It has become a tradition at the end of every annual A.T. Kearney Global Business Policy Council CEO Retreat to pause and scan for the topics we should explore for next year’s retreat. In doing so, we get a feel from the CEOs and faculty on the most pressing topics and issues that they are grappling with. Monitoring the state of the global economy is always on the agenda. Exploring the impact of technological progress is also becoming a permanent feature. Leadership in times of disruptive change has been a major topic as well. This year, however, a new topic emerged that received broad support for ongoing discussion from those present: exploring the impact of economic inequality on business and politics.
This was underscored, in part, by the comments that Colombia’s newly re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos made to our group. Not so long ago, Colombia hovered just above Haiti in terms of income inequality. As its economic growth has accelerated and reforms have begun to take hold, income inequality has decreased—but remains a priority area for the government. It’s a topic that no leader can ignore.
There is an obvious irony in CEOs and otherwise well-off elites discussing income inequality, but it’s a topic we need to address as an integral part of our broader mandate to our businesses and the societies in which we live. Beyond the obvious political dimensions, it is a sensitive and, yes, also moral topic that causes some obvious discomfort, as we’ve seen with the high emotions around the 99 and 1 percent debate. Aside from this, however, the conversation continues to grow louder: Thomas Piketty’s bestselling and controversial book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has also added significant fodder for discussion.
There is no denying that rising levels of global economic inequality have a profound impact on businesses. Governments have an obvious role to play—but how best should the public and private sector work together? How best can global business leaders advance and sustain growth that truly meets the needs of all constituents? Of the topics that keep global leaders up at night, I for one take comfort that this is now high on the list.