November 29 and 30 witnessed over 1000 people descending on Vienna, Austria for the 10th annual Global Peter Drucker Forum. Vienna was the birthplace of Drucker, who the British Library refers to as “the father of management thinking.” Perhaps there is no better place in which to discuss what’s wrong (and maybe even what’s right) with current management practices.
Billed as an event that would explore the “human dimension” of management, there were some hits and a few misses over the two days. A big miss was the unexpected absence of Clayton Christensen. All of us wish him well in his recovery.
The format of the Drucker Forum was consistent if not predictable throughout the two days. A chair moderated four individuals from various walks of professional life on a specific sub-theme. Each presenter had nine or so minutes to deliver a short talk and the remainder of the time witnessed a group chat facilitated by the chair. In total, there were over 80 chairs and speakers for just under 20 sessions. You can imagine how busy it felt. At times, it was far too formulaic. Each presenter discussed what was wrong with management during their nine minutes, but too many failed to deliver any concrete answers on how to make management more humane. When it worked, the talks and discussions were exhilarating.
One of the most interesting was a session billed as “Managing for the Long Term” where Unilever CEO Paul Polman, #1 ranked Thinkers50 member Roger L. Martin, Engie CEO Isabelle Kocher and former Adidas CFO Robin J. Stalker got to the heart of the current fixation on shareholder primacy. “Do we care?” asked Paul Polman with a rhetorical grimace on his face. “As long as our personal greed is more important than the future of our children, we are in deep shit.”
Polman, who had announced his retirement as Unilever CEO the day before, was referring to a CEO’s reliance on share buybacks and dividend increases as a way to run a company. His stage colleague, Martin, lamented the activist hedge funds but also recommended that legislation is passed such that pension funds no longer act as a monopoly enforced by government regulation. In essence, Martin argued that government-regulated pension funds are monopolies, which then act as an inhumane way to manage organizations and people’s hard-earned money.
Polman furthered Martin’s suggestion and added that the wealthiest people, pension fund managers and the 25 biggest asset owners on the planet ought to get into a room and change the way of the world economic order without legislation. As much as I respect Polman, I don’t see that happening any time soon. It was an interesting “how” suggestion though, one of only a handful throughout the two days.
“A healthy organization is a collection of human beings and not just human resources. Work on community, on the ground, create the movement and tilt the power,” said academic and author Henry Mintzberg during the “Should Managers be Activists?” session. Mintzberg reckons the term human resources ought to be extinguished and that our organizations be more community-minded and driven.
On the topic of being a technocrat or humanist, Insead’s Gianpiero Petriglieri said, “Think of yourself as an artist. It gives you the ability to love, learn & lose it! We need tech & humanity to make things and make things up. We need a story that moves us and a space that holds us.” As he has stated previously, Petriglieri recommends that cosmopolitanism not become an elite identity, but rather an “attitude of curiosity about what lies beyond the boundaries of our territories, cultures, and faiths.”
In the same session with Petriglieri, Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor at The Economist said, “You should think in the long-term, like a ship’s captain who views the entire ocean. CEO’s should spend some time on a retreat and reflect, read Plato, think more of philosophy.” I wholeheartedly agree with Woolridge. Far too many CEOs and senior leaders get caught up in the magnetic draw of quarterly earnings and share pricing. They should be reflecting on the state of their organization (and the world) through deep, pregnant, philosophical pauses. But too many do not.
Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter also stated in the same session, “In order to solve the new problem of today, executives need to get out of the building and get into the streets where there is hustle. Leadership should shift from hierarchy to hustle.” In my line of work far too often senior leaders remain in their offices at their headquarters, commanding and controlling from their email and desk phone. Indeed it is an inhumane approach to management.
The most alarming of the sessions at the Drucker Forum had to be the one titled “Beyond Market Failures: How the State Creates Value.” Author Andrew Keen portrayed society as possessing three kinds of state:
- Chinese: an all-inclusive state that guarantees economic prosperity but is nonetheless chilling.
- American: the retreat of the state, blissfully uncaring of its citizens.
- European: a combination of the Chinese and American, but equally ineffective.
But leave it to Martin Wolf, Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times, to send us running for the hills. “When technology knows everything about every one of us, is that the end of democracy?” he asked the audience during a brilliant, mic-drop worthy rant. “The state is the most important innovation in history,” he continued. “But the real question is not how the state can keep out-of-the-way but how to make the state work better? For every one benevolent autocracy (like Singapore) you get 99 horrors.”
Sandwiched between day one and two was a gala dinner with all attendees. Kudos to Drucker Forum founder, Richard Straub, for ensuring there are ways that young people can participate in the forum, through essay submissions, awards and public recognition at the gala itself. Of the 1000 attendees, nearly 200 were billed as young people. That is an impressive model to emulate at other conferences.
Overall, the Drucker Forum was packed with speakers and their brilliant opinions on what’s wrong with management and its inhumane way of operating. There simply needed to be more examples of how we can fix it. Over the years of its existence, the Drucker Forum has made great strides regarding global representation, as well as gender and cultural diversity. For example, the 2018 version saw a record number of women participate as chairs or speakers. Thirty-eight percent is impressive. By 2019, I hope it becomes 50 percent.
If there was one comment that should act as a call to action for attendees, it came from Polman:
“You’re not going to solve problems by attending conferences. You have to do something. If you don’t take action, you’re as guilty as those who created the problems in the first place.”
“Do something,” is the perfect manner in which to say we need more examples of the how.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE…
Full details are found in my new book, OPEN TO THINK: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions, now available for purchase.
It is time to rethink our thinking.
Watch the TED Talk on Open Thinking