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Leading by example

What a difference half a day makes. No sooner had I filed last Sunday’s column about the splendour and silence of a proper snowfall than warmer winds started to blow across peaks and valleys across Switzerland. When I set off to our radio studio for our Sunday morning show the streets of Zürich were in full meltdown mode: clumps of snow were falling off of trees and slanted roofs onto passing and parked cars; snapped branches were emerging from craggy snowbanks; and eager joggers were doing their best to keep their pace while dodging ice blocks and collapsed hedges. In a matter of hours the city had transformed from a fluffy, white wonderland to a battered, damp mess of amputated pine boughs and maple trunks.By the time I pulled up in front of our building it was clear that the city would have a big week of cleaning ahead of it and Zürich’s garden centres would be able to count on brisk spring sales, as villa owners would all be in need of intensive interventions to replace cherry trees, ornamental bushes and other greenery crushed by the snow. In front of our café, hearty locals were already lined up for their morning coffee-and-croissant fix and though I was running a little late for the start of our broadcast (we were going live in 15 minutes) I paused to chat to one of our German regulars about the weather and the week ahead. “What’s your feeling on all of this?” he asked, motioning to the queue of masked customers, the dripping branches and the quiet street. “Are we moving out of this now? Is the public fed up?”“That’s a hard one,” I replied. “I think there are plenty of people who are happy to go along and not question what’s asked of them and then there are those who see that this is not sustainable and are starting to push back. Our neighbour’s a good example.”“Oh, what’s our neighbour doing?” he asked.“He’s filing the Swiss version of a class-action suit against the federal government for what he believes are disproportionate measures that have led to a collapse in his business,” I explained, making a polite, ducking motion toward the door. “I’m sorry but I have to excuse myself and do radio.”“Another quick question,” asked our regular. “Do you think it’s a one-off or will we now see more of these?”“Tune in to find out more!” I suggested.An hour later I walked back to the car, kicked away a small branch that had fallen near the driver’s side and headed home. We hadn’t managed to tackle the topic our regular asked about on the show and I’ve been thinking about the mood that’s settled over much of Europe and North America. Are we caught in a tangle of measures and hastily proposed laws that offer little in the way of hope? Or, just like the warm after the storm, are we starting to see the first signs of a thaw and a need to seize upon this momentum? Do we need to block out the negative media narrative and start venturing out into the world? Is it time for companies to allow staff to hold proper meetings again and recognise that a year of colleagues seen only on screen is proving debilitating to many?The next morning I boarded a train bound for Geneva to meet a client whose company believes in the power of being present. No surprise that this attitude has meant that, despite everything, 2020 was almost a record year for their business. “Our boss wants us out in the world, when and where possible,” explained the client. “It’s why we’re now sitting here together on a Monday, despite a lockdown, discussing what projects we can work on – it’s efficient and it’s human.”In the absence of effective political leadership in many capitals, we need more CEOs and business owners to show their partners and the public that there are other ways to move forward that don’t involve endless video conferences with a chorus of people wrapping up with the now very annoying ‘stay safe’ sign-off. (By the way, what does that even mean? If I was travelling to Mali to report on France’s intervention in Sahel then “stay safe” might work. Sitting in an office in Zürich, reading it in countless emails, I’m left wondering what happened to a simple “best regards”.) In the spirit of keeping things moving – and taking a bit of inspiration from my colleague Andrew’s column yesterday – I’m off to Paris on Tuesday where it seems that CEOs and CMOs are only too happy to receive adventurous visitors from exotic lands.

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