Leaders of the Future

There has been rather a long gap between publishing Part 1 and this, Part 2, of my Geneva experience. The reason for this is the three week holiday back home to South Africa that I have just returned from.

In my last piece I introduced you to the work that I would be doing in Geneva, briefly described my nomadic, AirBnB-based, living and travel arrangements between Switzerland and the Isle of Wight and alluded to the existence of a prestigious fellowship. That is where I will pick up the story.

Neverending StoryWhen the possibility of going on secondment to the World Economic Forum was first floated to me, there were a couple of options for the nature of the secondment. Option 1 was to go to Geneva for around 6 months, work on Project MainStream, get involved in the Annual Meeting in Davos and return to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation after that in February 2017. Option 2 was to commit to being seconded for 1 year and to take the opportunity to apply for the Forum’s Global Leadership Fellowship which, if I was successful, would extend the secondment to 3 years.

Now, what is a Global Leadership Fellowship, you say? Essentially, it is the World Economic Forum’s internal leadership training programme. Thousands of people from around the world apply to be one of about 20 fellows in an annual cohort who spend 3 years working at the Forum, taking part in academic modules at world leading business schools such as INSEAD, Wharton and London Business School as well as receiving personal mentorship and leadership coaching throughout. At the end of the programme fellowship alumni may then continue working at the Forum or go on to hold leadership positions in other organisations.

How could I possibly pass on the opportunity, slim though it seemed at the time, of getting onto such a distinguished leadership programme? Never-mind the minimum requirements of being 30 years old (I was 26) with at least 4 years of work experience (I had 2). Being an ambitious chap, naturally I selected option 2!

Once I’d decided to give it a go, the application process took up the entire first 6 months of my secondment. First was the online application, which involved uploading a CV, providing references and a few short motivational essays and the like. Along with this were a few psychometric and emotional intelligence assessments (kind of a supercharged version of this).

Next came the interviews. The first was a short “get to know one another” conversation with one of the programme coordinators. This was then followed by a discussion with a panel of current fellows where we talked about the work I was doing at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,  my motivations for working at the Forum and why I was keen to get onto the fellowship programme. The final interview was done via Skype with an executive recruiter external to the Forum and here we dived into my background, skills and work experience. All of these took place between June and July 2016.


A few weeks later – by which time I was well on my way to settling into life and work at the Forum – I received word that I had made it through to the final hurdle in the process. I was invited to attend an assessment day in October.

The assessment day itself was one of 5 or 6 such days held at the Forum’s offices in Geneva. There were around 15 people in the room, from as near as Geneva itself (current forum employees can apply for the fellowship too) and as far away as Zimbabwe. We spent the whole day together and were put through our paces in decision-making simulation exercises, crafting and delivering presentations and taking a few more psychometric and emotional intelligence tests for good measure, all under the scrutiny of the programme coordinators, alumni and current fellows. We had just about enough energy left for a well-earned drink in town when it was all over!

With all of the essays, interviews, simulations and presentations done we returned to our desks (or flew back to Zimbabwe!) with nothing more to do but wait (and get on with our jobs). We would find out in due course if we had done enough to earn a place in the 2016 cohort.

I went back to my AirBnb’s, my travel back-and-forth to Cowes and getting stuck into my project, which by now was becoming such an all-consuming element of my life (more on that in the next post) that I could easily have forgotten I’d even applied for the fellowship!

Two months later as I poured myself a glass of water in the kitchen of my family’s home in South Africa, while on an all-too-brief Christmas holiday before Davos, my phone buzzed in my pocket. With a sigh (and probably rolling of eyes) I set the glass down and drew out the phone – I’d developed a slight phobia of emails by this point. I opened Gmail and there at the top of the inbox read the subject line: “Congratulations!

I was now a Global Leadership Fellow.


