Convene 300 CEOs and other leaders from around the world, listen to them talking for three days about what’s on their minds – as we just did at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco – and here are five key words that echo in your mind:
-Volatility. Yes, we know change is getting faster and sharper, but it’s easy to miss how pervasive the phenomenon is. Cybercrime and cyberwar could do more damage than non-experts realize, and the threat is growing. FireEye chief Kevin Mandia says that “last year the rules of engagement between the U.S. and Russia in cyberspace changed.” Used to be that when we caught them in a breach, they would back off. Now they won’t. They just keep coming back, day after day. Former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg says “it’s only a question of time” before “the first truly damaging attack” – originating who knows where – occurs. More broadly, Allianz chief economic adviser Mohamed el-Erian says there’s “a massive disconnect” between the placidity of the markets and global volatility.
-Disruption. It was the Forum’s theme, but I was still struck by the scope of the ambitions of the digital giants, mainly Google, Facebook, and Apple, and by the energy of the startups. Facebook is disrupting entertainment, journalism, advertising, quite possibly commerce, and potentially almost anything else. Google would like to disrupt autos, payments, healthcare, energy, maybe insurance, and doubtless much more. Angel investor Ron Conway, known as the godfather of Silicon Valley, says he’s astounded by the disruptive ingenuity of the hundreds of startup founders who clamor for his attention, funding, and connections.
-Imagination. It’s a huge challenge for most business people – opening their minds to the possibilities of the digital age. Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky recalled how virtually nobody understood his vision, how “everyone told us that no one would stay with a stranger; 60 million people later, I beg to differ.” The key, he said, is that you aren’t staying with a stranger; you get to meet your host online first. Every successful digital startup sounded impossible when an entrepreneur thought of it. Most people are hard-wired for negativity rather than possibility.
-Humanity. A session on automation, jobs, and the future of work sparked blunt disagreement between those who predict technology will eliminate far more jobs than it creates and those who believe that view is nonsense. Yet when I asked which skills will be most valuable as technology advances, everyone agreed: creativity, interpersonal skills, relationship building. When I asked Ron Conway how he decides which startups to back, he said he pays little attention to the business idea; that always changes. Instead he just focuses on the founders. Are they leaders? Will great people want to work for them? Can they build enthusiasm and recruit allies? Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff spoke for many when he summed up his business thus: “It’s not about the technology, the cloud, the service – that’s all hard for me to say – it’s about the customer relationship.”
-Surprisingly – to those who watch too much TV news – one other theme emerged: optimism. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen reminded us how tech has lifted billions of people out of poverty, and how, despite hand-wringing in developed economies, it has powerfully reduced income inequality worldwide. More generally, spend three days with successful business people of every age from around the world, and you realize that energy, idealism, goodwill, capability, and opportunity have never been more abundant.
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“Don’t be so damned depressed. We have all become risk experts and are afraid of our own shadow at this point. Move on. The world is going to be fine.” – Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase CEO, speaking about the world economy and risk aversion of leaders at the Fortune Global Forum.
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