Economic progress, ethics and social entrepreneurship are three themes that have long had a place on the agenda of the World Economic Forum (WEF), even back in the 1970s when the Geneva-based nonprofit think tank first began bringing together business leaders, politicians, activists, religious leaders and, laterally, celebrities at its annual meetings held in Davos — that is, long before phrases like “subprime lending” had ever crossed the lips of bankers and Wall Street investors.
But how can these and other global topics remain relevant during today’s market turbulence? It’s a question getting urgent attention from leadership experts like Gilbert Probst, WEF managing director and dean of its Global Leadership Fellows program, a three-year master’s degree course run in partnership with various business schools, including Wharton.
To discuss what topics are likely to appear on future WEF agendas, Knowledge at Wharton spoke with Probst, along with Tiffany West, associate director and Global Leadership Fellow, Program Development team, and Ana Karinna Sepulveda, project manager for the WEF’s Global Education Initiative. Identifying risk, developing more effective leaders and ensuring sustainability are just a few of the subjects the WEF is likely to focus on in coming years, they say — in other words, much, much more than just the economic crisis.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: As you know, the world economy today has been in a crisis for a while, and the World Economic Forum has had such a wonderful role to play in encouraging conversations among world leaders on the issues. Could you start by talking about the World Economic Forum, what you’re trying to accomplish at Davos and how some of this has changed as a result of the financial crisis?
Gilbert Probst: First of all, it’s difficult to say how much has really changed, but the role [of the forum] has become more important. If you look at what [the forum] is and was since [it began], it is to build up partnerships and shape the global, regional and industry agendas. And the role was always to say we are kind of entrepreneurs in a global public interest where we think of economic progress needs at the same time as social development [that is] sustainable….
Differently said, we always thought — and even more so now, of course, with the crisis — that our challenges cannot be solved or met by governments, business or civil society alone. There is a huge interdependence, and that [requires] collaborative efforts to deal with today’s issues. In that sense, it was always there, but it has accelerated. Tiffany can say something about Davos, our experience of the last years and what has changed in the way we organize the partnerships or people that we get together.
Tiffany West: If you look at the themes of our annual meeting over the past ten years, there has been a change in the way the dots are connected. How do we collaborate with each other? How do we come out of a crisis by working together? What we’ve done in our programs has been to try and highlight this notion that all the different sectors [and] different stakeholders must work together to address the global issues because, as Gilbert said, we can’t address these alone anymore. What we try to do is put in place a mechanism for top-level people to come together and start the dialogue, so that then those conversations can trickle down through their organizations [and] help shape what comes out a few months later.
Knowledge at Wharton: I know you’re involved in developing content for the forums. How have the themes changed? Or do you find there’s more emphasis on the same themes?
West: The themes have changed and what we try to do is be very topical in terms of what [not only] our members, but also the [general public], are interested in learning about. One thing that has come up [a lot] in the last couple of years is [the need to explore], for instance, what the new values are. We have gone into a crisis situation that was mainly caused by a loss of sense of values. What are the new values that [will come out of this]?
Second, how do we identify and mitigate risks? Obviously, we did not do a very good job of that going into the crisis. We need to get much better at that.
Next, how do we build effective institutions? One of the things that we’re working on is the Global Redesign Initiative. That is, examining how we redesign institutions — not just Bretton Woods or U. N. institutions, but institutions that are more on the “soft” side as well.
The final thing that I would add is ensuring sustainability. That’s not a new topic, but every year it comes [closer] to the forefront of what our members [see] as one of their main responsibilities, and what the public hold our members accountable for.
Probst: But isn’t it also that [these] topics are not necessarily that new? … We realized with the financial crisis what globalization really means…and this increasingly interconnected world suddenly showed us what the impact [of that] is. We as professors have been saying for 20 years that the world is complex. It’s in every foreword that I’ve written in the last 20 years. But we now realize [that] the complexity asks us to be different in [the way we lead], in the way we collaborate [and] in the way we solve problems, and that a single leader, nation or organization can no longer face the global issues alone. The dynamics have completely changed.
What is interesting is that many of the issues we [discussed at Davos] in the last years are still there. And I even think it is important in the financial crisis that these issues like climate change, terrorism or water scarcity and distribution, etc. , are still on the agenda and are dealt with, and it is not only a financial crisis [that needs to be solved].
It would be interesting, Tiffany, to say what has changed — what was different in the last Davos meeting and what might be different in the next one.
West: Specifically on the global issues, the non-financial ones?
Probst: Yes. Or also [how] to keep all these issues on the agenda… because there’s also a risk, of course, that we now are focused on the financial crisis alone and think we just have… to solve the financial crisis. Well, that’s not true.
West: Exactly. That’s why when I mentioned sustainability, it’s definitely one of those key issues that cannot fall off the global agenda and we always make sure that we are not focusing too much on the economy. Yes, it’s the World Economic Forum, but all the other issues affect the economy as well. What is different now is how we address those issues. I don’t want to repeat what Gilbert has said, but it is how we must all work together.
