Dean Joel Podolny Discusses Global Leadership at Davos World Economic Forum
“You’re standing in the hallway talking to a colleague, and Pervez Musharraf walks by, three feet away from you,” says Yale SOM Dean Joel Podolny, describing his time at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. “Or Tony Blair or Bill Gates or Indra Nooyi or any number of well-known government or corporate leaders. It’s remarkable who comes to Davos. What’s even more remarkable is the conversation and dialogue that takes place there, and hopefully, the cooperative action that can result from that dialogue.”
The annual Davos gathering has become a major event on the calendars of corporate chiefs, government officials, social entrepreneurs, and journalists. Companies, organizations, and nations announce new initiatives and form new alliances in the course of the five-day event. What happens in Davos gets reported around the world.
The theme of this year’s program was “The Power of Collaborative Innovation,” and Podolny played a role in two sessions, both of which focused on the issue of leadership development in a global context — an appropriate subject given the surroundings. On January 24, Podolny was one of the speakers in a panel discussion moderated by David Gergen, called “Leadership and Skill Development: A Cross-Cultural Dialogue.” The other participants were top corporate executives and NGO leaders from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Says Podolny, “The real debate was whether or not there are unique skills, talents, and approaches that need to be learned in each country or region, or whether there is something in common. The interesting thing to me was that the prevalent view on the panel was that there are fundamental principles and fundamental ways of managing that cut across the geographic boundaries.”
The next day Podolny facilitated discussion in a workshop titled “Bridging the Skills Gap.” A collection of the business and political leaders assembled in Davos contributed ideas about what talents are in short supply around the globe and what needs to be done at a policy level, an institutional level, and an organizational level to close those gaps. Podolny pointed out that, in some developing countries, basic managerial skills are in short supply. “The workshop created a dialog around — given a country and a particular problem — what policies and investments at the national level need to be made, and then what institutions need to be developed and brought to bear to address that problem. One of those institutions, obviously, is professional education for managers, but regardless of whether one is focusing on the societal, institutional, or organizational level, the development of leadership talents is something about which those of us at SOM have a lot to say.”
Podolny says that the two sessions revolved around a number of ideas that are central to SOM’s approach to management education: transparency, accountability, and leading and managing across sectors and across cultures. Since these themes have been central to SOM during his deanship, he says, “I certainly had a lot to talk about.”
Podolny also found unanticipated value in learning about subjects further afield. “There is tremendous learning to be gained from serendipitous interaction with people you just wouldn’t normally come into contact with,” he said. For example, Podolny heard presentations on education in Saudi Arabia and Iran. “They talked a lot about an educational philosophy that made speaking to the heart central. While, obviously, they have very different systems, it was an interesting model in how it connects to values and self-discovery.”
Another Davos attendee with a Yale SOM connection was Indra Nooyi ’80, the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and a co-chair of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2008. Speaking in the event’s closing plenary session, she argued that engagement with social problems, particularly around the environment, is critical to running a business. “You cannot hold on to your employees emotionally unless you have good environmental programs,” she said.
The World Economic Forum aims to improve the state of the world by engaging leaders from all sectors of global society. Podolny said that the number of top-echelon leaders who gather in Davos each year provides evidence of the “vast resources that exist, organizationally, to be potential levers in addressing significant social problems.” At the same time, said Podolny, the experience at Davos made clear that “enormous challenges exist in applying those resources where they need to be applied…. The next step is to move past conversations. And clearly the kinds of leaders who attend this conference and the kinds of leaders who graduate from a school like SOM have to be the drivers of that process.”
Learn more about the sessions described above:
Leadership and Skill Development: A Cross-Cultural Dialogue
Bridging the Skills Gap
(See session 2 under January 25)