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Treading ahead firmly

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Two days at the World Business Forum, New York; tuning into what lies ahead and how the great minds create and tackle fresh challenges.

All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times – or not; there are still many more ways to think about them. I have lived with the above quotation by Goethe as I read it first in 1996 on KZR’s (www.kzr.co) folder, and still read it on Navitus’ one; but have often thought of defying it.

This finally happened. On October 5 and 6, 2011, Kamran Rizvi and I attended the World Business Forum at the Javits Centre in New York. In the two days, from 9 am to 6 pm, we were inundated with more thoughts of the same, i.e. how to build people; yet these were different in their own unique way. As we listened, we realized our unquenchable thirst to hear more – of the same; as it is bewildering in itself to know how many ways one can reflect on the human factor.

With over 4,000 in the audience from 55 countries, sitting on plastic chairs in an aircraft hanger type hall; we felt special. As the larger than life screens lit up with the faces of those we have admired and read about and whose quotations we have endeared and enacted, we lost ourselves in the stillness of absorption. One after the other they spoke. Their context was the same as was in the times of Socrates or Kahlil Gibran; but like them, they had not allowed the obvious to fleet by. They had captured the detail, as if in a movie in slow motion, with every frame halted to minutely examine for more. What we take for granted, was their rapture; the field they had plowed and sowed to reap the harvest of new perspectives.

Here are glimpses, highlights, insights and those enlightening thoughts, ideas and instruments eloquently delivered by some of the leading gurus of leadership and management:

Bill George; CEO Medtronic & Professor of Management at Harvard Business School

“Rediscovering authentic leadership.”

Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of my leadership?” “How do I remain on my true North?” “How will I develop myself as a leader?” Those who went down “lost sight of their business.” Business is not only about 1) aligning people with the Mission, but to 2) empower them. Leadership is about 3) service = step up and lead + 4) collaboration. Every leader must have a bonding group who can give them authentic feedback as the only thing you can take with you is what you leave behind.

Malcolm Gladwell; Author

“Outliers: Why success can be so personal?”

Success is about risk-taking; laying your reputation on the line. There are two types of risks:



  • Go along with the crowd.
  • Take financial risks.
  • Manage the regular features of business.
  • Seek approval.
  • Don’t care what others will say.
  • Are able to tackle the emotion of ‘contempt’ – the emotion of exclusion.
  • They take more chances.
  • They are independent due to strength of character.
  • They have no choice but to take social risks.

Great inventors and discoverers belong to those who take social risks. They did not belong to a community; they formed a new community of those who first defied them, and later became their adherents.

Tal Ben-Shahar; Interdisciplinary Center

“Positive leadership: Why happiness is good for business.”

Tal led through questions on what makes people succeed despite setbacks. His research shows that these successful individuals created their reality by defining their reality. These questions made them focus on a small part of the total reality, the rest is omitted. When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates. Our experience of the world is where we place our attention. As Peter Drucker said, “Don’t look for the right answers; ask the right questions.” Tal adds to it: “Don’t ask – is the student smart? Instead ask – what is the student smart at.” Never let a crisis go to waste – use it as it has at least one opportunity.

Howard Shultz; CEO Starbucks

“Managing Vision and Culture: The makings of a global brand.”

Starbucks is now in 57 counties and has over 130,000 people taking care of 70 million customers per week in the USA alone. How did they get there – by training them on the core, i.e.

  • Low consumer confidence: Create a value proposition which is genuine so the customer can believe in you.
  • We live in a hyper-connected world: Traditional PR is subordinate to social media. Rules of engagement have changed. Social media is not to sell your product, but to build a reservoir of trust with the customer.
  • Competition is a given: There is parity in the market; not on price and convenience but authentic value.
  • Balance shareholder value with community development.

Angela Ahrendts; CEO Burberry

“Leading creativity-driven businesses: A case study.”

Since 1856, Burberry has been leading a creativity-driven business. We bank on design-thinking of our people that makes them do what is best for the brand. Their motive urges compelling content. We enable intuition, which is key to creativity.

