We talked to executives in Davos about managing uncertainty. Here’s what we learned

Words by Emily Phillips

Shanghai under lockdown. More than 100 days of war in Ukraine. Continued inflation, signaling a worldwide economic slowdown. And don’t forget the disappearing bugs. What a time to be alive! And what a time to be a CEO: with supply chain disruptions, inflation on the up, geopolitical tensions rising, where are we headed? And how to best prepare?

A call to manage uncertainty

Business leaders are facing increasingly unpredictable and dramatic shifts, seeking to make their companies more resilient and sustainable. If there’s anything that these last 2+ years have shown us, it’s that addressing crisis management capabilities as well as future-proofing for this defining decade (apparently we’ve got a 50/50 chance to get climate right) are at the top of C-suite to-do lists.

While executives may be skilled in managing finances, people, and strategy, it’s a whole different story when it comes to managing uncertainty. This is why Creative Dock Group was excited to host an event that addressed this very question, in front of a room full of executives, no less. In conjunction with the World Economic Forum annual meeting 2022, we gathered 30 movers and shakers for an intimate evening in Davos, Switzerland.

On stage were two faces of digital disruption: Emmanuel Thomassin, CFO at Delivery Hero, the world’s leading local delivery and quick commerce platform, and Mirjam Mohr, Member of the Board at Interhyp Gruppe, Germany’s largest mortgage broker. Moderating the discussion was Professor René Rohrbeck, Foresight, Innovation and Technology Chair at EDHEC Business School. Both Creative Dock CEO Martin Pejša and Roland Berger Senior Partner Fabian Engels hosted the event.

The question on everyone’s lips was: How to manage uncertainty in light of energy independence, geopolitical shifts and slowing globalization? Or, simply: What do we do, now?

Reality eats plans for breakfast

To start, what are the biggest drivers of uncertainty at the moment for these two leaders? “Our main stakeholders who are deeply in crisis at this moment are our customers,” Mirjam Mohr explained, pinpointing the dramatic rise in interest rates as the main driver leaving aspiring homeowners unsure how to finance a purchase. “We all thought corona was ending, we now have a huge war going on, [and] this really is a burden on people. For us, this is the biggest piece of uncertainty: how will this develop?” And while the company is generally on solid footing, Mohr has no illusions. “I’m a mathematician,” she said, “but I have a sticker on my laptop that says, Reality eats plans for breakfast, because I believe that there is only so much you can do in planning.”

“Uncertainty is something that we have in our DNA. There’s nothing certain as a startup,” explained Emmanuel Thomassin. Despite going public back in 2017 and employing nearly 25,000 people worldwide, Delivery Hero still prides itself on a startup mentality. “Today, what’s most uncertain is the mood of the financial market. [Losses] put a heavy mood on employees. This is a kind of uncertainty that is difficult to foresee,” he said.

Three key takeaways

The discussion in Davos that evening highlighted three takeaways about managing uncertainty: the importance of building a diverse team, a default to clear communication, and a commitment to empowerment at all levels of the organization.

1. A diverse organization has resilience built in. This is essential for managing crises and uncertainty. A diverse organization is stronger because it considers multiple stakeholders, points of view, and variables in its decision-making than it would otherwise. “With enough diversity, you hear different perspectives of the issues on the ground,” explained Delivery Hero’s Emmanuel Thomassin. “You get different feedback from different cultures, and the food business is very cultural. We know that it’s very important to have local management understand what is important.”

And even though there is a general consensus that diversity is essential, there was also a recognition that the effort to expand diversity of all kinds — gender, culture, age, experience –, is still a work in progress, “At Delivery Hero,” Thomassin explained, “the average age is 30. We definitely also need colleagues from the older generation. Together we can learn from one another. [And] we need to get people hooked on diversity, we need allies for every aspect of diversity. It is very, very important to understand this and to talk about it.”

2. Communication is key. So is treating all parties like adults — because they are. Mirjam Mohr, Member of the Board at Interhyp Gruppe, emphasized that effective communication is non-negotiable, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty: “It will be extremely difficult to survive the next months alone… You cannot not communicate,” Thomassin added. According to Mohr, honesty is always the best policy, even when topics are unpleasant and complicated: “I’m always positively rewarded when I tell the truth, and people feel that it’s the truth. I keep this mode of communicating: precisely, directly, and truthfully.”

3. A commitment to empowerment. Mohr emphasized the importance of communicating directly and truthfully with the team at Interhyp Gruppe. Thomassin mentioned the value that diverse members of his team at Delivery Hero bring to decision making. At the root of this is a commitment to transparency and trust, empowering teams with information and the tools they need to best address the situation on the ground: “I believe in having the power locally with the people as much as possible,” explained Mohr. “We have 140 branches with 140 markets and 140 managers [and I am invested in] teaching them the way to act when in crisis.”

Fabian Engels, Roland Berger’s Senior Partner, co-hosted the event.

Are we up to the task?

The business community is faced with unprecedented challenges at the moment: supply chain disruptions, an acute need to establish energy independence, and ever-more empowered consumers who demand sustainability and accountability from businesses. “Many feel uncertain because there are enormous, substantial, and structural changes that require high investment, such as digitalization efforts and making the shift to sustainable business models,” said Professor René Rohrbeck.

These shifts, he continued, require not only major changes but in some cases also deliberate cooperation and a show of unity between industry actors. Rohrbeck expressed his optimistic outlook, sharing his belief that a concerted effort to meet these challenges was indeed possible. “I’m amazed to see how fast digital companies can actually scale,” he reminded the audience. “These solutions create a lot of hope.”

In conclusion

Creative Dock was happy to gather together with some of the biggest names in digital disruption, especially at this pivotal moment in time. The challenges that face us — the business community and beyond — are unknown terrain, bringing along risks but also opportunities. Of course, conversations are great, but getting things done and putting this wisdom to the test is the next step. That’s our job: building digital ventures from idea to scale. We’re committed to playing our part in this moment of transition, with the belief that we’ll come out stronger on the other side.

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