounds of business leadership research behind him, said the single-most important skill of a great leader – hands down – is the ability to pick people… and put them in the right seats. In fact, he said that 6 to 7 of a great leader’s top 10 career decisions will be people decisions – or should be.

Jack Welch put it another way: “You gotta hire people smarter than you are.” He also took a shot at the Hewlett-Packard board for not developing leadership within the company (HP has had a recent history of shuffling through one outside CEO after another). He went so far as to say, “The Hewlett-Packard board has committed sins over the last 10 years. They have not done one of the primary jobs of a board, which is to prepare the next generation of leadership.”

David Gergen talked about President Obama’s senior team and suggested the need to include people outside his Chicago inner circle, particularly to add some business “heavyweights” to the team.

Charlene Li, social media expert and co-author of best-selling book Groundswell, framed it in terms of relationships – with employees and customers. She cited companies like Best Buy that understand the true purpose of social media – to create new relationships that didn’t previously exist and to strengthen ones that already did.

People are critical. Our ability to choose and place them will color our own and our company's success.

And if people color our success, then passion drives it, which brings us to the third theme of the day. Not only was it talked about by today’s speakers, but also on display by them:

3. Passion

Jim Collins speaks as if he’s on fire. With big eyes that buldge in moments of excitement and precise body movements that struggle to control a fierce internal fire, Collins cited one of the key traits of a great leader – not just regular ambition, but extreme passionate ambition for the cause (or company), not oneself.

Jack Welch talks with an energetic and snapping wit. He spoke about the importance of "nuts with ideas." In not so many words, he said that passion drives enterpreneurs, and entrepreneurs will drive us out of this economic rut. What logically follows is that passion is the spark of the economy.

Charlene Li speaks with a constant smile and impassioned calm, as she shares how companies can leverage social media. She told a story about a Best Buy employee who responded personally to a tweeted question of hers. The employee was going to be at Charlene's nearby store in a few days and offered to meet Charlene there in person to discuss her product inquiry further. She was blown away by this employee's ownership of her question. That ownership comes from somewhere - passion for the customer.

These speakers are all at the top of their game, and they’re all passionate about what they do. That's not a coincidence.

Come back tomorrow to find out what emerges from the speeches of Steve Levitt, Al Gore, James Cameron and others, as our coverage of the World Business Forum continues.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

World Business Forum: Here We Come!

We are thrilled to be a featured blog of the World Business Forum again this year.

*Impressive is the lineup of speakers: Al Gore, Jack Welch, Jim Collins, David Gergen, and James Cameron, just to name a few.

*Spectacular is the setting: Radio City Music Hall in New York City (See picture at right).

*Relevant are the themes: Leadership, Strategy, Innovation.

Visit us on October 5 and 6 for live coverage. We’ll share insights from luminary leaders and buzzing bloggers.

This year, we will be blogging alongside The Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets. We’ll also be joined by some of the best blogs in cyberspace. A few bloggers I’ve been following since meeting them at last year’s Forum include:

Be sure to check them out.

For a complete list of speakers at this year’s Forum, you can visit the World Business Forum website. As you enter the site, you’ll also get a multi-media flavor for the event.

The World Business Forum never fails to wow. Simply put, it's one of our favorite events of the year.