Since 1990, Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld has led the CEO Summit, a peer-driven, unscripted, and off-the-record gathering of leaders from business, government, and nonprofits. In December, the CEO Summit celebrated its 100th event.
By Ben Mattison
Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld has two particularly strong memories of the first time, in the spring of 1988, that he gathered a small group of CEOs for an off-the-record conversation—the prototype for what became the CEO Summit, now presented by Yale SOM’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute, which held its 100th event in December.
One memory is that one of the business leaders took over the conversation. “He had the answers to everybody’s problems and wouldn’t stop talking,” Sonnenfeld remembers. Sonnenfeld, a young professor at Harvard Business School, couldn’t get the conversation back on track, and eventually, some of the prominent CEOs in the group left the room in frustration.
But the other memory hinted at what a peer-driven conversation could become—a source of insights not available to CEOs in other forums. N.J. Nicholas, co-CEO of the newly merged Time Warner, was warned by his peers about his colleague Gerald Levin. “Everybody in the room was warning him, ‘Jerry Levin is a snake in the grass,’” Sonnenfeld says. “‘He’s going to sabotage you.’” Nicholas dismissed their concerns—but later was indeed forced out by Time Warner co-CEO Steven J. Ross and replaced with Levin.
Sonnenfeld gained the stature to wrangle a roomful of CEOs after his book The Hero’s Farewell, a study of CEO succession, became a crossover success. He accepted a tenured position at Emory University, where he created the CEO Summit in 1990. Initially, the gatherings were divided by industry—or, rather, by groupings of industries that Sonnenfeld and his team saw as having issues in common. For example, they assembled a group that they called “SuperCom,” with leaders from the computer, telecom, software, and exertainment industries. The participants were baffled to find themselves in the same room. “They thought they were completely different industries,” Sonnenfeld says. “They did not see the convergence” that has since created giants like Apple, Amazon, Disney, and Comcast.
Another event brought together CEOs from the consulting, legal, accounting, and architectural industries. At the event, Marvin Bower, the longtime leader of McKinsey & Company, met Bruce Henderson, the founder of Boston Consulting Group, for the first time. Sonnenfeld recalls that the two aging leaders debated their approaches, with Bower extolling McKinsey’s collegial, cooperative partnership structure. According to Sonnenfeld, Henderson responded that at BCG, he cultivated loyal underlings and forced out those who might eventually challenge him—including Bill Bain, the founder of Bain & Company. “It’s like managing a wolf pack. They’re all out to devour the alpha wolf. And that’s who you are as the managing partner.”
In 1993, Sonnenfeld created the model that has persisted to the present, first at Emory and since 2001 at Yale SOM. CEOs from a variety of industries, as well as leaders from government and nonprofits, gather in one room for an unscripted, off-the-record conversation, with Sonnenfeld guiding the discussion.
“In the earliest days, it used to be really hard to convince the CEOs that they don’t have to come with prepared speeches and PowerPoint presentations,” Sonnenfeld says. “We tell them it’s not an investor relations pitch, it’s not a road show, and it’s not a product launch. We still keep the tone of a classroom or a business meeting, so that there’s a lively exchange. If anybody has prepared remarks, we tear them up.”
Because the conversations are off the record, there is the potential for exchanges with real impact. At one CEO Summit, the chairman and two members of the Securities and Exchange Commission were present, at a time when many of the CEOs in attendance were concerned about the cost of a pending regulation. According to Sonnenfeld, the commissioners invited comment. “The three of them said, ‘Well, this is like an open hearing. We’re going to start a policy around that. We’re going to follow up on it.”
Many prominent CEOs and other leaders have returned to the CEO Summit again and again; regular participants include Indra Nooyi ’80, former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo; Rick Goings, executive chairman of the Tupperware Brands Corporation; Farooq Kathwari, chairman, president, and CEO of Ethan Allen; Ashton B. Carter; former secretary of defense; Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group; Hank Greenberg, chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co.; Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase; Kenneth Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck; Lloyd Blankfein, senior chairman of Goldman Sachs; Ginni Rometty, chairman, president, and CEO of IBM; David Cote, chairman and CEO of Honeywell International; Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin; Stuart Miller, CEO of Lennar Corporation; Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Theaters; Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation; Lynn Tilton, CEO of Patriarch Partners; and Larry Page, co-founder of Google.
But, Sonnenfeld says, it’s important to hear from new voices. “We like to have a third of people who have never come to a CEO Summit before, another third who have come to some CEO Summits, and a final third who were at the most recent one, so we have some continuity of discussion topics.”
That split means that two-thirds of the people in the room “are used to the liberties we take,” Sonnenfeld adds. “And one third, in the beginning, are wondering, what in the hell have I gotten into here? There’s no net beneath us.”
Each participant has an electronic response device in front of them, allowing Sonnenfeld to take and display snap polls. Some questions are spontaneous, prompted by the conversation; others are planned in advance. “We can contrast with data from a prior summit for a longitudinal comparison,” Sonnenfeld says. Or he can ask questions from Pew or Gallup polls and “take a look at how the CEO community might be different from the general population.”
While responses from individual participants are off the record, they agree to have summaries of the conversation and their aggregated poll responses made public, and those poll responses often make headlines. In December 2018, for example, 75% of participants said that they often had to apologize for President Donald Trump in their interactions with international business partners—a sign that the president was losing the confidence of an important constituency.
A longstanding feature of the CEO Summit is a series of awards recognizing outstanding CEOs, nominated by prior winners. The Maverick in Leadership Award recognizes innovation; the Legend in Leadership goes to “established CEOs who offer inspiring legacies”; and the Lifetime of Leadership award “celebrates those transformational leaders whose character and sustained contribution span sectors, decades, and generations.”
The awards, Sonnenfeld says, are an opportunity to recognize “somebody who isn’t being draped in accolades elsewhere. We try to find people who are off the beaten path.”
Over the last decade, the CEO Summit has been joined by other regular events under the umbrella of Yale SOM’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute, led by Sonnenfeld: the annual CEO College, an intensive learning session for a small group of CEOs; the Mayors College, an annual peer discussion among city leaders from both parties; the annual Yale Higher Education Summit, which brings together university presidents and board chairs; and the semiannual CEO Caucus, which gathers business and political leaders at a space on Capitol Hill. “We’re closer to the Capitol than the Senate Office Building is to the House Office Building,” Sonnenfeld says. “It’s great getting congressional figures to run over.”
While one focus of the CEO Summit is the opportunity for corporate leaders to learn from each other, it also gives Sonnenfeld and his Yale colleagues a chance to inform their studies of business and management.
“One thing I love is getting colleagues from around the campus there,” Sonnenfeld says. “If you are studying antitrust issues and you have the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, it’s something you couldn’t see anywhere else. To actually get it unscripted, without the public relations sanitizing how CEOs talk about what they’re doing.”
Scholars often look at aspects of business in isolation, Sonnenfeld says. The CEO Summit gives them the opportunity to see them in context, to understand how they interact with competitors, regulators, and others. “We get a richer view of what’s happening with these enterprises,” Sonnenfeld says.