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Davos or Denial

Should a CEO bother with the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland-where the hype is thick, the air is thin and the opportunities for relationship building tend to trump the content? Yes, but first prepare.

Remember your first time heading off to summer camp? As you and your parents packed up your trunk and duffel bag, your whole body was flush with excitement, a combination of anticipation and dread. Would you have fun? Would you fit in? Such apprehensions lead some CEOs to forego the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. One Fortune 500 CEO, in explaining why he had declined his invitation, at first told me he thought it was a waste of his time, that shareholders would rightfully criticize him for taking a holiday in the Swiss Alps when he should be home minding the store. Several months later, when we knew each other better, he admitted that meetings like Davos made him “uncomfortable.” Davos does strange things to some people-those who attend and those who look on from the outside imagine global conspiracies hatched behind barbed wire. One CEO of a relatively small (by Davos standards) Midwestern company was so petrified, she hired purpose-built vehicles and armed guards to chauffeur her from one end of the village to the other-only a 20-minute stroll. What was going on in her mind? Did she imagine herself on a would-be assassin’s short list of international targets, sandwiched between Bono and Yassir Arafat?

But some measure of angst is understandable. Out of their element and thrust onto an international stage with no handlers, schedulers or PR flaks, even the most confident CEOs who have grown comfortable casting long shadows in their own industries can find the Davos proposition intimidating. Given the hype, perpetuated by the media (and even some attendees), it’s easy to get spooked by the stories if you’ve never been there before. The World Economic Forum, which Swiss economist Dr. Klaus Schwab started in 1971 as the World Management Forum, has grown into a phenomenon, viewed by many as “the world’s single most influential gathering of corporate chieftains and leading political figures,” as The Wall Street Journal once put it. It’s an invite-only event so exclusive almost nobody should feel as though they “deserve” to attend. That said, there are three simple reasons to attend-for shareholders, for society and for yourself.

  •  Your shareholders. While activist shareholders may be right about some CEOs that boondoggle, if things are going well at home, a week away on business is unlikely to raise eyebrows. If things are not going well, then Davos is the least of your problems. On the flip side, thanks to the close quarters and flattened hierarchy, you should be able to have at least 10 important meetings that would take the better part of a year to schedule at home.
  • Society. Even critics have to admit that some of “Davos Man’s” outsized ego is well-earned. The annual meeting has been the catalyst for societal improvement. It is credited with kicking off such initiatives as the Disaster Resource Network, developed in response to the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India. It served as the launch pad for rock star Bono’s global Product Red brand, benefiting the fight against AIDS in Africa. At the 2006 meeting, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and Bill Gates launched the Global Plan to Stop TB. By attending, you have an opportunity to participate in setting the global agenda and effect change on a level greater than your own company or industry.

FROM TOP: Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in 2005. The 2002 WEF annual meeting served as a launchpad for rock star Bono’s Product Red brand, which benefits the fight against AIDS in Africa.

  • You. Davos relationships can open doors to new business and even personal opportunities. It’s a networking opportunity like no other- a uniquely intimate environment where the director of a nonprofit can converse easily with the chairman of a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, where dignitaries chat with celebrities, and where I found myself, in the span of a day, alternately standing at the urinal next to Bill Gates and Nelson Mandela. There’s nothing wrong with a little self-interest while making an effort to help change the world. A word of caution: WEF is some times burdened by its own multiculturalist intentions. The belief is that world differences arise from “misunderstandings” that can be overcome by “dialogue.” Expect to encounter a number of “Davos Men” (and women) who tout a touching faith in “global dialogue.” Yet they seem to “dialogue” a lot more than they “do.” This is too often echoed by the film stars and members of the chattering classes who attend. I’d give them a miss and trust that the heavy media coverage will ensure that you hear anything truly silly and amusing they say.
            Also, my chance run-ins aside, headliners such as Bill Gates, George Soros and Bill Clinton are seen primarily in plenary sessions with 700 people in the audience and on official receiving lines and rarely mix with other participants.

How to Work Davos
You want to go to Davos prepared to make it, at the very least, a week well spent. First-timers, for example, generally underestimate the number of business cards needed (one is forever exchanging). Owing to increasing delays due to greater security, expect a lot of queuing when shuttling between hotels and the Congress Hall. Here are a few other simple tips:  