Bienvenue à Genève

In order to convey the full experience of my time in Geneva and everything that happened over the past two years I am going to do two things. First, I am going to focus on what happened. Once I have covered that, in as much detail as feels necessary, I will move on to trying to unpack the Why. Why did things happen the way that they did? Why did I make certain decisions? Why, ultimately, am I looking back, two years since deciding to go to Geneva, and typing this from my flat in Cowes and not from Geneva?

This is part one of the What.

I have already given away that the decision I made in the 24 hours I had was to go to Geneva. Well, on the 4th of July 2016 I arrived in Geneva to start my secondment at the World Economic Forum. That decision was now a reality.

I was seconded to the circular economy team at the WEF and was tasked with leading a project that is run as a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Forum. The arrangement, as of the start of my secondment, was not exactly a simple one:

  • I would spend half of my time in Geneva and the other half on the Isle of Wight, so as to operate equally connected to each organisation.
  • I would stay in AirBnB’s while in Geneva because the cost of renting permanent accommodation is astronomical.
  • The length of my secondment would be for one year, but could be extended because
  • I had the option of applying for the WEF’s Global Leadership Fellowship, a three year leadership programme.

That was the state of play when I landed at Geneva airport for the first time. After passing through passport control (fingers crossed that the border agent didn’t ask for my non-existent work permit) I collected my bags, hopped on the number 10 bus (which would become very familiar to me over the next 18 months) and made my way to the suburb of Eaux-Vives near the lake, where I would be staying for the first week. I checked in at my AirBnB, dropped my bags off and jumped on the A bus towards the WEF office in Cologny.

Things got off to quite a slow start in the office that first week. I had arrived while the rest of my new team were away from the office, so I wouldn’t be meeting them until the week after. The next induction day for secondees wasn’t for two weeks, so I would be without a laptop, lunch card and access credentials until then too. I was set up at a temporary desk and pretty much left to my own devices. To be honest, I was quite happy with that arrangement because I had plenty of work to keep me occupied, namely getting my head around the project I was now leading.

That project was called Project MainStream and was the basis for the collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum. The basic idea of the project is to choose a material (plastic for example), do a bunch of research to understand how the global system for manufacturing and using that material works and how broken it is (by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean), and bring together the leading organisations that deal with that material to create a new system that actually works (a New Plastics Economy for instance).

Well, after doing exactly that for plastics, the plan was to try to do the same thing for biological materials (such as food). My job for 2016 was to begin the formation of the group of organisations that could work together to change the system and to start the research to understand how the system works. The aim was to publish a report at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2017. How hard could it be?

I did eventually meet the rest of the circular economy team at the Forum. I also got access credentials, a laptop, lunch card and a desk of my own. I moved into a new AirBnB, on the other side of town for week two of my stay in Geneva and another AirBnB the week after. Three weeks after arriving in Geneva I hopped back onto the number 10 bus, this time heading towards the airport and boarded a plane bound for Gatwick. Once there I would catch the train to Southampton and the ferry to the Isle of Wight, where I would stay for two weeks before repeating the journey in reverse.

And with that my rough routine for the rest of the year was established. In the next six months I went on to stay in eight different AirBnB’s, take 27 flights, meet my girlfriend, write a paper on biological materials in cities and apply for a prestigious fellowship. Details on that in part two.

To tide you over until then, here’s a video I put together in my excitement that first week in Geneva.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

“How would you you like to go to Geneva for a few months? We need to send a secondee to the Forum.”

“Can I have some time to think about it?”

“Sure, you just need to let me know by tomorrow.”

That was it. I now had less than 24 hours to make a decision.

This exchange took place early in May 2016 and the choice I made (spoiler alert: I chose to go to Geneva) had an enormous impact on my life. In the nearly two years since that short conversation with my manager, in the doorway to the office as we both headed home for the evening, I have had some of the most memorable experiences of my life and reached the lowest points I’ve ever been to (another spoiler: my time in Geneva ended prematurely).

Now that it is all over, I am going to write about of those experiences here. Mainly, I’m hoping it will be a way to make sense of everything that transpired since I faced that decision. With luck, it will make for interesting reading too.