Benjamin Zander; Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

“The art of possibility.”

In his highly animated, enthusiastic and joyous style, Zander opened with the statement, “Think of masterfully creating and holding distinction.” Education is about opening up new categories which help you surpass your supposed possibility. Ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making that I don’t know I am making that stop me from possibility?” You should have someone around you to notice and say what assumptions you are using to stop yourself and help you surpass them. How do you do that?

  • Create new frameworks. I remind my musicians what the rhythm of transformation is. My job is to get that voice out of the head, as, with it, they can’t hear the music.
  • When a child says ‘hello’, she is filled with every possibility of a relationship. When an adult says ‘hello’ we start comparing and ruin possibilities.
  • Give your people an ‘A’. I only take ‘A’ students; thus the relationship is transformed. If the relationship is breaking down, you are not giving an ‘A’. Only when you give an ‘A’ to someone, can you be honest with them.
  • Invent the secret of life, like giving an ‘A’.
  • The quality of a leader is that, not for one minute, does he doubt the capacity of his people. A conductor depends for his power on the power of others.
  • Human beings with possibilities have shinning eyes. If your people do not have shinning eyes, ask yourself why? Apologize if you have not enrolled people in the enthusiasm of what you want them to shine about.
  • Your leadership should be about reliability, predictability and persistency.
  • Don’t get caught in the downward spiral. Instead, look at the circle of radiating possibilities:

Fixed reality defined by:

  • Wealth
  • Fame
  • Power
  • Competition
  • Survival
  • Hypocrisy
  • We do not know where the treasure is hidden but the vision takes us there.
  • Abundant thinking.
  • If you don’t make the goal – how FASCINATING (lift your arms and sing the word and your spirit will lift up to see another possibility).

Bill Clinton; former US President

“Big things are expected of us, and nothing big ever come of being small.”

The last speaker of day 1, Bill Clinton took the floor with majestic humility. He talked about the interdependence of the world, where what happens in one country affects others; that no one can build a brick wall that divides nations. He mentioned that in developed countries, their systems become rigid and often hinder the purpose they were set up for, as the people running the systems and using them do not want to lose control. He said that politics today is dominated by conflict instead of cooperation and that economy and government have to move together to sustain life.

Patrick Lencioni; President and Founder of The Table Group management consultancy

“The unwavering truths at the heart of great teams.”

Develop people to be hungry and humble. Look at the dysfunctionality of teams. These are:

  • Absence of trust: There are two types of trust; predictive trust where I know what you are going to do; and vulnerability trust, where I admit I don’t know something and know you can teach me; where people are able to apologize for what they do not know or the mistakes they make. These people are able to earn trust.
  • Conflict: There exists ideological conflict amongst people which must be addressed through debate, not instruction.
  • Commitment: If there is no healthy debate, there is no commitment. The leader breaks the tie that often occurs through conflict and people will go with the decision of the leader because they have been heard.
  • Accountable: Only when they are committed, will they be accountable. Teamwork is about peer accountability.

Seth Godin; CEO ChangeThis and Squidoo

“Are you indispensable? Changing the way leaders think.”

Seth asked the audience, “Are you indispensible?” implying that, for a 100 years, we have been making average stuff for average people; where every revolution has destroyed the perfect to make the possible.

He described how schools create obedient people who are a good cog and fit in. In the real world, you don’t have to wait to get picked. The internet says, “Pick yourself” – sing it, write it, video it – don’t give favors; be a gift. Why do we not do this; because we are not serving, we are only doing what others tell us to do, then, at least, there is someone to blame if it does not work.

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz; Senior Adviser, EgonZehnder International

“Great people decisions.”

Our memory is deeply affected by our emotions. Our long gone emotions create feelings that determine our decisions. These affect people decisions. Our brains have not been upgrading since 10,000 years. We can make instant decisions for our survival, but are poor at making team decisions. This old piece of hardware:

  • Procrastinates: We find it difficult to fire people.
  • Makes snap judgments based on biases and stereotypes.
  • Branding: Sticks with the familiar.