  • Follow the Seven Ps. Remember that Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Take time before Davos to think through the reasons you are attending. What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to meet? The more clearly you articulate your goals, the better able you will be to achieve them and the easier it will be for others to help you-elementary but worth keeping in mind. Don’t wait for the conference to start connecting. Pick up the phone and call at least the top three people you want to be sure to meet. They will likely be receptive. Schedule the must-have meetings in advance. Get the conference agenda ahead of time, plan your tracks and know when your smaller industry meetings are taking place. Take strategic advantage: One fairly public CEO I know uses Davos and its rare gathering of about 200 journalists to schedule preplanned media opportunities. Of course, you’d better be prepared to create some news because there are a lot of shiny things to attract the attention of those journalists.
  • Give in to the seduction of serendipity. Some of the best encounters happen by chance. If an opportunity arises to meet a potential business partner or customer, you don’t want to have a schedule so packed you can’t fit in this great opportunity. Mike Critelli, chairman of Pitney Bowes and a major all-around reformist told me he bumped into Fred Smith of FedEx and the pair wound up chatting for an unscheduled half hour. Their respective teams had been talking for a while, but that encounter accelerated the progress of partnering arrangements.
  • Pay attention to content and format. When sessions are driven by consultants, you can smell pretty quickly if the panel is a “sales pitch.” The best WEF sessions are truly interactive. Those with upwards of five panelists often aren’t unless the facilitator is really great. The “open forums” held in parallel with the main program touted as platforms for NGOs and CEOs also deserve a look if you are into the issue, but be prepared for endless pontification and ready to jump ship if necessary.
  • What’s your currency? As part of your planning, figure out what you bring to the party. When I was at Davos while with Starwood Hotels, we happened to own two of the nicest hotels in Davos and were able to upgrade a few important friends and folks we wanted to meet. (Accommodations at Davos are more than a little reminiscent of the summer camp experience. Picture a nice walk-in closet in an upscale youth hostel. On the plus side, you’ll be able to brush your teeth, get dressed and have your morning espresso without ever leaving your bed.) Consider acquiring more by getting plus-one invites to the parties or dinners you’re invited to. While it’s not good form to arrive with uninvited friends, if you call ahead to your hosts (ideally when you arrive, since they will likely have cancellations) and ask for an extra, you can keep that invite in your hip pocket. If all else fails, have a case of great Bordeaux shipped ahead of you. You’ll be the most popular camper at your dinners. Have you ever had Swiss wine?
  • Mind your manners. Private events and gatherings are where the action is. Attend all dinners and cocktail parties when possible. But, if you can’t make it because of some last minute serendipity seduction, let your host know ahead of time. They have spent hours agonizing over the seating arrangements and you don’t want to be the one responsible for them having to seat Nguyen Tan Dung next to Angelina Jolie. Not that they couldn’t end up with a very productive conversation, but Brad might get jealous.
  • Throw your own party. When at Starwood one year we organized a party on Super Bowl Sunday for all those U.S.-based CEOs and politicians, including Sen. John Kerry, who were deep in football withdrawal. You could also arrange a ski trip or another intimate party on the “free day” during Davos week or as a “decompression trip” immediately following. Also, feel free to draft off of Dr. Schwab’s events by organizing a table for the big lunch at the Schatzalp, a hotel at the top of the mountain with breathtaking views.
  • Buddy up-but don’t hold hands. Find an old-timer to show you the ropes, give you some tips and introduce you to a few people. But don’t be a co-dependent ankle-hugger, either. One Davos veteran found herself befriended by a celebrity who took up residence next to her and began quizzing her on who was who. “Here’s this very, very famous actor saying, €˜How do you know all these people?’ I was like, €˜Well, I have a job. I work.'” She had to jettison the guy after a while-he was cramping her style. The lesson? Don’t be that guy.
  • Step outside your comfort zone. It’s human nature to gravitate toward whom you know and what you know, but try to spend time with folks who have considerably different perspectives. Learn about topics and initiatives that at first glance may not seem relevant to your day-to-day operations. Be open to new personal experiences that can and do change your life. In my first year at Davos, I was fortunate to meet S.N. Goenka, the Bur mese octogenarian ex-businessman and leader of the modern day Vipassana meditation movement. Years later, when I was con side-ring starting my own firm and becoming an author, I attended a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat that truly changed my life and helped me find the answers I was looking for. I have the WEF to thank for it.
  • Party hard. Your most interesting meetings may come well after the sun goes down. One year at Davos, at the Hotel Europa’s piano bar, I found myself belting out tunes and drinking into the wee hours with one well-known Welshman, Sony’s Sir Howard Stringer. (I don’t recall the duets, but I do remember one very off-color joke I told him about a Scotsman and a goat, to which he replied, “That sounds a lot more like the Irish.”) Coincidentally, I sat next to Sir Howard on the flight home, and we had a very engaging conversation, thanks to that bonding experience.
  • Sleep is for wimps. Remember those late nights telling stories by flashlight at camp? Expect to get little shuteye at Davos. With the early morning breakfasts, the dinners and the late-night soirees-not to mention the all-night card-playing and cognac sessions with the likes of Bill Clinton-you may only get about four hours in bed. Come rested. And plan a couple of vacation days to recover. Don’t worry… your shareholders will wait.

Named a “global leader of tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum, Keith Ferrazzi is the author of Never Eat Alone, and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. He is founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a Los Angeles and New York-based sales and leadership training firm.

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