The recent Paris Wharton Global Alumni Forum was packed out with classmates, faculty and friends of the school determined to talk, listen, network and eat their way through two days of stimulating and challenging discussion. It certainly provided food for thought, not just on the overall theme of “Talent,” but on the role of talented people in addressing critical global challenges.
There was no shortage of debate and ideas around the pressing challenge for organizations around the world to attract, retain, and get the best out of their people to drive businesses, economies and societies forward. Offering entertaining, but profound leadership lessons, world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse, head of a burgeoning hospitality business beyond his flagship three Michelin-starred restaurants, spoke about the need to build the business around passion to provide moments of delight for guests; imagination, creativity, even audacity to challenge what is possible and desirable; and, not least, the curiosity and willingness to look ahead and from diverse perspectives to create unique experiences. The portrait was of a passionate but professional organization, not afraid to rethink the “rules” to create the future they want.
On the flipside of fine dining and developing creative talent, one of the clear messages of the forum was that applying talent is not just about building businesses, but also about building creative solutions for the increasing array of global risks that the word faces. In his plenary session, Mauro Guillén, Director of the Lauder Institute which focuses on international management and relations, presented a sobering picture of a 21st century riven by global imbalances which could create systemic disruptions across societies and economies, a world characterized by:
- Young populations in the most unstable regions, with the most natural resources.
- Older population pyramids in Europe and East Asia.
- Cities: Recurrent food and water crises.
- Growing inequality within countries.
- Political instability, failed states, and terrorism.
- Economic and financial volatility.
Given the audience, an obvious question was what’s the role of business leaders in addressing these risks? Eric Orts, the Director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) took up this question in his session on climate contracts and regulation. Moving beyond restating the arguments on both sides around the role of humans in driving climate change – on which see more in our November and December Briefings: 10 Trends to Watch for 2014 – it is clear that there are climatic shifts happening. The question then is not who is to blame, but what to do about it? And more particularly, WHO should do what about it?
Orts presented a provocative challenge: Multilateral action, the dreams of the failed Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009 and the lower-key ambitions of subsequent conferences, are not the answer. As we have also argued in our research and reports, expecting convergence on a shared set of global climate goals and solutions is a long-term and potentially unrealistic ambition, given the vast differences in national interests and climate impacts at play. Rather Orts argued that seeking agreement among a much smaller number of critical players – including the major emissions-producing economies, notably the U.S. and China, and international bodies and other stakeholders – may offer greater potential for aligned approaches to mitigating climate impacts; approaches that could actually have a chance of being implemented.
But again, this is not an easy or quick fix. Ultimately, action today will require small groups of stakeholders, including businesses, NGOs and communities, as well as government bodies, to start working on clearly defined climate-related issues at multiple levels in societies and economies. Each of these small steps in isolation could add up to a much greater impact on the climate issues the world collectively faces – issues that are time sensitive and simply do not respect the convoluted machinations that a grand global agreement would require.
While scaling back our ambitions for multilateral agreements may seem defeatist, the reality is that adopting a new mindset of multiple actors, partnering together on well-defined, “doable” objectives around global challenges is liberating. What if we could use this to unleash the passion, creativity and audacity of talent as Ducasse has done to achieve his ambitions? What if the younger, potentially disenfranchised generations in unstable regions could be engaged in these activities, whether through encouraging entrepreneurship around solutions to local challenges, or through training to provide them with the skills to address such issues? What if a partnership between business, government and non-profit organizations took on a well-defined water issue facing one city, and in doing shared the lessons with other cities facing similar challenges? What if the knowledge of older generations could be shared and used better to support these efforts?
These “what ifs” are not utopian dreams. Action is happening quietly, steadily at many levels of societies and economies from the granny cloud helping to educate the youngest and poorest in India, to start-up Cropmobster which connects producers of edible but unsold food with those that need it, to the Unreasonable Institute nurturing entrepreneurs from East Africa to Mexico to address global challenges, to innovative partnerships between corporates, academics, governments and NGOs being forged around managing water footprints.
Knowledge sharing networks such as IGEL will be an increasingly important foundation, helping join the dots between such initiatives – which together could make these multiple small steps in addressing global issues a realistic alternative to waiting for multilateral agreements.
It’s time to rethink the “rules” about how we address global challenges. How is your organization getting involved?