Monday, January 26, 2009

Lessons in leadership by top CEO's

Lessons in leadership by top CEO’s

In the wake of the historic economic crisis and a few days before Barack Obama would be sworn as the 44th president of the US, the University of Miami, on January 15th and 16th, took the bold step of putting together a Global Business Forum.
As all of you know, if you don’t risk you don’t gain and this was certainly the case with this event which I had the pleasure of covering for the PRDS. My congratulations to the School of Business Administration of the University of Miami for organizing it and to Knight Foundation for presenting it.

First, let me tell you some of the CEO they had in their roster. Michael Ducker, President, International of FedEx Express, Alberto Ibarguen, President and CEO of the Knight Foundation and former Editor of the Miami Herald, Muhtar Kent, president and CEO of The Coca Cola Company, Arun Sarin, former CEO, Vodafone group, Jim Skinner, vice chairman and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation and the University of Miami President, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala.

To close the conference, none other than Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric Company was interviewed by Ms. Shalala and fielded questions from the audience.

I was able to sneak a question to him: “Mr. Welch, as a CEO of such a large company and with such a big responsibility in your shoulder, didn’t you feel alone, the buck stops with you and you feel lonely at the top?

He surprised me with his answer. He said that it was very common for people to believe that CEO’s are alone but that is not the case. They are never alone because good CEO’s surround themselves with good people and in good and bad times, they are together working as a team. This was a very good answer to tell you the truth.
I had a chance to meet Suzy Welch, his wife, a lovely, intelligent woman who told me she was going to read Don’t Eat the Marshmallow Yet and would email me her comments.

Jim Skinner of McDonald’s gave a very good speech. He spoke about how McDonald’s in the early 2000’s concentrated in expanding and becoming bigger instead of becoming better and serving the customer. They had the first quarterly loss in their history in 2002 and their stock fell to $12.00. That was a wake up call and changed course very quickly. In fact, he said that speed is now more important than ever in order to succeed in business. You have to move fast and focus on the future and if you make a mistake, you correct it and keep going. He said, “Just don’t make the mistake twice”.

I asked him an uncomfortable question that I needed to ask: “A video came out by a guy that ate McDonald’s for a month and he almost dies. McDonald’s obviously handled that situation very well, because you are still very successful. How did you do it?

He said that anyone that eats 7000 calories a day will eventually die. The video they didn’t pay much attention to, although it made them mad. He then pointed to Mr. Jack Daily, Senior VP of Community Relations and said, “He is the one that did a great job”. I then interviewed Jack and he told me that the video did make them uncomfortable but that they stand behind their products and their quality and that the public didn’t pay much attention to it.

Donna Shalala gave a great speech about what needs to be done in today’s economic environment. She had a great quote, “you can be diverse and you can be superb”, very appropriate when the cabinet that took office on January 20th is the most diverse cabinet in the history of the US.

She said that she has already had some meetings with influential people in the new government about how to fix the health care issue in the US. It is not easy, especially when there are over 47 million people that don’t have healthcare in the country.

She mentioned a very interesting concept. She said “we must move away from employer based healthcare” If you read between the lines, you can see that this has serious implications on the future of healthcare in the US.

I asked her if it will be humanly possible for President Obama to be able to meet everyone’s expectations when he is president and she said “well, for many of us, President Obama is not human”. The audience laughed and then she went on to say that he will have to concentrate on four or five important problems or initiatives and attack those. He can’t do everything which allows me to forecast with some sense of confidence that Mr. Obama’s honeymoon will end rather soon, since he can’t satisfy 100% of the people.

Same situation with Luis Fortuno here in PR. He can’t satisfy one hundred percent of the citizens and he better choose carefully which battles he wants to fight.

Alberto Ibarguen concentrated his speech on global connectivity. He made a bold statement, very true by the way, “today if you are not digital, you are a second class citizen”.

The most successful countries in the world will be those that are the most connected with the digital age, in fact, they are now. This should be a priority for any leader in today’s world economic environment.

Michael Ducker from FedEx Express made the same point. Access is connectivity and the power of access is what will give you a competitive advantage. They are now in 228 countries and he is witnessing how countries are changing and advancing once they concentrate in building the infrastructure needed to connect to the internet.
He mentioned that Hong Kong is number one in access in the world and that is why they are so successful. He said that GDP rises exponentially as access increases.

He also said that there is a big threat out there. The forces of protectionism are growing because of the recent scandals and the economic situation all over the world. He said that now, we must be more open than ever, open more markets, explore more opportunities, do more deals among countries.

He mentioned Vietnam and how they had decided to open their economy and how well they are doing.
At the end, he said that developed countries should eliminate trade barriers, assist developing countries and turn outward, not inward.

Arun Sarin from Vodafone, born in India, naturalized US citizen gave a very motivational speech. He made a big mistake when he referred to Michael Ducker, the President of FedEx as Peter Drucker but the audience was very forgiving. Later on, Michael’s friends started calling him Peter, but they were just kidding.

Arun said the world is the marketplace. Profound wealth is being created in the emerging markets and we are all now interconnected.

Vodafone is a 60 billion dollar British Company and only 4% of their revenue is produced in Britain.
Although 25% of the global economy is in the US, other countries are now advancing and we must embrace them and their cultures so that we can do business with all of them.

He spoke against excessive regulations and mentioned a very innovative product that they have introduced in India, Kenya, and Afghanistan that allows people to make money a deposit using their phone but it is not allowed in the US.

He said that now more than ever leaders must get people to perform at higher levels than even the people being led though possible. That requires great leadership I might ad.

A very interesting question he asked the audience: How many times do you think our customers check their face book accounts using their cellular phone?

I will tell you at the end of the article so that you can ask other people close to you.

In summary, these leaders in this conference were very concerned with the world economy and what is happening but what really struck me was how optimistic they were. They all believe we will come out of it, they all believe we have the brainpower to fix what is wrong, and they all think the world is a better place now than a hundred years ago. What is more important, they think we will move ahead and we will do better in the future once this crisis is over.

No, I didn’t forget. The correct answer is: Vodafone clients check face book sixty times a day.