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Mayor’s College and CEO Summit Move Online and Pivot to New Topic: Racism

By Karen Guzman

The Chief Executive Leadership Institute ’s Mayors College and CEO Summit, long planned for June 3, went on as planned, but in a new format—an online discussion, open to the public—and with a new theme: racism and the civil unrest sweeping the United States after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.

“I had to pivot in real time to address the—literally—burning social issues of the day,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, founder and CEO of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute. 

Several times a year, the CEO Summit brings together corporate and government leaders and leading academics to discuss the role of business in navigating the day’s most pressing issues; the annual Mayors College convenes mayors of middle-sized and large cities from both parties.

Both events are typically in-person, closed-door gatherings, allowing for frank discussion among high-profile leaders.

Kenneth C. Frazier, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Merck & Co., on what the business community needs to do.

“We need healing, we need reconciliation. But I think we also know that the business community can take leadership when it comes to concrete action around things like police reform, around things like access to capital. I would actually say that of all the issues that the business community can unilaterally make an impact on, it’s the issue of joblessness; it’s the issue of opportunity in the African American community.”

“We were about to cancel,” said Sonnenfeld, Yale SOM’s senior associate dean for leadership studies and the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, “but so many top leaders requested we continue, even without the usual intimate, off-the-record exchange, that we were encouraged to instead try it with remote technology.”

The summit’s original theme was “Economic Rejuvenation: Safely Bringing Corporations and Communities out of COVID Caves.” Organizers had prepared an agenda of discussion revolving around economic recovery, community rebuilding, biotech developments and U.S./China trade issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and breakdowns in diplomacy. But after Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, Sonnenfeld said, it was clear that a change in focus was needed.

“I worried about a ‘bait and switch’ charge with such a powerful, busy collection of leaders,” said Sonnenfeld “But they, too, are experiencing a sudden new priority and thankfully embraced the shift.”

Some of the opinion leaders and experts in attendance included 47th U.S. Vice President Joe Biden; Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer; Senior Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; 25th U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter; the 65th U.S. secretary of state, General Colin Powell; and former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills.

Ash Carter, former Secretary of Defense, and Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, discuss the possible use of military forces to quell civil unrest.

“You’ve got to push back against attempts to politicize the Department of Defense… That’s one of your jobs as their boss and the top civilian is to protect them from politics, not to channel politics to them.” —Ash Carter

“It’s not clear that the president fully understands how the military works… I’m not sure what the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or the secretary of defense knew about what they were being told to do. Which makes for a very unstable situation, when you’re not quite sure what’s coming out of the president and that you really understand what he’s saying… It’s deeply troubling.” —Colin Powell

“This was a rare opportunity to have a cross-section of leaders, spanning industries, ideologies, and sectors, speak to the vital issues of the day,” said Sonnenfeld.

Summit attendees said they found the discussion deeply meaningful and helpful as they guide their organizations through turbulent times. Kay Koplovitz, the founder and former CEO of USA Network, called the meetings she attended Wednesday “extraordinary.” She added, “The challenges at hand were so well articulated by the mayors, regardless of political affiliation... same could be said for the CEO session.”

Tamara L. Lundgren, Chairman and CEO, Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc., wrote in a note to Sonnenfeld, “Both the mayors’ meeting and the CEO Summit were terrific and the topics discussed extraordinarily timely. Thank you for your leadership, deft touch, and ability to engage hundreds of people in a conversation and yet make it feel like a gathering of only a few.”

Nicole Russo, CEO and President of Microboard, commented that she believed the discussion at the event could help all the participants have meaningful impact in coming days. “I am committed personally and professionally to help drive the change our country needs. I look forward to staying in close contact with you and fellow CEOs on how we can collaborate to stabilize and propel our neighbors, businesses, and this great country to new heights.”

Among the cities represented by the mayors present were Lincoln, Nebraska; Atlanta, Georgia; Buffalo, New York; Louisville, Kentucky; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Hartford, Connecticut; Oakland, California; Miami, Florida; Tampa, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Stamford, Connecticut; and El Paso, Texas.


Richard V. Spencer, former Secretary of the Navy, on the importance of safeguarding the military’s reputation.

“The most important thing that our military has right now is its reputation. You are gambling that reputation right on the zero-zero line when you send active duty military troops into a civilian situation. It’s almost unfathomable to me that that could even be considered.”

Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, on having conversations about racism.

“We do have an obligation. Sometimes we convince ourselves, look, it’s not really my responsibility as CEO to opine on this or make a statement on this, because when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it’s not going to matter. It does matter.”

David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, on starting important conversations with your team.

“I think we have to speak up consistently as leaders as to what we think is right, and hopefully over time it has an impact… It starts with talking with our employees.”

Ginni Rometty, executive chairman of IBM, on creating more opportunity within companies.

“The biggest action we can take is around opportunity, and that is on jobs and this will mean—and it is not a compromise—many of our jobs can be for less than four-year college degree people to get into our company… This in the end is about opportunity and access.”

Joseph Biden and Francis Suarez, mayor of Miami, discuss how cities can recover.

“I’ve been pushing very hard for significant state and local aid. When we did it back when they had the financial crisis, What happened was we were able to keep school teachers on the payroll, firehouses open, emergency rooms open, mental health facilities open, making sure that we had police that were on the beat, and could be out there because they didn’t have to be laid off.” —Joseph Biden