From Davos: 3 Lessons in Purpose

The snowy summit focuses on how to move beyond short-term results.

This week’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, comes amid one of the strongest global economic growth cycles in recent memory. At the same time, there are rising tensions in both the public and private sector around globalization, the environment, and economic and social inequality, among other issues. This duality is reflected in the summit’s title, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”

“There is a much greater awareness among leaders than ever before that solving the complex and unique challenges of the future requires harnessing 100% of the world’s potential,” says Jane Stevenson, Korn Ferry’s vice chairman of Board and CEO Services. Adds Janet Feldman, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice, “Davos is about addressing the tension between those who have money, power, and influence, and how and where to use it to impact those who don’t.” Indeed, much of the Davos agenda seems designed to help businsses move away from short-term profitability towards having positive, long-term impact for the communities in which they operate.

That evolution involves creating positive working relationships between and among the highest levels of governments and businesses and the most granular collaboration between colleagues. Based on the summit’s agenda and panel topics, many of which are webcast live, here are three purpose-related themes that academic, business, civic, and political leaders are thinking about:

1. Sustainability makes economic sense

With panels ranging from “Towards Better Capitalism” to “Investing for Impact,” corporate sustainability is now firmly entrenched as a business imperative. According to Stevenson, “There has really been a historic shift in the ratio of responsibility for the future from politics to business. People are viewing the social accountability of business in a markedly different light than even a year ago.” Business leaders are fully buying into the idea that the economics of sustainability extend beyond dollars and cents to encompass employee engagement, talent recruiting and retention, consumer loyalty, and more.

2. Values must be shared

What an organization values goes hand-in-hand with sustainability. “People are looking for where they can feel comfortable and are assessing what is or is not worth their attention, money, talent, and time,” says Feldman. That’s why this year’s Davos program includes discussions on “Standing Up for Social Progress” and “what future role will employment play in terms of community identity, personal livelihood, and societal purpose,” among others. However, Feldman cautions, business leaders have to do more than just talk about values. “You’d better be aligned and you’d better be about what you say you are about,” says Feldman. “And make sure you have ways to follow through, or you can lose a lot very quickly.”

3. It’s a matter of trust

Based on themes involving the rise of tech monopolies, fake news, cybersecurity, and data responsibility, trust is top of mind for leaders. That’s to say nothing of issues like sexual harassment, pay discrimination, and inclusivity coming to the fore. “There’s a crisis of trust right now,” Stevenson says. The question leaders need to answer, to use the WEF’s own words, is if they can “win the public trust needed to create a shared future.” Or, at the very least, get consumers and employees to believe in their brand again.

The themes emerging from this year’s summit fits  with a new paradigm of leadership rooted in long-term thinking, greater humility, and agility. That is diametrically opposed to the me-first orientation that historically has been rewarded in leadership development. But, according to Stevenson, from a leadership perspective the whole point of Davos is to engage and fully activate new kinds of leaders. “The issues we need to address means we simply cannot afford to limit or eliminate potential leaders based on past criteria,” says Stevenson, referring not only to experience and skills, but also age, ethnicity, gender, geography, or anything else. Being more inclusive could indeed create a shared future for our fractured world.