Last year, Vault covered the World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall for the first time, and we didn't stop typing and tweeting for two days, so rich was the perspective from the lineup of presenters. This year, we headed back to the bloggers hub with high expectations, only to come away feeling somewhat deflated. It's only in hindsight that it becomes apparent that that is a very good thing indeed.
Indeed, it's a little unfair to be complaining about the flat tone at all. What made last year's forum such a compelling event was the state of the wider economy at the time. The summer and fall of 2009 were filled with turmoil and uncertainty, and the various presenters were able to feed off that when offering their insights, advice and strategies for coping.
By comparison, the last few months of this year have been marked by a degree of stagnation, which was similarly reflected in the content on offer: there was much less focus this year on triage and crisis management, and much more on management skills, identifying new opportunities and doing more with less. Definitely not as gripping for us bloggers, but by no means a bad thing—and there were definitely some valuable insights and takeaways to be had.
The new reality
The major theme that emerged from the two days is that businesses in the U.S. need to change. The reasons they need to do so are manifold, ranging from macro-economic concerns—including the continued rise of global competitors such as India and China—to the need to meet challenges like reining in costs without causing further harm to the U.S. economy.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz identified several of the key trends that are likely to affect job seekers and careerists over the short to medium-term future. Chief among these: continuing high unemployment for the foreseeable future (he thinks it'll still be above eight percent heading into 2012), and an environment where large businesses are awash with cash but small and medium-sized enterprises struggle for funding.
Of course, where there is adversity for some, there is also opportunity for others, and while much of the information was intended for those seeking to push businesses in a new direction, some of the takeaways could just as easily apply to personal career paths.
One such example arrived during Renèe Mauborgne's presentation on Blue Ocean Strategy. Her advice that leaders should "spend more time on creativity than productivity" is something that careerists can also take to heart: rather than spending time churning out resumes and going through the motions of finding a job, spend some time thinking about how to get to where you want to go. Are you simply seeking to continue doing what you've always done, or are you interested in exploring a new direction?
Leadership expert Jim Collins also touched on that point. While we took a more extensive look at his career to do's in an earlier post, one of his more important suggestions was that leaders "set aside time for disciplined thought." By that, he meant that people should disconnect themselves for a period of time—he recommended as often as once a fortnight—from the pressures of email, instant communication and short-term decision making, and to take the time to figure out where the biggest challenges lie, and what can be done to meet or overcome them.
Collins wasn't along in stressing that some of us could be well served by doing less, but better. That point was also made by former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley. Explaining why he chose to divest so many products, he pointed out that "even products perceived to be in maintenance mode can be dilutive - they distract from better opportunities." The same can be said of many things in life: the more responsibilities you have, the less likely that you'll actually meet any of them satisfactorily. That goes with everything from prioritizing to-do lists at work to applying for any job you find, rather than focusing on the handful of opportunities that genuinely interest you.
If you've ever aspired to lead a company—or even just wondered what the leader of your firm wants from you—there's no better way to learn those lessons than by listening to some of the top leaders from the corporate world. While their experiences at the helm of major companies are singular, the chances are that the qualities they display and demand in others are universal.
Former GE CEO (and bona fide management legend) Jack Welch is one such example. Whatever you may think about his controversial policy of ranking employees and removing the lowest performers, it's hard to disagree with his assessment that "business is a game, and if you don't suit up the best team and make them operate as a team, you don't stand a chance." The takeaway from that should be obvious enough: as a leader, facilitate a strong team culture; as an employee, strive to be an essential part of it.
The most significant takeaway from the entire event, however, came from someone who chose not to talk business at all, and instead told an intensely personal tale. That presenter was Nando Parrado—a survivor of the plane crash in the Andes that inspired the movie Alive. His tale of survival, grief and re-entry into civilization brought the auditorium to total silence. And his overriding message--“Don't lose your connections, kiss the ones around you . . .because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow”--brought the rest of the Forum—and much else besides—into sharp contrast. It was also the one message from this conference that would have been equally well received at the height of the crisis one year earlier.
--Phil Stott, Vault.com
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