I participated in an unusual leadership event last week: the Yale CEO Leadership Summit in New York City. Run by Jeff Sonnenfeld for some years now, the day-and-a-half programme has mainly corporate leaders in attendance—CEOs and founders of companies, many in the Fortune 500 list. But there were also heads of non-profits, academics and policymakers.
While most such conferences are predictably boring—meant more for networking than anything substantive —Jeff’s event was different in many ways: no set pattern, no droning speeches, and mostly conversations among the participants. It was like being in a pinball machine, being tossed from one idea to another, one industry issue to the next, all in an instant, based on a comment that someone made, or a theme that emerged real-time in the discussions. Jeff was like a ringleader in a circus tent, a master of ceremonies navigating this complex multidimensional conversation. It wasn’t all free flow of course—he had a game plan, but used it more like a compass than a blueprint.
The broad theme for this year’s summit was “Global Market Patterns and Local Neighborhood Opportunities”. The discussions followed a loose form of the Chatham House Rule, which allowed people to express their opinions freely—and boy, were there some frank thoughts being exchanged. One conversation on retailing had three CEOs from competing firms talking about the ailing fortunes of a fourth, who was also present; the verdict was the latter’s days were numbered. Jeff steered the discussions to whether this firm could be an attractive takeover target. While the responses were negative from the American CEOs, a fairly successful Indian entrepreneur jumped in and stated that he would be very interested. The discussions veered to differing valuation perceptions across the world.
Another key theme was leadership, focused on building trust. Successful leadership in firms facing difficult times—and there were many in the financial sector—revolved around how they earned the trust of their colleagues, with integrity. The discussions on trust were not just within institutions, but also across firms and across countries; here the challenges were more cultural, given the different value systems.
A third theme was China and India, the flavour of the decade. A leading Chinese television anchor said, “If Americans want this luxury good called democracy, go to India. But if you want to make profits, come to China.” A leading Chinese-American academic challenged this, saying, “The Chinese are beginning to realize the importance of democracy in very visible ways. The earthquake in Sichaun, for all its tragedy, has been an eye-opener. There are government-run corporate buildings that are still standing tall, while government schools right next to them have collapsed and children have died. People are asking, ‘Where is the accountability of the system, how can we blindly trust the government to do the right thing?’”
As I ruffled through the participant profiles, I noticed how American corporate leaders were heavily involved in non-profit initiatives—public school boards, health care initiatives, community theatre activities and so on.
One was particularly striking to me—Stephen Berger, chairman of an investment firm. More interesting than Stephen’s successful corporate career was his strong public service record, particularly in urban transformation. He had been an executive director with the Port Authority of New York, the city’s public transport agency, directing the region’s airport, commuter rail and other infrastructure projects. In the ’70s, he was one of the key players responsible for turning New York City’s finances around.
I buttonholed Stephen between sessions. We met early the next morning for breakfast to talk about India’s urban challenges. “I don’t know the first thing about India’s cities,” he confessed as we sat down.
What happened next was remarkable—he honed in like a heat-seeking missile, asking all the right questions about our federal structure, how much power city governments had, where their finances were coming from, the level of civil society and media interest in urban issues, whether there was any political capital in India for urban issues, and where India’s corporate leadership stood on addressing urban issues.
“Are they being superficial, and asking for infrastructure, or do they understand the real challenges that cities face?” he asked like only a grizzled veteran could. I pressed him to come to India, and talk with a cross-section of our leaders here in a few key cities.
We finished our breakfast and returned to the sessions, ready for the next round of the stimulating roller coaster: the limits of the modern corporation.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org