John Denton: A leader taking the long view

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John W.H. Denton AO is laying the groundwork to future-proof the global economy - by making strides in sustainable development.  

He recently moved to Paris to take the helm at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) as Secretary General – the first time an Australian has held the role of the world’s largest and most representative business organisation.

Shortly after accepting the top position, John was appointed as Board Member of the United Nations (UN) Global Compact, an initiative drawing on CEO commitments to advance UN goals and universal sustainability practices.

In both capacities, John harnesses his strength in engagement and extensive experience in international affairs, which he acquired, in part, through his previous involvement in the Australian Government advisory panel overseeing the development of the “Australia in the Asian Century” White Paper and his decade-long work as founding Chairman of the UN High Commission for Refugees Australia.

Through the lens of these internationally focused roles, John sees our best chances of thriving in the future as depending on our collective drive to achieve more sustainable development through inclusive economic growth. Although the challenges we face are not small, he is confident that global engagement can help transform the world for the better. 

John Denton spoke with Advance about his professional journey.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

What made you move to Paris? Can you share some of the challenges you experienced / are experiencing?

Beyond the myriad reasons that anyone would relish a move to Paris, my motivation was in the particular challenge and opportunity offered in the role of Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). Having served as Vice-Chair of ICC’s Executive Board for several years, I was already involved with the work and achievements of the organisation. The Secretary General opening offered a chance to be more hands on.

ICC is not like other business organisations. It is much bigger for one – representing over 45 million companies employing more than 1 billion workers. But ICC also has a historic role that goes beyond carrying forth the views of the private sector. Its role is also to leverage the knowledge and resources of businesses to advance peace, prosperity and sustainable development through inclusive economic growth. It is the recognition of this multilateral mission that allowed us to secure Observer Status at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2016 – the first and only time a private sector organisation has been afforded such an honour.

A constant of your career has been global engagement. Why has it formed such a defining part of your career?

Global engagement has been a guiding principle for me even before my career took off in earnest. Coming from a large Irish-Catholic family and having been educated by the Jesuits, I was always taught to be what we called “a man for others” – to undertake work that serves a broader social purpose with a global perspective. This led me into public service as a diplomat, where I worked on UN treaties, on development assistance and in a range of other roles. Later taking the helm of leading Australian law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, I continued to serve in roles devoted to international diplomacy and global economic development. When I was approached with the opportunity to become ICC Secretary General, I saw a meaningful way to bring these different strands of my career together.

Throughout my life, I have aimed to build good will. When you build good will, when you build trust, you create a relationship that inspires people to help you and leads to collaboration towards collective goals. As the world’s premier business organisation, building good will through global engagement is in ICC’s DNA. And given the urgent global challenges we currently face – from the threat of climate change to addressing international migration flows – I think we can all agree that more good will is needed on the world stage.

What do your roles at ICC and UN Global Compact Board involve?

As Secretary General of ICC, I am the chief executive of the world’s largest and most representative business organisation. This means that I am in charge of ensuring that our organisation delivers value for our incredibly diverse members and leverages the knowledge, creativity and resources of this vast network towards solutions to global challenges on the multilateral level.

In communities around the world there is a crisis of trust in the global economic and political institutions that have brought unprecedented peace and prosperity over the previous decades. This is in part due to the breakneck speed of technological change and the struggle of these institutions to adapt to the digital age. At the same time, there are a host of challenges, such as climate change, that necessitate a global response that has so far been insufficient.

Through my position as ICC Secretary General – as well as in my role as a Board Member of the UN Global Compact where I provide on-going strategic and policy advice – I bring the voice of the global business community to address these issues alongside government leaders and other stakeholders.

Could you briefly explain the relationship between global trade and sustainable development?

The number one UN Sustainable Development Goal is to end poverty in all its forms. Our international trading system has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in recent decades and has brought unprecedented prosperity to communities around the world. World Bank research shows that developing countries that opened up to international trade in the 1990s grew more than three times faster than those that maintained a high degree of protection to international competition.

The problem today is that world trade is facing a political backlash the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s and much of this is due to factors that have little to do with trade. Trade is regularly blamed for causing job loss in advanced economies exposed to overseas competition, yet research shows it is new technologies that are responsible for 80% of jobs lost.

The World Trade Organization does need reform. It needs to be ‘fit for purpose’ for the 21st century. There are programs that governments can put in place to more widely distribute the net gains of trade. However, the protectionist policies currently being bandied about would only disarm us of one of our most powerful proven methods of driving global economic growth and sustainable development.

What's your biggest inspiration in your career and why?

My biggest inspiration in life is my wife, Jane Turner (the actor). Her energy, talent and creativity consistently inspire me throughout my various activities.  And she makes me laugh!

What do you enjoy most in your roles?

During my time at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, what I most appreciated was the firm’s entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to do things differently – something that is not always a given in large government or multilateral organisations. At ICC, I have been most excited to find that this nearly century-old institution shares a similar desire to shake things up – to be nimble and innovative in approaching recalcitrant global challenges.

My role as Secretary General has allowed me to take a much more hands-on approach to guiding ICC’s work and, crucially, to familiarise myself with the deep stock of internal expertise and talent that the organisation holds in its employees and wider network. Seeing how the productive and thought-provoking exchanges I’ve had with many of these individuals are already opening up new initiatives and ideas is what I find most satisfying in this new role.