The word Davos conjures up all kinds of emotions, as shown in this article from Steven Hilton. I have to confess that I did go to Davos this year in the unlikely setting of the high mountains of Switzerland, a setting where you can’t help but be surrounded by majestic Mother Nature at her best.
It was interesting, when I asked many business leaders what they liked about Davos, the most common reflection was a yearning for the past when it was a smaller more intimate gathering where you could really “get business deals done”. Many mentioned that now it was filled with “hangers on”, too many people who were not the “people that mattered”.
When I asked activists the same question, they responded with the hope that their issues could get on centre stage in the Davos Congress Centre rather than on the fringes in all kinds of makeshift meeting rooms. In the “fringes” there were some powerful events around issues like the growing refugee crisis, girls’ education, climate change and LGBT rights. The organisers expertly curated them with the desperate hope that a few folks “that mattered” would escape the Congress Centre and open their hearts and minds to the issues that matter.
Amidst all of this, there were some exciting ideas bubbling about the intersection of technology and development work, some exciting perspectives from young global leaders and refreshingly some courageous leadership from the business sector. Of course people like Paul Polman continue to stand up and show that this is not a zero sum game, both business and humanity win when business focuses on people and planet, alongside profit.
One of my favourite moments at Davos was watching Beth A. Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy, take the stage at a small LGBT gathering on the fringes to talk about the powerful role she is playing with team members across EY who feel safe to confide in her after she “came out”. Her leadership is showing the importance of doing the right thing and allowing people to bring their whole selves to work.
Another favourite moment was a discussion we had with the B Team and a number of young leaders from all over the world about how we can truly make workplaces 100% Human. Their ideas were not just focused on fiddling around the edges, but instead about how we turn work upside down and re-imagine it. It was also refreshing to hear their framing of how we solve these issues. They did not point fingers and build walls between business, not-for-profits and governments, instead they focused on how we break down walls to jointly take responsibility with some brilliant ideas such as; using social impact bonds to ensure everyone has the dignity of work, reinventing the social contract, ensuring business lays out the welcome mat to refugees and a long list of other brilliant ideas.
My lowest moment at Davos was the often sheer lack of humanity from people who have come to believe that they matter more than others. On the last day, when Davos was starting to return back to normal, I spoke with many of the hotel staff and other workers who had come into Davos to make it all happen. It was heart breaking to hear the number of stories from folks who had been treated poorly from the people “that matter”. One girl was holding back tears when she told me a story about someone screaming at her about how “useless” she was.
Many “fringe dwellers” talked about how during every conversation people were constantly looking over their shoulders to see if someone more important was nearby. One person mentioned that he strategically always had his back to the wall to avoid this “horizon searching”, soul crushing behaviour.
As I sat in a meeting with a group of business leaders who were authentically talking about the challenges of “the morning after Paris” and how they could work together to truly deliver net zero by 2050, I couldn’t help but think about the great opportunity we have to learn from Paris and re-imagine Davos. This reimagining needs to start with empathy for everyone’s perspective as it is not all about business leaders being bad or wrong, it is about a broken system that incentivises the wrong behaviour. A system that will not be fixed unless we all become the engineers of a better way of doing business.
Governments, businesses and not-for-profits already make the journey each year up the mountain, so why couldn’t we re-imagine the conference around empathy, collaboration and bringing the fringes into the centre? Any leader who thinks the business deals that they make in Davos will matter without basic humanity and consideration for the planet at the core, is naively unaware of the revolution happening around them to make sure that “everyone matters”, including Mother Nature.
Background and thumbnail image from gettyimages.