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s not so much talking about the economy, but also how the state of the economy affects the ability of individuals and companies to respond to complexity. For example, globalization now will reveal itself not just in the way derivatives affect banks in one country and another, but also by the way in which pandemics spread. The way people respond will depend on what kind of economic climate we’re looking at.
In addition to the forum’s themes that have been mentioned, one evergreen theme is entrepreneurship, specifically in terms of wealth creation in emerging economies. Ana, I believe you’ve been focusing on that. Could you tell us about what you’ve been working on and how that fits in with the World Economic Forum’s program?
Ana Karinna Sepulveda: As you mentioned, the financial crisis has brought [on] a lot of anxiety and nervousness worldwide. But it has also showed us potential opportunities — not only for working together, but also reassessing priorities and establishing linkages. At the Global Education Initiative, we started looking in 2007 at the linkage between entrepreneurship, education and economic development. We created a new work stream in our initiative, which looks at how to create a new generation of entrepreneurs that will create jobs and help us through the recovery,while also being the ones who make an impact on society….
Perhaps I need to give an overview of what the Global Education Initiative is [before discussing] the details of the work on entrepreneurship education.
[Our annual meeting in] Davos is our flagship and probably what we’re known most for. But the ultimate mission of the World Economic Forum is to improve the state of the world and we do that, as Tiffany and Gilbert said, by bringing leaders together to discuss issues on global, regional and industry agendas. But [we] also shape those agendas by addressing issues in specific initiatives. Education is one, corruption is another, as are risk, health and water.
In the case of education, we started in 2003 at one of those magic moments that happens in Davos behind closed doors. A group of CEOs, mostly from IT and telecommunications, had the idea of doing something for education worldwide. That’s how this started six years ago. The initiative’s mission is to help governments create sustainable, relevant and scalable education through collaboration and partnerships, [while] engaging business and other stakeholders.
So far the initiative has mobilized $100 million of support and [has touched] over 1. 8 million students and teachers. It’s one of the initiatives that is very action-oriented, in particular in the Middle East — in Jordan, Egypt, Palestinian territories — the state of Rajasthan in India and last year Rwanda.
But to return to the linkage with entrepreneurship, in 2007 we started thinking about what the business case of education is. Why do we have to rethink the way we are educating people? And for what are we educating them? What is the ultimate purpose? And then we started this work stream.
On April 23rd of this year, we launched a report called “Educating the Next Wave of Entrepreneurs. “… [And it asks,] what are the things you need to teach people when they are young to be entrepreneurial? Also, there’s a strong focus on higher education. The message we tried to convey is entrepreneurship should not be limited to business school-related careers. It has to be across all disciplines. [And it’s about] how we reach out to socially excluded groups, like women and people in disadvantaged communities.
Probst: This is a good example of how the forum changes. The idea is that we need coordinated approaches, a lot more collaboration or, as Tiffany said, [we need to make sure] that all the stakeholders are involved. What becomes important here is that we not only have to build communities where the forum is [seen as] an expert in creating communities, maintaining communities — but also where you have a community of thought leaders, religious leaders, women leaders, media or industry. More and more, it’s a question of getting all the stakeholders involved…. The examples that Ana just mentioned are typical also — the creation of public-private partnerships [rather than isolated communities]….
Knowledge at Wharton: One thing the forum is very good at is bringing people together around common issues and themes and creating the partnerships and communities that you just mentioned. Especially in stressful times, this is not easy because people tend to focus on their own interests more than the common interests. How have you tried to get around this kind of barrier?
West: We are quite lucky in that our constituents, just by the fact that they are members of the World Economic Forum, are already convinced that they need to talk to all the different stakeholders. In terms of how we do that elsewhere, it is through the Global Education Initiative [and other initiatives] where we can go outside of the World Economic Forum, outside of our membership base and say, “Here is an example that is successful. “Whenever you can prove to a constituency that there are ways of working that are different than what they are used to or from the insular way of looking [at things], it helps break down the barriers.
Knowledge at Wharton: What would be some examples of the result of the collaboration that the World Economic Forum has brought about?
Sepulveda: [An example] is one of our early initiatives, the Jordan Education Initiative, [which brought] together the private and public sectors…. [Another example] for communities that were not yet members, and have not yet become members, of the forum, is what we’re doing right now in Rwanda. In Rwanda we [introduced] the public-private sector model as well as a donor community [to the country]….
These are just two examples within my work of how we reach out to different groups and bring them toward a common goal.
Probst: It is fascinating to observe how the communities we have are strong. I’m thinking [in particular about] the Young Global Leaders, leaders from all over the world [who are younger than] 40 who have a very strong community. Or the Social Entrepreneurs, which is a community… of leaders, [and] the young fellows in our program, by the way, are involved in that. But they get involved increasingly in the global discussions at Davos, and in the regional meetings.
