Yesterday, I read an interview with Merck CEO Ken Frazier in the NYT and was inspired to write this long overdue post to kick off a conversation about the evolution of leadership in this Digital Era.

I was especially inspired by this part:

"CEOs need to be very thoughtful and sober about the positions that they take publicly. Ultimately, if you believe in something, you ought to say it, and you ought to say it in a very clear way...But by taking those actions I think we were able to show that we really did care about what we said we were about as a company...There are lots of examples of companies that have lost their way because they've sort of lost their soul, which is a funny word to use, but companies do have souls."

As passionate as I am about the space I'm in, it's easy to lose sight of the broader implications of the change that's underway, in large part powered by tech driven transformation and the millennial generation.

And when you step back for a minute, you realize how critical and difficult the evolution of modern leadership in this environment is.

Ken's statement about "companies having souls" reminded me of the January letter from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to CEOs everywhere outlining their expectation that companies start accounting for their effect on society.

"Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose," Fink wrote. "To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate...To sustain that performance, however, you must also understand the societal impact of your business as well as the ways that broad, structural trends — from slow wage growth to rising automation to climate change — affect your potential for growth"

Which of course reminded of my number one, all-time favorite brand (obviously), Patagonia. Patagonia has been ahead of the curve on so many levels, this one included and pulled from its reason for being, the below speaks to this notion of a broader purpose:

"For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide. We know that our business activity – from lighting stores to dyeing shirts – creates pollution as a by-product. So we work steadily to reduce those harms. Staying true to our core values during thirty-plus years in business has helped us create a company we're proud to run and work for. And our focus on making the best products possible has brought us success in the marketplace."

Patagonia is a massively "human" brand and while they were "early" on being human, they serve as a tremendous example of how to build a business that transcends commerce and has become a movement which it seems like Larry Fink is recommending CEOs everywhere pay attention to.

The thing is, this can't just be a "CEO"-thing, this has to be a "culture"-thing aka an "everyone"-thing. But how do we do something so significant? Where do we look for role models? How do we effect this level of change / evolution?

How does this broader responsibility to a broader set of stakeholders become part of "what we're all about"?

Maybe we start by highlighting and sharing more and more examples of folks "talking the talk" and "walking the walk"? Folks we can look up to?

How about Mattel CEO Margo Georgiadis (former Google executive who recently joined Mattel) and what Mattel did in response to a survey of 8,000 mothers and the 86% who said they were worried about the lack of female role models for their daughters?

"In honor of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, Mattel has unveiled a collection of 17 Barbie dolls representing real women—past and present— who serve as role models for girls. Other women in the new group of dolls, called The Inspiring Women series, include gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas, polish journalist Martyna Wojciechowska, NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson (whose work was featured in the film Hidden Figures), and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart."

Or the efforts Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi has made to transform the company while reinforcing a commitment to a leadership that addresses a much broader set of stakeholders over a much longer impact horizon:

"At the end of the day, companies like ours are little republics. PepsiCo’s market capitalization makes us bigger than many countries around the world. Companies like ours have not only got [to be] run for the benefit of shareholders. We’ve got to do it in a way that’s very sensitive to societies and communities around the world. And that’s my sincere hope: that every company views their place in society that way, and modifies [its] business model to be more sensitive to these countries, societies and communities in which they operate.

And then there's Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini response to the 17 innocent people that were killed on February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida:

"Experts agree that gun violence is a public health issue. Our current laws allow too many individuals to access weapons intended for battlefields while failing to keep firearms out of the hands of people who should not have them. I have long believed that corporations have a responsibility to advocate for important changes in our society, and on this issue, Aetna will not stand still."

Of course there's Target Head of Organization Design Keba Gordon, the superstar who I highlighted in my recent recap of 8 key learnings from "Strategy + Innovation Worldforum":

"A fundamentally different kind of leader is needed to compete and win in the digital economy."

Speaking of "a fundamentally different kind of leader", Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz sums it up perfectly when being interviewed by the best journalist in the game ;):

No company, consumer brand or otherwise, can exist today without being a tech company inside that enterprise…Because of the web and the millennial generation, I think every company is totally exposed. And if you’re not the kind of compamy whose transparency is going to be embraced by consumers, you’re going to be in trouble. Because people want to support a company or product whose values are compatible with their own. But it must be authentic. And I think the authenticity of everything we do has to be at the highest standard and “Upstandards”, I think, is emblematic of that…But the world is going through a massive, massive change in terms of artificial intelligence, and robotics, and things of that nature. And every company is going to have to evolve to maintain its relevancy while maintaining its core purpose and reason for being.”

For those that read this, I hope some of the leadership examples above are new to you and that you might be able to share some new examples with me so that I can continue to feature/share them in future posts?

After all, this isn't just a "CEO"-thing, this is an "Everyone"-thing, and step one is identifying who's doing it right so we can all be inspired to commit ourselves to being a part of the evolution of leadership!

"It's time for Larry Fink (BlackRock CEO) level leadership, right?"


E:; T/IG: @Alec_Coughlin

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