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Davos CEO Session: Organizational Agility and Learning in a Complex World

The World Economic Forum has introduced a well-received innovation in their program lineup, what they call the CEO Series.  These feature CEO’s as panelists and the audience consists of only CEO’s and similarly high-level folks from government and NGO’s.  I was delighted to be invited to moderate a truly stellar panel of extremely international CEO’s who were willing to share their wisdom on how they create or maintain organizational agility.  The panel consisted of: • Anant Agarwal, President of EdX, USA • Azman Mokhtar, Managing Director, Khazanah Nasional, Malaysia • Mazen S. Darwazeh, Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Middle East and North Africa, Hikma Pharmaceuticals; Senator, Jordan • Cesare Mainardi, Chief Executive Officer, Booz & Company, USA • Frits D. van Paasschen, President and Chief Executive Officer, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, USA;

I opened up with the observation that the CEO’s of all of these companies were in environments that are turbulent in the extreme.  The world of education is being rocked by everything from on-line learning to pricing pressures. International trading in emerging markets has become of far greater interest and therefore is far more competitive than in the past. The middle East as a region is in turmoil, and the entire playbook for the pharmaceuticals industry is being re-written.  Consulting is going through its own upheavals. And the hotel business is threatened with disruption from new travel options such as on-line room sharing sites.

We asked each of these leaders to describe the practices they used to keep their companies nimble.  Their stories were sometimes funny and often very moving.  Themes they had in common: • It is impossible to be agile without an extremely strong set of core values and common commitments – this allows local action to be taken without going beyond the vision of the firm; • There is no substitute for being externally focused.  Indeed, van Paasschen described his practice of regularly moving his headquarters literally to all the corners of the globe for extensive periods of time so that people really internalized some of the challenges that took place there.  • Each company had practices that both stabilized and de-stabilized their organizational structures • Driving agility by a fanatical focus on what customers are trying to accomplish was another key theme.

Mr. Darwazeh offered a moving discussion of the emotional challenges his company faces, as they do considerable business in the Middle East.  “We have patients,” he said, “who would die without the drugs we provide. And yet, we know that we will never be paid if we ship pharmaceuticals to places like Libya.  We sent the medicine anyway because those are the values we hold.”  You could have heard a pin drop in the room.

Rita's CEO panel at Davos

Rita’s CEO panel at Davos


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