[These people are involved in,] for instance, the Water Needs Initiative… [and] the Business Alliance Against Chronic Hunger Initiative [to name a few], so that communities are not isolated…. The Young Global Leaders [don’t always agree with each other], but they are involved. Something that we started seeing more of at Davos in the last few years is that they are completely involved in meetings there. A lot of the Young Global Leaders [meetings] have a big number — way over a 100 — in Davos. The Social Entrepreneurs — they do not have their own meeting [but] they are in Davos; they [participate] in the Middle East meeting [and] the African meeting. This is really thinking across disciplines and that’s exactly what it needs. If you take the Business Alliance Against Chronic Hunger Initiative, it is a public-private partnership that [involves multiple stakeholders]….
West: It’s a good point: How we bring in different views of the Young Global Leaders to the Social Entrepreneurs, for instance. The way that plays out in Davos is that they become anchors for the community there in that the examples they provide are much more… accessible to the average person than some of the very large corporations. We like to get those examples in there to show that there are different ways of looking at the world and that business is not just big business.
Knowledge at Wharton: Clearly, though, there was a time when if you heard about the World Economic Forum, all that came to mind was Davos. As you all have said, it has gone in many new directions. If you were to think a few years into the future, where do you see these conversations going? What new challenges and partnerships will the World Economic Forum be looking at?
Probst: More important, rather than the next five to 10 years, is to create the new generation of leaders [today]. We need a new generation of leaders that has a different approach to dealing with complexity and know what complexity means. What it means is collaboration, because it’s easy to talk about public-private partnerships but we were not trained like this. We were not trained to have a stakeholder approach even if it has been in business books for the last 20 years. It was not something that we learned as leaders. That we act as a global community and we understand… our role in a global community and that we learn to have all stakeholders involved… in the issues. By the way, our internal Global Leadership Fellows program has this as a goal. If we get there, we should have different topics and different issues. But it is difficult to say what they will look like in five to 10 years. I just hope that we have better or different leadership at that point.
West: What I hope to see is that collaboration is the norm, that we no longer have to do the convincing. Right now we’re spending so much energy convincing people that this is the way of the future and the time would be better spent on addressing the issues themselves. That would be my big hope.
Sepulveda: [I would hope that one of the] development goals would be achieved by 2015…. Four years out of that date, we would be looking at [whether there are any gaps]. Whathas not been achieved? In terms of education, I concur with what Tiffany is saying. I wish that by 2020 we don’t have to [keep] convincing government, [individuals and so on] that education is important. It is a central part of economic and social development worldwide. We are planting the seeds [today] for those conversations to happen in 2020 with the Global Agenda Counsels, the groups that are shaping the issues. Education is one of those. That’s going to fit into what Tiffany was talking about — the Global Redesign Initiative. By 2020 the conversation is going be around the greater spread of technology and how technology has impacted education. What are the countries or parts of the world that are still left out? How can we leverage the spread of technology to learn about peace, coexistence, the shape of world teaching and again more collaborative approaches?
Knowledge at Wharton: Each of you spend a lot of time thinking about collaboration and leadership at the World Economic Forum. What is the one leadership lesson that you have learned at the Young Global Leaders that you use on a regular basis in your work?
Sapovida: One of the things that has been very important to me and that I learned in the last one-and-a-half years… from the Young Global Leaders and the Social Entrepreneurs is — as corny as it sounds — to believe in the idea that you have to work very hard. [And you must] believe strongly in that and don’t give up. The entrepreneurs have this quality that when they see a wall, they think, “How do I bring that wall down? “Other people say, “Oh, there is an obstacle” [and give up]. [Entrepreneurs]try to empower people around them to bring that wall down. So that for me has been a leadership skill or a leadership lesson.
Knowledge at Wharton: And if you don’t bring the wall down, you might climb over it or dig under it?
Knowledge at Wharton: Entrepreneurs are good at that. Gilbert?
Probst: I have learned that I have to apply what I teach. It was probably the most difficult thing to learn because it’s easy to talk about what is in the books or what you observe…. To apply it, to allow people — I mean not just the fellows in the leadership program, but everybody works with me — to reflect on themselves as leaders. You’re only a good leader if you know yourself and if you are able to ask, “How do I communicate, how do people perceive my leadership role? “…. [and] understand your role in a community or in a global context. This needs reflection time and I try to give the people around me the reflection time [to ask], “What are we doing,where are we and where do we go? “…. I had to learn to take the reflective time for me to become a reflective practitioner, to become a reflective leader. And you have to force yourself to do it.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tiffany, you have the final word.
West: What’s been most important for me is learning how to listen and not just for the sake of listening, but really being able to synthesize what I hear and turn that into a coherent vision that motivates people around me. Without doing that, you’re dead in the water.
Knowledge at Wharton: Thank you all very much.