Vernon J. Ellis, International Chairman of Accenture: Ellis: "We have to hold fast on a long-term focus"

Vernon J. Ellis, International Chairman of Accenture
Ellis: "We have to hold fast on a long-term focus"

Why do you go to the World Economic Forum?

This is my eighth annual meeting. I have also attended a number of regional meetings of the World Economic Forum. For example, during the last year I have spoken at and chaired sessions at regional sessions in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and Durban. Why do I go? After all, this involves a lot of travel, some of the locations are difficult to get to, including Davos, and the meetings themselves are very tiring. What makes them worthwhile is the combination of two things: content and people. The content is enormously varied, and indeed variable in quality. Nonetheless, it is overall very stimulating. One comes away with some fresh perspectives but also renewed focus around some big themes. Often, as at this meeting, these are related to the overall theme of the meeting. This year it was "Building Trust" - a very appropriate one.

The element which gives life to the content is the people side of the meeting. Again, a very eclectic group of people, including leaders of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), politicians, journalists, scientists, novelists as well as business leaders. The opportunity to talk to such people during the formal sessions, at private meetings and at a myriad of public and private breakfasts, lunches, receptions and dinners allows for a real dialogue around key issues as well as for lots of opportunity to form and reinforce relationships.

What did you strike most at this year's Davos?

The atmosphere this year was quite serious, reflecting the fact that we face many problems - both geo-political issues, particularly Iraq and terrorism and economic and business problems as recent scandals affecting trust and confidence in what were viewed, until recently, as strong institutions and the primary drivers of growth. The serious nature of the event was also reflected in the more sober dress code and the absence of the sense of triumphalism that prevailed in the late '90s.

One could not help noticing also a real edge to some discussions, particularly those relating to foreign policy, but also those which touched on international trade and corporate governance. The edge was one of potential cross-Atlantic divide.

Overall, there were often more questions than answers and some found this all rather gloomy.

Lessons learnt. Davos is also about new insights and ideas. What did you learn at this year's Davos?

On Sunday, I attended a wonderful three-hour session on the inner meanings of Bach's solo violin partitas, culminating in a performance of the great D-minor Chaconne. In a wonderfully illuminating lecture, the violinist, Paul Robertson, spelt out the extraordinary complexity of the many levels of private codes around which the Chaconne is built. Yet the performance itself transcended that private complexity. It reached out and engaged simultaneously the audience's hearts and minds. It brought us together as a group. It provided both reconciliation and exhilaration. Perhaps there is a metaphor here we can think about.

Certainly, although there was much talk of the short-term pressures on business (inevitable in current market circumstances), I believe that business leaders do understand the need to put real focus on the long-term health of their businesses. This was something which our CEO, Joe Forehand, stressed in a session in which he spoke on this very topic. It also was a major component of sessions I spoke at or chaired on the subjects of trust and corporate citizenship.

It seems to me that in the face of so much uncertainty in the world and so many pressures, it is more important than ever to hold fast on a long-term focus, to our values and to our commitment to engage and connect with the outside world.

Within the business, we must have good governance in the board room, through to the development and recognition of hard-working employees at all levels. As we look beyond our individual companies we see the need for a more extensive and deeper connection to the rest of society. Moreover if we are to sustain current business and develop new markets, we will have to tackle major deficiencies in the world in which business exists, particularly in developing countries. Many of these challenges can only be dealt with in partnership with others - including governments and NGOs.

I sensed a strong desire here in Davos to move forward from theoretical discussions to concrete implementation and action. At the heart of this is a strong desire by many business leaders to reinvigorate innovation and growth. That is the only way I know not only to develop a healthy business but also a better society in which we all live.

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