Business

Why this CEO has gone to Davos 5 times

Posted January 25, 2019 9:08 a.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2019 9:31 a.m. EST

— Julie Sweet, the CEO of Accenture North America, is on her fifth Davos.

Some things, she says, never change at the World Economic Forum. The tempo is frenetic, and each day is packed full of meetings and events.

What does vary are the topics of discussion. This year, conversations revolved around trust in technology, the weakening global economy and geopolitical issues such as Brexit.

And that's why Sweet says she keeps coming back to the Swiss mountains.

"There's no alternative that allows those conversations to happen as broadly as has happened in Davos," Sweet said.

Davos has been criticized as an elite gathering that's disconnected from real-world challenges. But Sweet said that discussions here tie back directly to anxieties and concerns at home.

"You are bringing together, in one place, leaders of some of the top companies in the world to talk about those topics," she said.

Here's Sweet's take on the big issues that dominated the forum this year.

The economy

There has "certainly" been a lot of public discussion around the uptick in market volatility and economic uncertainty, according to Sweet. But in her private conversations with about a dozen chief executives, it hasn't been a major concern.

"The topic of the conversation is not whether there's an impending economic slowdown," Sweet said. "It remains very focused on the competitive environment."

Companies have been operating in an environment of low growth for some time, she added.

Gender

Just 22% of Davos participants this year were women. That's an increase of 1 percentage point from last year.

Sweet said there's been more of a focus on gender equality every year, and that spaces like the Female Quotient lounge, which is sponsored by Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Twitter (TWTR) and others, have helped.

Looking at the gender breakdown of the forum, Sweet was pragmatic.

"We know that there are still not that many women in the C-Suite relative to men," she said. "And this is a CEO conference."

The US government shutdown

Accenture has a federal consulting business, and some of its employees have been affected by the 35-day government shutdown, Sweet said.

The employees who aren't working are "ready to go" as soon as it ends, she said.

A spokesperson for Accenture said that these employees have been moved to other projects or are in skills training during the shutdown.

Climate risks

Climate and environmental issues dominated a ranking of top global risks produced by the World Economic Forum. But Sweet said she hasn't seen much focus on the report.

"That has not come up this week," she said.

That doesn't mean climate and sustainability weren't discussed at all. There were several related panel discussions and other events.

"I think there is a general view that sustainability is really important," she said, adding that it affects business operations and public trust. "I do think it is a top priority. I don't know that it's the top priority."

Trust in technology

Accenture's big theme at Davos was building trust in technology. "Trust is the ultimate currency," read a sign outside the company's lounge.

"We've really seen a shift in both the competitive landscape, and just how companies are thinking about digital," Sweet said. "[They're saying], 'Digital is clearly critical, and if we don't get the trust equation right, we're not going to be able to drive our growth.'"

Sweet spent a lot of time this week talking about declining trust in the internet, and how that touches all businesses.

"This is about the seismic shift toward every business across industries being digital, and what comes along with that," she said.