Leadership Rundown: The download from Davos

At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), the challenging nature of the macroeconomic environment and global disruptions were at the forefront of nearly every dialogue. Yet what struck me most was the distinct sense of confidence from CEOs and business leaders about their ability to navigate the challenges ahead.

A few leaders I spoke with were generous enough to share their own perspectives coming out of the forum. In a special edition of Leadership Rundown, we hear from five CEOs who’ve just returned from Davos: what topics dominated their own conversations? What are they bringing back to their leadership teams as we charge into 2023? And, perhaps most importantly, what topics were conspicuously absent that might merit more of our collective attention?

Jo Ann Jenkins headshot
Jo Ann Jenkins headshot

“Two profound forces are dramatically changing our world: climate change and population aging. But while the former was a major topic of discussion at WEF, the latter unfortunately received little attention.

Global aging will reshape societies and dramatically impact our health, care, and pension systems and is too often described as a crisis.

Yet I see global aging as an opportunity. We will have five generations working together, and leveraging the talent and experience of older workers can benefit the global economy. According to the OECD, giving older adults the best opportunities to work would raise GDP 19 percent over the next 30 years. Businesses will benefit from having a workforce that is representative of this growing consumer market and understands their needs, desires, and pain points. According to AARP’s Global Longevity Economy report, the 50+ population already accounted for half of global consumer spending in 2020, and by 2050, nearly 60 percent of global consumer spending will come from people aged 50 and older.

We have the opportunity not only to adapt to the future but also to have the power to help shape it. Government, business leaders, and civil society need to work together to leverage the multigenerational workforce and the growing consumer market as both a competitive advantage and an opportunity for economic growth.”

– Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO, AARP

Tom Siebel headshot
Tom Siebel headshot

“It has been 20 years since I last attended Davos. Much has changed. What used to be about NGOs and a preamble to wokeness is now all about business.

Main Street Davos appeared transformed into a tech conference expo—dominated by enterprise software companies and large-system integrators. Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, and India loom large.

Conspicuously absent were crypto, social media, and computer hardware companies.

ChatGPT, OpenAI, large-language models, and enterprise AI permeate every dialogue: ESG; climate; equity; government services; human rights; war; business processes. Lots of concern about what these portend—both good and evil.

The overall gestalt of Davos: optimism.”

– Thomas M. Siebel, CEO, C3.ai

Stephanie Metha headshot
Stephanie Metha headshot

“I’ve already shared with our company’s leadership team a phrase I heard at a roundtable in Davos: ‘2023 will be the year of the manager.’

For all the high-level talk at WEF about automation and talent and future of work, front line and middle managers arguably have never been more important.

Employees want clarity: they want to know what’s expected of them, and they want to know how they’re faring. Managers play a crucially important role in engagement levels, and companies need to nurture them.”

– Stephanie Mehta, CEO and Chief Content Officer, Mansueto Ventures

Dan Fisher headshot
Dan Fisher headshot

“In my discussions, there was palpable energy around a circular economy backed by data and action. I could definitely see it in the collaboration across industries, customers, and suppliers—from integrating supply chains to creating buying consortiums. Many coalitions have formed, including the First Movers Coalition (FMC), which we are a part of, that has achieved real progress in just a year. In fact, Ball’s partnership with Novelis delivered swiftly and boldly on our FMC commitments, creating demand and triggering investment in excess of $2 billion in modern, low-carbon aluminum-rolling mills (the first of its kind built in the US in 40 years), which will be examples of modern, sustainable manufacturing by leveraging innovations in automation, renewable energy, recycling, as well as fostering and attracting a diverse labor force.

I was glad to see our targets and actions are consistent with where the world needs to be and look forward to seeing more alignment, collaboration, and innovation in the private sector—and putting capital to work to build a circular economy and a sustainable and prosperous future.

Going forward, public–private alignment will play a key role in our collective success—for example, maintaining the R&D tax credit, as we all need innovation to achieve net-zero goals. There needs to be a clear pathway signaled by government around the world that the private sector will be part of the solution, not all of it.”

– Dan Fisher, President and CEO, Ball Corporation

Alan Murry headshot
Alan Murry headshot

“What struck me from conversations with business leaders in Davos this year was that very few of them are focused on recession. Yes, they believe one is coming. But unlike January 2008, when financial meltdown left participants anxious and uncertain about how they would survive the next year, business leaders this time are less worried about the next year and more firmly focused on the next decade. They realize AI and related technologies carry the potential to completely transform their businesses over that time period. They understand that the climate challenge and the energy transformation will force completely new ways of doing business. They feel geopolitical uncertainty and a changing global landscape require them to completely rethink their global supply chains. And they see a continuing battle for talent demanding a rethink of how they work.

I came away with a sense that we are at a moment of almost epochal business reinvention, and smart leaders all seem to realize that both enormous risk and enormous opportunity lie ahead.

The wild card remains Vladimir Putin and the world’s reaction to him. He seems determined to win a war of attrition in Ukraine, and the US, Europe, and their allies seem determined to stop him. That raises the risk of escalation, with the whole world as the battlefield and cyber, chemical, and nuclear warfare all in the offing.”

– Alan Murray, CEO, Fortune Media

Asutosh Padhi is a senior partner and the managing partner for McKinsey in North America, leading the firm across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and serving as part of McKinsey’s 15-person global leadership team. He is also a member of McKinsey’s Shareholders Council, the firm’s equivalent to a board of directors.

He is also the coauthor of The Titanium Economy, a new book that explores the industrial tech sector and the bright future that it can help create. It’s available now.

Perspectives of interviewees and mentions of organizations or individuals are not endorsements by McKinsey & Company.

Connect with our Strategy & Corporate Finance Practice