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.

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