Friday, July 13, 2012

The Power of Ideas

I was invited to attend the second meeting of CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) America, held in Chicago in June. I was part of the new Financial Inclusion working group that was added to the meeting this year. For those who are not familiar with CGI, it was established by former president Bill Clinton in 2011 to address economic recovery in the United States. As their web page states, “CGI America brings together leaders in business, government, and civil society to generate and implement Commitments to Action that create jobs, stimulate economic growth, foster innovation, and support workforce development in the United States.” I witnessed the importance of three principles at the meeting: (1) the power of ideas; (2) the power of translating ideas into action; and (3) the power of leadership.

The power of ideas. While the meeting had some short presentations and discussion leadership, a large amount of time was dedicated to brainstorming and generating ideas. The group at my table was a very heterogeneous bunch in terms of age, sectors of activity, and reasons for attendance. I ended up sitting near a very young man who I assumed was a college student (though he looked more like a high school student). Through my clumsy attempts to make conversation, I learned that he was 21, had finished college already, and was the founder and CEO of an education firm. It was then that I realized I might well be the dumbest person in the room. Once the discussion started flowing, it zigzagged around for hours, but several strong ideas came together and the moderator articulated them so well at the end of the discussion that it was as if many pieces of a puzzle had come together. It is, of course, part of my daily job to generate ideas, but it was particularly powerful to sit down with a group of people who have just met and are mostly non-academics and ponder and discuss ideas.

The power of translating ideas into action. As every entrepreneur knows, ideas are not worth much if they are not translated into action. A good part of the meeting was devoted to the creation of “commitments to action.” Some of these commitments originated at the meeting itself. Others had originated earlier but were announced and pledged at the meeting. Still others are in the making, as meeting attendees are now connected, and the organizers have found ways to keep participants involved in the discussions post-meeting. We heard success stories at the meeting—how some CGI groups, small and large, have been able to address specific problems. I was again struck by the many differences among the individuals—and the institutions and businesses they represented—who came on stage to speak about what they did. We had city mayors, government officials, journalists, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and young people (like the one who sat next to me) who described how they would commit to specific projects. And, as one can read from the report linked at the end of this page, from these commitments, new jobs were created and people gained access to training, to capital, and to financial services.

The power of leadership. What was most remarkable at the meeting was to see the former president reflect on the state of the economy; listen attentively to the guests he had on stage; and shake hands, hug, and thank the people who made commitments. I was impressed by his focus on education: the hard questions he asked about it and the people he brought on stage to discuss it. Neil Tyson, the charismatic director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of National History, shouted: “When was the last time we longed? I have to go back to the 1960s.… The moon was in reach and we were headed there. That compelled everybody to dream about tomorrow.” So many dreams seem out of reach today, but for those of us sitting in the audience, there was comfort in watching a former president reflect on the state of the economy, and showing such concern for it. We could see, in one room, the power of leadership in action and the capacity to motivate, inspire, and bring people together to generate ideas and commit them to action.