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The Biggest Missed Opportunity at Davos: Forging Real Connections

  • 18 January 2019

The World Economic Forum, known these days simply as Davos, means different things to different people. Yes, it’s an enormous - and posh - networking opportunity in the snow, with 3,000 attendees, from country leaders to global CEOs to heads of the most influential nonprofits. But it is also something more; the opportunity for today’s leaders to spend time truly interacting with and learning from each other, the chance to be vulnerable and open with one’s peers in hopes of finding common ground. Davos and other such events are not merely about talking - about communicating one’s message or value proposition; they can also be about listening, by taking the time to absorb new thinking and help other leaders with their own challenges.

Yet our work as leadership advisors suggests that this is sometimes easier said than done. Many top leaders feel isolated. We see so many CEOs who are anxious that they are lagging behind in understanding new disruptive force, and delving deeper and deeper into the detail to find answers. They believe that they are expected to have all of the answers, and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. They are so busy that they see opportunities like this one as a chance only to project the image of leader when they might also explore and compare notes on what it feels like to actually be one. They are doing a lot, but all that “doing” can cause them to miss the point of leadership.

Taking some extra time to, as thinker Frederic Laloux says, “sense and respond” in a safe environment is a way to not only improve one’s own leadership style but also to counter the top-down, hierarchical, noncollaborative leadership style that is suddenly reemerging around the world.

We understand just how counterintuitive this can be. In a 2018 study Egon Zehnder conducted of 402 large company CEOs, The CEO: A Personal Reflection, only 18% said they looked to other Chief Executives for truly honest feedback—even as they said they believe that only others who have inhabited the corner office can understand the pressures of the role. Just over half (54%) said they talked to people outside their own organization for fresh thinking. And only 36% said they looked at how other businesses were run as a source of new ideas. This is happening just as the average CEO tenure is shortening—much of it coming from forced exits; 37% of public companies, our research shows, have had three CEOs in the last decade. Is it any wonder, then, that as we look at Globalization 4.0—the theme of this conference—that a command-and-control type of isolationism is emerging to oppose it?

"Here’s a challenge for all of us: Rather than thinking of Davos and similar conferences as a reward for success, think of the experience as an opportunity to better yourself as a leader by truly connecting with others in a similar position."

Jill Ader, Chair Egon Zehnder

Think of the experience as a safe place to be humble, and to ask for advice—something many executives fear because it will expose their vulnerabilities. Yet vulnerability and humility are two of the qualities most important in today’s successful leaders. We are collectively shifting a paradigm from the need to believe and act as if the top leader knows it all to one where he or she knows what they don’t know and orchestrates the organisation to ask deeper questions, to solve adaptive issues with adaptive, not technical, approaches.

As a second-time invitee to Davos and as the new Chair of Egon Zehnder, I must now take my own advice. I can already see how challenging it will be to make the time to do so—but the opportunity to share and learn new perspectives is just too important.

Jill Ader is the Chairwoman of Egon Zehnder.

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