These three factors are at the heart of poor decision making.

Great decision making is the craft of discipline, which is the quality of the superior brain.

Jack Welch; ex-CEO & President, GE

A dialogue on management innovation.

Now came my favorite leader, and I was all ears. Besides me, Jack has 335,400 fans on Twitter. This session was an interview with Jack giving his usual short, crisp but moving answers:

Q: How do you feel passion?

A: Test the intensity of questions that people ask. These must be probing and doubting, enabling all to rise.

Q: How has leadership changed today?

A: It is faster; there are no secrets; it is authentic.

Q: What is your advice to a 25-year old looking for a successful career?

A: A career is like a pinball machine going nowhere. Love where you are and be ready to move on. Don’t do anything half-way. If you are good, the world will run for you.

Q: Steve Jobs passed yesterday. What are your words for him?

A: Not only was Steve creative but he was an execution genius. He was able to ‘get the idea out of the door’ and retail it effectively – A to Z. He has touched all ages. He defined the word ‘COOL’.

Q: How can we increase jobs in the country:

A: There are two aspects:

Cost problem

  • Cut discretionary spending
  • Freeze all regulation till unemployment is below 6%
  • Graft entitlements, social security
  • Ensure sufficient energy

          Revenue problem 

  • Don’t take money from 1 and give it to another. Take money and enlarge the pie and create job opportunities.       

Q: What is your tipping point?

A: Never beat anyone when they are down, and learning happens best in bad times. 

Q: What is your advice for China?

A: Make a brand. Everything they make is unbranded; it will do them good to have brands.

Gary Hamel; visiting Professor of Strategic and International Management at London Business School; most influential business thinker

“The future of management”

Gary’s advice for leaders is to Inform – Involve – Invent; be passionate to provoke passion in customers. Aim to surprise!

Be unreasonable: Don’t expect the trade offs. Innovate incessantly – notice the tiny details. Think like an engineer, feel like an artist. Reclaim the noble.

How can we manage without management in times where the environment is turbulent and organizations are not adapting fast enough? The internet is most effective and least managed.

Ask yourself and your team:

  • Have you been trained to innovate?
  • How much bureaucracy will you have to fight to get your idea across?
  • Does anyone notice that you have innovated?
  • Are people emotionally insipid? Do you recommend your company to others to work in?

The antidote to the above that Gary recommends is:

  • Rethink principles, not better practices.
  • Build transparency to lead to trust and self-management.
  • Disaggregate – break up into smaller parts.
  • Have natural hierarchies; let the team decide who is to go where.
  • Self-determination: Take ideas from people. Let them make the rules.

Bruno Ferrari; Secretary of the Economy of Mexico; CEO, ProMéxico

“Global & Regional Trends: Mexico’s role in the North American economy.”

In 2010, Ferrari visited 4,200 companies in the world to promote Mexico. In 2011, he is visiting 900 per month. This has helped him eliminate 16,000 regulations which were hindering the economic growth of Mexico. Earlier, it would take 34 days to start a new business. Today, its takes 2 hours on the computer.

Daniel Lamare; CEO, Cirque du Soleil

“Managing creativity.”
Cirque du Soleil, the entertainment company has 50 scouts travelling the world to seek treasures of fashion/arts/trends/culture (the trend division). This creative team meets every 3 months and produces ideas for the 5,000 artists that perform the world over. A clown goes around from office to office; meeting to meeting, to make sure we do not take ourselves too seriously. As we speak, our shows are taking place in 22 countries.

If you do not have the young people challenge you, you are an outdated company. We have ‘museums of failure’ where we have equipment that we made and failed. This is to remind us not to make that mistake again. Yet, over time, some of that equipment becomes the source of innovation.

As leaders, we create the best conditions for our artists to perform, so that the show talks for itself.

World Business Forum happens every year in New York City. You have the year to save up and treat yourself to the intellectual and spiritual feast it has to offer. It is worth it!