This was my ninth visit to the World Economic Forum – the global cocktail party/speechathon that brings together a unique mix of CEOs, government leaders, artists, scientists, philanthropists, regulators, and non-profits in Davos Switzerland. Or, as one reporter noted, it was a meeting of the people who have screwed up the world in the last two years.
Here are my quick personal observations. Please excuse the length of this post -- the volume of interesting facts overwhelmed my editing sensibilities.
1) Compared with the gloom of last year, members were far more optimistic and positive about the economy. Most executives I spoke with said that their business began to turn in Q3 and Q4 of 2009 and that their prospects for 2010 were brightening. That said, economists continually highlighted the fragility of the recovery. The head of the IMF said that the discontinuation of stimulus packages will cause the recovery to sputter. He also said that it may take between five and seven years for some countries to return to “normalcy,” whatever that is.
Next week I will make my annual trek to Davos for the World Economic Forum. I will be tweeting during the week and I will post my findings from the event on this blog -- most likely the week after.
I always go to Davos with a simple survey question that I ask everyone I meet with. Last year the question was: "When will the recession end?" The answers ranged widely, but averaged to April, 2010 (in retrospect, too gloomy).
For this year I'm considering: "What is your number one priority for the next two years?" But that feels way too vanilla.
So if you could ask a worldwide group of CEOs, political leaders, artists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, academics, and media leaders one question, what would it be? I'd love to get your ideas.
In case you didn't see it, check out the excellent interview with Gordon Bethune, ex-CEO of Continental Airlines, in last Sunday's New York Times. I'm not sure why such an apparently high-performing leader would be attracted to the perennially low-performing airline business, but Bethune successfully lead Continental from 1994 to 2004.
For me, Bethune embodies what Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, called "level five leaders" -- CEOs who are self-effacing, quiet but aggressive, always ready to "share the stage" with their employees. These are traits that will be at a premium as companies (particularly financial services firms) re-build trust with their customers, employees, and society at large, post-recession.
Here are the things I liked in 2009. I thought they might spark ideas for Christmas presents, or guide others to useful resources. A note about all of this. What I’ve written below are the opinions of one person (me) and do not in any way reflect the research, conclusions, analysis, or survey work of Forrester.
Here's my list:
1) The Breville Toaster. If Apple designed a toaster, this would be it. Intuitive, easy to use, dependable, smart. Perfect appliance for a nerd like me.
2) The Amazon Kindle. I’ve got two of them, both Kindle 2s. I love them for five reasons: 1) I can get my newspapers in seconds when I travel, 2) I can read on a plane while I eat my bad airline food – it is small enough to fit on my table along with my food tray, 3) I’ve got all my books with me all the time – keeping my underling and notes at my fingertips, 4) My reading time has increased, and 5) My backpack is lighter. Yes, I miss the feel and texture of my books, but the Kindle's advantages outweigh tradition.
4) Amazing business cycle graphic from the New York Times. Being in the research business I’m always looking for simple but powerful ways to reveal complex data. This graphic was excellent on paper, but even more thought-provoking in its interactive form. The conclusions were sobering -- showing that this recession is comparatively severe compared with down turns of the last 30 years. Stunning.
I don't know about you, but I am developing a major inferiority complex as I contemplate the achievements of Steve Jobs. In a decade that has been punishing and humbling for most CEOs, Steve has conjured victory after victory from the whole cloth of his vision, imagination, and singular focus on excellence. I am in complete agreement with Fortune Magazine's assessment that he is the "CEO of the Decade." -- I was already taking note back in 2004.
When confronted with a problem, a new favorite question of CEOs is: "What would Steve do?"
Don't get me wrong -- there will be many useful lessons from the Steve Jobs/Apple repertoire -- I expect a few great books will take on the task of revealing them. So I'll leave that to others. But let's ask another question -- what shouldn't we learn from Steve Jobs?
1) His lessons don't work in business to business environments. Apple innovates for consumers who do not have complex systems problems and who don't talk back. Steve likes to do it his way without interference or meddling. His strategy breaks down when he has to cooperate with others or make compromises for customers, or develop products that must fit into a wider, systemic world. You'll see evidence of this as Apple tries to negotiate with a widening set of independently-minded wireless service providers.
Quickly: If you are a CEO in the media industry, you must move your company through three stages.
Content: I was shocked when I heard that Conde Nast was shuttering Gourmet Magazine after 68 years of operation. Gourmet had 900,000 subscribers, with total readership of approximately six million. Yes, advertising revenue was off 30%, but clearly Gourmet was a brand and franchise that was destined to morph into an Internet beehive of content, social sharing of travel and food tips, community, and close affinity. And they were on their way with 8,000 Facebook friends, 22,000 followers for editor Ruth Reichl on Twittter, and a YouTube channel. Gourmet could have and should have become the upscale Grand Dame sister of Epicurious.com, Conde Nast's successful recipe site. Why didn't the company get this?
Because much of Conde Nast is stuck in media meltdown.
Have you ever wondered what CEO's really want? Ever pondered on what you'd find in the CEO's head if you could take off the top of his or her skull and peer inside? Here's a short story and simple answers to those questions.
I have spent many years helping technologists in large companies communicate with executive management. Chief Information Officers often speak a different language than the CEO and commonly see the world through a different lens. As a way of signaling to the CEO that a new era of business-focused technology has arrived I have been advocating that the CIO change the term Information Technology (IT) to Business Technology (BT). It's a not-too-subtle way for the CIO to say, "Hey, I'm no longer the insular geek you've come to know and love through the years -- my team and I are about making money, not just tech."
There are no templates for being an effective CEO. When asked how to be a good leader, Jack Welch answered, "Be yourself" -- and I would concur. Especially if you serve for many years, you can't fake it.
That said, there are many valuable lessons to be learned. I get inspiration and tips from fiction (Martin Sheen's President Bartlet on The West Wing), history (Churchill's writings on WW II) academics like Warren Bennis, and from watching other CEOs in action. Recently I've drawn some inspiration from John Chambers, the CEO at Cisco. Here's what I've learned:
Is there anything more boring than raw data? Yes, a blog that spews forth raw data. So I'll keep this short and sweet.
When CEOs doubt the importance of technology in the economy, I pull out a home grown aphorism: Technology is changing your customer, and your customer will change your company. In other words, whether you like it or not, demand will ultimately morph supply. And it's the job of the CEO to have a firm grasp of that dynamic.
So in the spirit of keeping CEOs up-to-date on the changing customer (like my 92 year old mother, shown above reading from a Kindle), here's a super-condensed summary of Forrester's recent survey of U.S. consumers.
A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble's CEO (and now Chairman), penned an HBR article in May that I think best summarizes the job of the CEO. Get your assistant to buy it -- and you should read it -- very good stuff.
To give a taste, here's my summary, plus a few of my favorite quotes.
Lafley argues that because the CEO doesn't report to anyone within the enterprise, only he can truly advocate for customers and shareholders. As Peter Drucker, Lafley's guru, stated: "The CEO is the link between the Inside that is 'the organization' and the Outside of society, economy, technology, markets, and customers. Inside there are only costs. Results are only on the outside."