Three Models for Leadership and Impact Partnerships from Davos 2019

This article was originally published by Forbes and the Forbes Business Development Council. Click here to see more from Anna.

The dialogue that starts in Davos each year at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting serves as a bellwether for many business leaders for the year ahead. Many companies start planning for Davos in January 2020 around this time of the year. It’s hard to boil down the essence of the Annual Meeting that brings together 3,000 official participants, from heads of state to CEOs to leaders from multilateral organizations, NGOs, media groups, academia and others. There are many official program sessions and private events daily. (Full disclosure: My firm, APCO Worldwide, is a member of the World Economic Forum.)

To me, more than anything, Davos offers a fascinating comparative perspective on how our world is changing — with direct implications for business leaders on how they ought to be engaging with their key internal and external stakeholders today.

Embracing More Diverse Leaders and Perspectives

I first attended the Annual Meeting over a decade ago — when women were a visible minority among attendees and had less of a presence on panels, the term millennials had not yet been widely adopted, several of the technology giants among today’s participants were not yet founded and brands had just started embracing the then-nascent sustainability concept.

In stark contrast to previous years, this year’s annual meeting was co-chaired by six millennial leaders, alongside Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. The co-chairs, including a refugee and sustainability and education activists from Iraq to Sweden and from the United States to Colombia, expanded the discourse on the leadership skills we need to chart a new course for more equitable societies. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the world’s youngest female leader, had several prominent roles in the program and spoke on topics such as the health of our planet. Ardern and Prince William also joined forces to speak about breaking mental health stigmas.

I believe this year’s dialogue was in many ways a reflection of the shifting global priorities, including addressing previously taboo topics (from mental health to #MeToo) head on and elevating and bringing diverse leaders and perspectives to the table. As business leaders are looking at a rapidly changing workforce that will be impacted by technology, automation and cross-generational shifts, embracing a broader diversity strategy in the workplace by going beyond just gender to include race, age, physical ability and less traditional professional experiences at the table seems imperative.

Building New Types of Partnerships

Davos includes participants who represent every sector of society, from leading firms to heads of international organizations, NGOs and civil society leaders. It is not surprising that several new initiatives were launched there this year that can help inform businesses’ strategies for the future.

For example, the topic of human capital and the future of work have been top of mind on the global agenda, as evidenced by the 2017 WEF Global Human Capital Report and the future of work conference. The Forum’s Closing the Skills Gap Initiative, which was “launched in 2017 with a target to reskill or upskill 10 million workers by 2020,” announced it has “already secured pledges for training more than 17 million people globally.” At the same time, leading global companies including BCG, Adecco, Microsoft (an APCO client) and Zurich Insurance Group launched a new platform focused on dialogue about and collaboration on training (and re-training) the future workforce.

It is clear to me that automation, technological disruption and a multigenerational workforce will transform how companies need to recruit and retain talent. There are several approaches companies can take, from training a new workforce and building skills for the next generation to investing in re-skilling or upskilling current employees. These strategies are applicable to different companies depending on the sector they’re in, their geographical footprint and the size of their workforce.

Global businesses, including P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola and others, joined recycling pioneer Terracycle’s Loop Alliance Initiative, which presents a new concept for reusable and sustainable packaging and is jump-starting a global recycling movement. Initiatives like these signify that companies need to react (and even better — anticipate) consumer expectations. It may no longer be enough to have robust corporate responsibility or community engagement programs. Businesses need to articulate and live their commitment to a broader purpose — sustainable consumption — and Terracycle’s approach is just one example illustrating this broader trend. These initiatives are just a tip of an iceberg of many multi-stakeholder partnerships that have been conceived and launched in Davos this year.

There are a few characteristics that set apart more successful initiatives and partnerships from others for me, such as:

  1. The ability to bring together less traditional and unexpected allies to the table
  2. The ability to clearly articulate tangible ways to create societal impact
  3. Being authentic to the core business and focus of the convening partners
  4. Being aligned with the expectations of a broader group of stakeholders — including investors, employees, customers, regulators and others

Exploring New Models of Convening and Communication

Davos also had an interesting gradual physical metamorphosis over the past few years. Most of the activities I’ve seen have traditionally been part of the official program and were confined to the Congress Center and a handful of central hotels. Over time, I’ve noticed that the Annual Meeting’s physical and thought leadership “perimeter” has expanded significantly. Today, companies, governments and multilateral organizations take over the Promenade to create their own unique interactive experiences for the broader group of participants. One example is Salesforce (an APCO client), which dedicated part of its space to a day-long program on ocean and climate issues. I also saw countries opening their pavilion doors to tell Davos participants more about their tourism, investment and innovation initiatives.

These takeaways on new ways of convening and engaging with new and potential partners are relevant beyond Davos. There are several global agenda-setting events throughout the year — from the G20 to the U.N. General Assembly and many others. Business leaders need to better leverage these global stage opportunities to convene existing and future partners around pressing global challenges, from climate change to fighting disease to reducing inequality gaps.