“Thanks, Fabian, for highlighting so vividly at the Quality of Life Conference in London that trust is the cornerstone of genuine and long lasting relationships. And as you put it, “we” is stronger that “I”… So simple, and still, so many people miss the point.”
Deputy CEO – Sodexo
I confess I knew nothing about Sodexo until a few months ago, when I was invited to speak at this conference in London. Much to my amazement I quickly learnt not only were they the world’s 19th largest employer (some 425,000 staff), they were also in 80 countries, and awarded 13 years in a row Dow Jones global sustainability leadership in the service sector. This was the company that made a seemingly random enquiry about my availability in October 2017 for this conference.
I, together with some 24 other speakers from around the world (which included at least 50% women – and extraordinary, powerful and inclusive women at that) first met on the Sunday (conference starting Monday), and I confess, likely as not, didn’t stop talking until the Tuesday evening when we all splintered to our different parts of the world. The speakers included the diminutive Jane Fonda on her third ‘act’ and the importance of ageing, Anousheh Ansari, first Muslim, first woman, to become a self funded astronaut, the vice mayor of Athens, Amalia Zepou, the founder of the ice bucket campaign, amongst many other achievements, Jon Duschinsky and the incredible Pedro Tarak, founder of Systema B (B Corp) – love at first sight. Speakers were chosen for their contribution to our world, for their courage and their ability to think outside the box. They were chosen as advocates for women, entrepreneurial thinking, models of operating business that were purpose driven and held people at the forefront of their choices. They were AI experts, leadership experts, corporate experts, innovators, all ages, all countries.
I felt deeply proud of Sodexo. Their leaders also spoke – Michel Landel, the CEO – humble, inclusive, responsible, gentle and clever and their chairwoman, Sophie Bellon. They reinforced the purpose of the conference both by how they came across, what they focussed on and what they clearly valued.
Everyone, almost without exception, noted the crisis globally in leadership, the urgency of putting people at the forefront of decisions (profit follows), of listening, of lateral rather than hierarchical structures. Speakers and audience alike focussed on collaboration of people to common cause, with degrees of freedom to act and innovate. Skills at any level are not enough, people stay where purpose and values are fundamentally aligned.
Many speakers also talked about the idea of ‘family’ values in business (certainly Sodexo did, over and over), no matter your size – care for people and that it is a privilege to do well by doing good. Leaders must influence not just what they do externally, the service or product they provide and how the market and customers respond, but also to help the people internally who they serve, to navigate the changes so they benefit – stop the frantic default to restructuring and the treatment of people as tradable commodities.
There was, of course, a lot of talk about technology and AI (and a phenomenal expo on day two of organisations with whom Sodexo has or is potentially planning to have alliance partnerships – or simply young and emerging organisations who did a pitch to Sodexo to be included). There was a brilliant (although emotionally dry) session on the real data around the exponential growth of technology and the growing prosperity of people – where it’s come from and where it’s going (with a potential tif – beautifully managed – between Bunker Roy, founder of Barefoot Engineers and the speaker on whether or not poverty is genuinely decreasing).
I felt, throughout, that I was surrounded by like minded people. I am in the middle of the vortex that has become the global initiative of Homeward Bound, reinventing my life thoroughly at the age of 63, and in this conference, I met so many people, of all ages and nationalities, thinking about and feeling towards our future as I do – nothing will change if I don’t do something, however small.
Doing well by doing good.
And all mirrored in the audience – 200 senior Sodexo leaders and their guests – conversations happening everywhere about the world today and what can be done to create the future we all want. You were never talking to someone, no matter how senior, without feeling like the conversation you were having, at that exact moment, was the conversation everyone wanted to have. No one was looking over their shoulder to check for more important people in the crowd.
So, the program ended, I had an additional day in London for meetings, and then, on Wednesday evening, feeling as if a year had passed since arriving, I headed back to Heathrow to come home.
Sodexo had organised a car for me. Concierge packed in the luggage, and I let my mind rest for the first time, as the driver quietly and efficiently drove through the traffic.
I can’t quite work out when the conversation started but it grew like a young vine in a rainforest. Perhaps he observed something, or I did. Maybe he asked me what I was doing in London. Maybe I answered the first question full of wonder and hope as a result of the conversations I had had with so many world changers over these few days.
