A few months ago, I received an exclusive invitation to the 46th St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland as a Leader of Tomorrow. The St. Gallen Symposium is the world’s premier opportunity for healthy debates between generations. Each year since 1970, the global elite of leaders and decision makers from various backgrounds meet with the next generation to discuss relevant topics of management, politics and civil society. This year’s line-up included Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (Chairman of Board, Nestlé), Christoph Franz (Chairman, Roche), Tidjane Thiam (CEO, Credit Suisse), Clare Woodcraft-Scott (CEO, Emirates Foundation), Chan Chun Sing (Minister at PMO, Singapore) and many more luminaries, discussing the topic of “Growth – the good, the bad, and the ugly”.
The three-day symposium from 11-13 May 2016 has been one of the highlights of my professional career. A confluence of remarkable people and gorgeous scenery of the Swiss countryside set the stage for intimate and intense debates across a spectrum of topics. Each attendee had been carefully screened and personally invited. There are so many adjectives that I could use to describe the symposium – humbling, energizing, respectful, accessible, and controversial – and the amalgamation of these is what makes this event so unique.
No topic was taboo. We saw Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HARDtalk grilling Panama’s Vice-Minister of Finance, Eyda Varela de Chinchilla. In spite of her best defense efforts, Sackur tore her weak arguments up, accusing Panama of being “competitors in financial secrecy with Switzerland, Cayman Islands, and the Bermudas”. We saw Andrew Hill of The Financial Times take an all-male panel to task, demanding Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman at Nestlé to justify his stand on gender parity and explain why in 12 years, he had only grown his Board from not having any women on the Board, to just one member. The audience was visibly displeased, which provided strong indication that the emphasis on diversity and gender equality was felt very strongly amongst the Leaders of Tomorrow and of Today.
We also saw humbling and unpretentious moments. The most memorable of which was an open conversation with Tidjane Thiam, CEO of Credit Suisse. Thiam openly shared his stories of being on the receiving end of blatant racism, from being treated as a fast-food employee when he was a C-level executive at a Fortune500 company, to being held by airport security even on the day he was featured on the front page of Wall Street Journal. His achievements and humility in spite of his adversities faced, is truly inspiring.
For me, there were many take-home messages from the Symposium:
- Short-term thinking by current leaders has led to the mess of climate change, damage to the environment, and inequality.
- Long-term thinking has to embrace social change through education as a tool for social mobility.
- Developing countries should not use the same yardstick as developed economies – there are different solutions and different innovations.
- GDP has historically been used as a measure of a country’s growth. Although it’s inadequate, there has been no encompassing alternative yet.
- Regenerative and sustainable investment will take center stage – in health, energy, and with a focus on the protection of the ecosystem. Ethical investment will provide regenerative potential in world economies.
- The next generation of leaders truly care about the future – we have strong opinions about the environment, human rights, and equality.
When asked about the biggest influence on his life, Thiam quoted his mother, “Whatever you set out to do, finish what you started”. What change do you believe in? Let’s accomplish it together.