Thriving in a Changing World. The Institute of Directors Annual Convention 2016

Phil Gendall at the IoD

Thriving in a Changing World. The Institute of Directors Annual Convention 2016

Wolf Rock Creative Director Phil Gendall has just come back from The Institute of Directors Annual Convention.

At the end of last year I was asked to join the Devon and Cornwall board of the Institute of Directors. Saying yes wasn’t the obvious decision. For one thing, to be honest, I was at the time considering resigning because I wasn’t taking enough advantage of the benefits (which include, in case you don’t know, being able to drop in and use the Pall Mall offices as an informal meeting space, refreshment stop or baggage store when in London on business, similar facilities in Bristol and other cities, free legal and business advice, networking, events, a CPD programme tailored to company directors… I could go on…). On top of that I wasn’t sure I could afford the time. But, in the end, on the basis that you get out of business what you put in, I agreed and stepped up to the plate.

Truth be told, my performance on the board has not so far glittered — with the best will in the world it’s always hard to justify days out of the office on non client-related business. Notwithstanding that, it was an unexpected delight to be offered a free ticket to the prestigious annual convention at the Royal Albert Hall, as a kind of ‘thanks for the services’.

The theme was Thriving in a Changing World, which in the shadow of Brexit was sensible enough. First speaker up, and probably the best of the day, was distinguished macroeconomic analyst (gulp) Dr Dambisa Moyo. Noted by Time magazine as ‘one of the top 100 most influential people in the world’, and well worth Googling, she didn’t let us down. Her topic was ‘risk’ and her gist was that the short term threats to economic growth (Brexit fallout, Trump, looming French and German elections etc.) were but mild squalls compared to the looming storms of; the technological advances that will make millions jobless some time soon, a demographic curve that promises 11 billion in the world by 2100, the rapid depletion of the globe’s finite store of natural resources, the almost universal failure of social justice in particular exponential inequality all over the world, a global productivity crisis (I reckon because we are all on Facebook instead of doing proper work), and finally if that lot were not enough, the 240 trillion dollars of debt that we carry — amounting to three times global GDP — “we are drowning in it, and we have to find a solution” said Moyo. Rather than get to depressed, she suggested, the answer was for governments to engage more closely with businesses. Hear hear to that.

A panel discussion followed, exploring the question ‘What Does Brexit Mean for You?’. Norman Lamont was all for a clean break and saw a future Europe as a set of concentric circles of economic, cultural and political interest. Vivian Hunt (McKinsey & Co) was all for connectivity and open-ness. But it was Yanis Varoufakis (former Greek finance minister) who really made us think (and laugh). Citing ‘Hotel California’ he told us that the EU was the kind of place you could check out of, but could never really leave. He cautioned a “Norway style” medium term solution, and predicted in the long term “a fault line across Europe, down the Rhine and across the Alps” with a deflationary northern currency and a recessionary south — also that dis-integration would be hugely costly, and not only for those in Europe. Happy days. Finally on the Brexit topic came Nicola Sturgeon with “I don’t think we should accept the inevitability of a hard Brexit” and “there is strong democratic justification for remaining in the single market”. No surprises there.

Thinly disguised pitches from the big sponsors followed, then a panel discussion about the future of energy.

Lunch, on the steps of the Albert Memorial, was a very fine platter of delights but in a ludicrously large and wasteful box. Acres of very posh cardboard emblazoned with logos, and two identical sets of disposable cutlery. Poor show on that one IoD. It was nice to bump into familiar faces; IoD Regional Director Simon Face and my co-board member Ellen Rodger from Exeter-based SC Innovation.

Back in the hall, the afternoon promised some speakers I’d been really looking forward to hearing. The theme was Embracing Disruption and Nurturing Innovation. Firstly a very slick and tanned Steve Hatch, Facebook’s director of Northern Europe. I was hoping for some insights and was given “technology only really matters to people when it connects them to things that matter, so invest in things that matter”… and “It’s not the technology that matters, it’s the people”. Not edge-of-the-seat stuff, but lovely mantras, and oh so true as long as your technology is working. Martha Lane Fox CBE, co-founder of lastminute.com told us that governments should “think of the internet as the guiding principle that will transform society”. Microsoft’s global president Brad Smith told us (on video) that they were creating “a cloud that will help people address needs, inequality, exclusion, poverty” — really Brad?

Mid afternoon and one I’d been particularly looking forward to hearing, Olivier Grémillion, MD of Airbnb. I have to admit to having no particular recollection of what he said. Maybe it was because it was so gripping I didn’t write any notes except “move faster — break things” (which sounds great). Or maybe I nodded off because he told us lots of things we already know…

Amee Chande then gave us a head’s up on Alibaba. I guess we all know it’s out there, but what I certainly didn’t know is that they are migrating the operation out of China and setting up offices around the world. Fact of the day – Alibaba makes more retail transactions than Walmart, with a staff of just 20,000 (and Walmart is the biggest private sector employer on the planet!). For Alibaba it’s all about nurturing a corporate culture that thrives on change and adaptability. “Culture drives strategy”, says Chande, a theme that was picked up later by our final speaker, Kevin Roberts.

The penultimate speaker was national treasure Dame Kelly Holmes. She was the token non-business person of the day. She’s a hero of mine, partly because I am also a runner of sorts, but mainly because of her astonishing tenacity and bravery. An impressive army career at a time when it was very hard to be a woman in the army (I imagine it still is), followed by 12 years as an elite athlete pursuing and achieving her Olympic dream, and then founding the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust which has so far helped 300,000 young people as well as 400 athletes. At the end of her piece she swapped her heels for trainers and left us with “just be yourself”. Great stuff.

Finally the ‘outspoken and controversial’ Mr Roberts, ex CE of Saatchi and Saatchi, etcetera. A charismatic talker and king of the soundbites, Kevin pitched ’20 ideas in 20 minutes’. Actually it was slightly under 20 minutes, which I appreciated as we were running late and I had a train to catch. It would be spoiler if I summarised all 20 and in any case I might adapt and use some myself. But some of the standout thoughts were; no 5 “Marin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a vision statement’ — so make sure you have a dream”, no 15 “…bleed for your jersey”, and no 20 “…let emotion rip”. Refreshingly passionate and non-corporate.

Despite far too much pitching from the big sponsors, all in all a very worthwhile day, and one that I’ll do again next year if I can squeeze the time. The takeaway thoughts for me are;

  • Whether in the EU or out, we are a de facto part of Europe. In the business community we should see Brexit as a catalyst for a renewed focus on European markets as well as global ones.
  • There are fundamental long-term challenges ahead in the global economy and it will be businesses that adapt and relish change that will thrive.
  • That’s a cultural, not a strategic issue. Culture trumps strategy every time.