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The Varsavsky Foundation
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The political blog of a social entrepreneur

Klaus Schwab the Builder meets Klaus Schwab the Destroyer

I joined the World Economic Forum, in 2000. I left the organization five years later after a difference of opinion with CEO Klaus Schwab over the abrupt cancellation of the GLT (Global Leaders for Tomorrow) program. During those years I had the opportunity to work and collaborate closely with Klaus Schwab both in the sessions that developed the Davos Agenda and within the Global Leaders of Tomorrow community now dismantled and partly rebranded Young Global Leaders.

My conclusion? Klaus Schwab is a person who combines amazing organization building skills with even better organization destruction skills. My first Davos, Davos of 2000, was unarguably the best ever, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and many other heads of state debated key global challenges with some of the most world’s powerful intellectuals, including Nobel Prize winners, deans of the best universities in the world, top writers and top NGO leaders. It was the most remarkable gathering of world’s political and thought leaders in all fields at the time. Other events that I attend such as TED, Clinton Global Initiative or Sun Valley (all in my view better than Davos nowadays) would have had a hard time comparing to Davos 2000. Unfortunately WEF was never able to replicate the success of Davos 2000 and that is mainly for one reason: Davos is all about Klaus Schwab and Klaus Schwab is a visionary who suffers from a tremendous difficulty to get along with the people he works with. Schwab can’t hold on to a great management team no matter how strong the Davos brand name is. It takes continuity to sustain success and WEF has none. In 2000 there was a fantastic organization of around 150 people putting together the world’s best conference. This team was headed by two impressive individuals, Lance Knobel and Claude Smadja. Klaus Schwab, who is unable to credit and share success with his collaborators, simply let go of Lance and Claude after Davos 2000. And the firings went on. After them came a series of remarkable managers, most of whom Klaus Schwab found ways of disagreeing with and who soon left or were fired. The most remarkable case was that of Jose Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, probably WEF’s most able manager ever, who was also forced to resign. In my view this happened because he was too well liked both by Forum employees and Davos participants. What I know is that he was extremely popular among WEF’s GLTs. But the turnover went on and practically none of the 150 people who were at WEF in 2000 were with the organization five years later. A very interesting Vanity Fair type article could probably be written interviewing former WEF managers. This article to be fair would combine both, the moments of genius of Klaus, of which there are many, with the unnecessary anger and impatience that ultimately drives collaborators away.

As far as my disgreement with Klaus Schwab it concerned the surprising dismantling of the Global Leaders for Tomorrow program. The GLT program consisted in selecting 100 outstanding young leaders from around the world, people who excelled in their fields: politics, business, academia, media, science, etc. and have them interact in informal gatherings and Davos. This was an incredibly well managed and rewarding program that resulted in a great deal of positive externalities for the forum and its members. During that time I was voted the leader of the GLTs and that led me to interact frequently with Klaus Schwab. An unfortunate position. Our dispute focused on Klaus Schwab’s unexpected decision to eliminate the Global Leaders for Tomorrow program from the World Economic Forum. His reasoning for doing this was inspired by his belief that there were too many “losers” among the GLTs (his words) and that there was an opportunity to obtain foundation funding for a new, smaller program that he ended up naming Young Leaders for Tomorrow, but the condition of this funding was that it should be a new program. Also GLTs were seen as a burden as we did not pay anything close to what others paid to attend Davos and had an automatic right to attend. So when Klaus decided to eliminate the program and asked for my help to decide which GLTs were “losers” and banning them from WEF I had to disagree. I could not go along for two reasons, one was because I was chosen by all and felt I could not then ostracize some. Secondly, firing them from WEF would be a clear breach of the publicly made promise and diploma made by Klaus Schwab himself yearly at Davos. GLTs saw their selection as a coveted prize, eliminating the program was like saying that your diploma was now a piece of paper. But exposing these arguments to Klaus Schwab only resulted in his erupting in anger and threatening to ban me from the forum. Considering that I was just volunteering in all my WEF activities and that I had my own company and foundation to manage I just told him to go ahead and he did. And that is how I was I was banned from an institution that had taught me a great deal of love (my $11 million dollar donation to start was started at WEF) but who now was teaching me prejudice and unfairness. The rest of the story is simple. Without my help Klaus went on to disintegrate the GLT program and appointed his own daughter for the sad mission of firing members who had been promised 3 year Davos attendance and given GLT diplomas, then worthless, and start a similar, newly funded Young Global Leaders program which is now part of WEF. I understand that his daughter’s tenure as the leader of the YGLs was short termed.

Still, and in spite of the difficult times that I spent with Klaus Schwab, I do recognize that he has built an amazing franchise at Davos, that he has managed to attract some of the best global leaders in all fields to his conferences and I do hope that at some point he mellows down and finds a way to sustain key work relationships over time. In this way Davos could be as good an experience for those who work at WEF as those who attend the conference. Personally, in spite of our differences, I will always be grateful to Klaus Schwab because it was at Davos that I met a group of dear friends, the GLTs who I now frequently see and whose company I greatly enjoy.

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Posted on January 15, 2006