What ever the starting point, it grew into a conversation which I shall remember for many years to come, as the perfectly crafted end to a life changing few days.
To begin with, as sometimes happens, I learnt a lot about my driver; he was Turkish, had been living in London for some 20 years, married (his wife was a nurse), two kids (young teenagers). I learnt about what it was like for him to be married to an English woman, and how that had happened, I learnt about what it was like for him to take his kids (very English) back to Turkey to meet his traditional family.
As we talked, I got a sense of the man. I turned and looked properly at him and he at me, at the same moment. We smiled. I asked him if he read much about the world. He said he loved philosophy, that he had decided a long time ago that he wanted to be able to answer the questions his then young son would ask him, that he would not be defined by his job (driving) but by what he knew and cared about. And as it transpired, it was his daughter who asked him questions, not his son!
We started to talk then about finding ways to make meaning, he referenced Kant, Wittengenstein, Spinoza – not as names but as ideas and threads of ideas that had engaged him and that made sense in the conversation we were having. He told me that he had lost an import business when he was younger, and had been forced to come to terms with earning less, driving, and his wife earning more. He talked about how he had taught himself to find good in each moment of his life, and to value people above all else.
I shared with him the content and insights from Sodexo. I shared with him something of my own marriage to a philosopher/artist and of the challenge of together crafting a balanced world. I talked about Homeward Bound and he made me write down the link so he and his wife could have a look.
When we parted company at the airport, I felt like I had met a friend. We shook hands and smiled.
I’m unlikely to meet this man again but this conversation, in a car, bound for the airport, focussed the Sodexo conference for me in a way few things could. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how far down the wrong path the practice of leadership has gone. I recognise and applaud the majesty of so many of the things our fertile brains have created. I acknowledge that generally, when graphed over time, the entire world is better off today as a whole than it was 100 years ago – famine does not really happen naturally any more (it’s political and power based) – we can feed the world, we can manage when disaster hits, mostly the world helps out (when self serving leaders and/or political systems don’t prefer to starve or kill their own people); we know how to manage diseases that eradicated huge numbers of people as little as 500 years ago, we are inventing ways to manage that could take us to a whole new level of being on this earth (Homo Deus as the famous author Yuval Noah Harare has called his Brief History of Tomorrow).
Yet we are doing this while destroying so much that we, no matter how clever we are, will not recreate. Our water is quite literally being filled with plastic, our land biodiversity is shrinking at an electrifying speed, as is marine life. We are burning what is left of the world’s rainforests, we are farming animals to feed other animals, and in the midst of this, humans are beginning to worry their way to psychological distress, and eating their way to obesity (3:1 chance of dying from obesity over starvation).
Over and over I ask myself is this led, or is it just happening? Are we like termites, doing inevitably what our clever and often wilful brains insist we do? Are good people overwhelmed by the challenge? Is short term winning over long term? Do ordinary people feel able to contribute? If we know that purpose driven collaboration through principles of inclusion, with a legacy mindset are necessary, why aren’t we doing this more?
Well, I haven’t answered these questions yet, and likely never will. They drive the work I do and how I choose to live my life. I know now many more people thinking and doing the same thing. In fact, I think I come to the end of this last week, a week which has in so many ways changed my life, that good leadership is emerging everywhere, in small and big ways, people more thoughtful about the impact they have on others, leaders more aware of doing well by doing good. And perhaps, if we all think this way, about the legacy we leave, then in 120 year, when we have all passed, the humans who follow us will thank us for our kindness, our courage and our legacy.
All humans doing well by doing good. It is a dream for sure but isn’t that how all change occurs.
And one last beacon of light from Sodexo; a speaker noted that visionaries rarely have a decent sense of how long it takes to achieve broad engagement to an idea. They always want things to happen yesterday. So, I also learn patience. And in the end, what’s the alternative. Doing something together at least makes this moment in time, this life we lead now, more worthy.
“Fabian has what true leaders all aspire to: authentic experience. She has led from the front and the back, been through the highs and the lows and knows brilliantly how to apply her knowledge, remarkable insights and generosity to inspire and equip leaders to face the challenges of tomorrow. Can you really be a leader without having spent time with Fabian? I’m not sure…”
Director, The Invisible Hand Company
“When Fabian speaks, she sets the exact emotional tone to connect her audience both to themselves and to each other. She makes people feel the true potential of their humanity.”
President, Sistema B International