Davos: Changing the culture at the top

Mark Vernooij
Article by: Mark Vernooij
Davos: Changing the culture at the top

Our world is organized in the same way it was after the Second World War; systems like the tax system, education, and the social contract have not changed materially. At the same time, the acceleration and convergence of technology (the Fourth Industrial Revolution) are fundamentally transforming the very fabric of society, business, and international relationships leading to inequality, polarization, and frustration between stakeholders.


In a nutshell, the system we live in is bumping against its own limits. The old policies and structures that formed the system have outlived their usefulness. And while we have a strategy for humankind – the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets and 244 indicators – we’re not moving nearly fast enough to reach these goals by 2030.


This was the context for the World Economic Forum Annual meeting in Davos with the theme ‘Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.’ The theme is a call to not just adapt, but to fundamentally redesign processes, institutions, and policies to ensure we curb climate change, leverage new technologies in a responsible fashion, and create a fair and just society for all.


It’s easy to be skeptical of 3,000 wealthy people flying from all around the world to a mountain village to rub shoulders, drink champagne, and make deals. It is also true that even these powerful people find it hard to create real change in such a short time and come back with concrete results. Maybe Davos is as much about multi-stakeholder discussion as it is about changing the culture at the top.


At THNK, we find it helpful to drive culture change via four levers: role modeling, storytelling, measuring & supporting, and skill building. Let’s look at what the World Economic Forum Annual meeting did on each of these dimensions to create culture change at the top.

Davos 2019

THNK’s four dimensions of culture change: role modeling, storytelling, skill building, measuring & supporting.

Role modeling

Most people will only change if they see that others around them are changing too.

During the meeting we saw quite a few role models:  Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff explained how he fought to get legislation passed in San Francisco that would tax 0.5% of revenue from some of the largest companies – including his own company, Salesforce – in order to fund solutions to the homeless crisis in the city. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shared how New Zealand is changing its financial system to include societal well-being, not just economic well-being. This means that her government will use well-being budget to gauge the impact of policy on the quality of people’s lives.


Most people will only change if they are told what to do in a clear and compelling way.

There were many compelling stories, including a cross-generational cry for climate action. From sixteen-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg, who treated the assembled leaders with: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic … and act as if the house was on fire” to 92-year-old Sir David Attenborough, who said The Garden of Eden is no more. Many attendees were touched by a plea for a future by Somalian refugee Mohammed Hassan who spent the last 20 years living in a refugee camp in Kenya. The Young Global Shaper community launched Voice For the Planet, a platform where people around the world can “raise their voice” for nature.

Davos 2019

Mark moderating a session at the World Economic Forum.

Measuring & supporting

Most people will only change if there are structures, processes, and measurements that hold them accountable.

On this dimension, we saw the launch and growth of many initiatives, including:

  • Members of the newly launched Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality agreed to operationalize the UN’s LGBTI Standards of Conduct worldwide across their business by 2020. The Partnership plans to enlist at least 50 other member companies by 2020.
  • The Closing the Skills Gap Initiative, launched in 2017 with a target to reskill or upskill 10 million workers by 2020, secured pledges for training more than 17 million people globally, 6.4 million of whom have already been re-skilled.
  • Valuable 500 is a new campaign aimed at realizing the social and economic potential of 1.3 billion disabled people. This campaign aims to sign up 500 global businesses to commit to putting disability on their board agendas in 2019.

Skill building

If we want people to change, they need to possess the skills to do so.

Building skills typically takes dedication and time and time is what’s lacking for the leaders attending Davos. This might be one of the reasons why there is little emphasis on building the leadership skills that are needed today. There were some moments to learn though, like from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on how Japan was able to boost the economy by not being afraid of robotics and by attracting women into the workforce. At a dinner in the dark, leaders could experience blindness and learn how to listen better.

So, I leave Davos this year with a sense of excitement and burden: excitement about the commitments made, the progress we’re making, and the possibilities we have as humankind – and the burden of a collective task for humanity that I need to make my contribution to. I can only hope that the culture is changing fast enough.

To discover how to drive culture change at the top, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.