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“CEO heroes” deserve praise for inspiration during COVID-19

By Marc Benioff, Chair and CEO Salesforce

by By Marc Benioff, Chair and CEO Salesforce

Filed under Coronavirus / Climate Emergency / Leadership case studies

At TTU we highlight cutting edge trends to alert leaders on why they must change how they think. We also share examples of great leadership as an inspiration for others.

This is a lightly edited version of Marc Benioff’s remarks to the World Economic Forum‘s Davos Agenda on 26 January 2021.

  • Many top CEOs should be viewed as heroes
  • The pandemic was a ‘breakout moment’ for them
  • Redefined leadership for stakeholders not just shareholders
  • Adapted fast to help save society from the impact of COVID-19
  • Huge new message for tackling climate emergency next

CEOs around the world need to realise they must manage for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

There has been a mantra for too long that the business of business is business. But today, the business about business is improving the state of the world.

This is more important than ever, and we have realised that. We don’t have to look any farther to that mantra than 2020 itself and the pandemic.

CEO heroes

In the pandemic it was CEOs in many, many cases all over the world who were the heroes. They are the ones who stepped forward with their financial resources, their corporate resources, their employees, their factories. They pivoted rapidly, not for profit, but to save the world.

And just look at the many examples that we have, whether it was the aggregation of PPE, the building of contact tracing systems, the development of the vaccines themselves, the development of liquidity into the system to keep the financial systems floating, development of mental health systems to let people have mental health capabilities at critical times, or even in the free press. They stepped forward to give us accurate, timely information.

This was critical. These CEOs delivered when we needed.

Lessons from bad CEOs too

Now there were bad actors as well, we know that. We saw in social media, bad actors appeared - CEOs who would not step forward to stop lies and misinformation. And a lot of people lost their lives because of bad information that they read on those social media channels.

And that was very much the dark part of 2020.

Inspiration from new cooperation

But the highlight is the tremendous work the chief executive officers did all over the world. And I can tell you, this is not the first meeting that someone like Brian [Moynihan, Chair and CEO of Bank of America] or Larry [Fink, Chair and CEO of BlackRock] or myself are together. CEOs are gathering every week to figure out how can we improve the state of the world and get through this pandemic. And [compare that to] the dysfunction - the dysfunction of governments, and non-governmental organisations over the last year. They were not the ones who saved us.

So the public is counting on CEOs to make the right calls on political and social issues way more than ever before.

And according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer which was released just earlier this month [13 January], business replaces government. Business replaces government and non-governmental organisations as the most trusted institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don’t have to tell you, all of these examples, you know them. I’ve read about them in the FT and many other places. But CEOs stepped up this year, and it’s a year that CEOs can be really pointed to as having a huge and positive impact on the world.

New urgency for sustainability

Why is that? Because the case for sustainability, the case that we are going to get a reduction in our emissions, the case that we’re going to be able to get to net zero in our organisations or as individuals, the case for us to get our plastic out of the oceans, the case to plant 1 trillion trees.

As Klaus [Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF] so eloquently announced last year as a major goal of the World Economic Forum, whether it’s the Friends of Ocean Action, a key part of the WEF community, whether it is the programme and thanking Canada for 2 billion trees.

Well beyond shareholders … to stakeholders

Let me just say that, that’s so exciting. This is evidence that it can happen because CEOs are more committed to running businesses for all stakeholders, not just shareholders, like never before. This is a pivotal year to look at the evidence. We’re not just in Davos giving the philosophy, we’re actually looking at the facts.

Question to Marc Benioff:

Are you concerned that the growing involvement of companies under this stakeholder capitalism mantra is going to raise expectations for businesses so sky high that they can only disappoint in 2021?


No. I think this is a breakout moment for CEOs. I think Klaus has predicted this for many years. I think we’ve talked about it in Davos for decades. We would not be where we are in the world today without the outstanding leadership of many, many CEOs. They did heroic work all over the world to basically save their communities. They operated locally, they also operated globally.

And it was a powerful moment for CEOs. It has not been written enough.

Firm new message for all leaders

It’s hard to say that CEOs are doing a great job. This is not just about EPS [Earnings Per Share]. This is not just about shareholder return. This is about did you make sure that your hospitals have the PPE they needed to protect their frontline workers? This is about did your local community have the contact tracing systems? [AUDIO INTERRUPTED BRIEFLY]

I have a lot of examples of great work of chief executive officers and I really want to come back to Klaus. Klaus has always said the power of the corporation is not just in the ability to generate money, but in the ability to contribute to society, to community, whether it’s in volunteerism, whether it’s taking care of your local public schools, your local public hospitals, taking care of the homeless.

Now, I’ll tell you, I didn’t expect this - this is my first pandemic – so I don’t really know. I didn’t expect that there was going to be when we were in Davos last year that I’d be going home and two months later that my whole year would be obsessed with how can I use Salesforce to make the lives better for the world with you know, during this pandemic. But that’s been my entire year. It’s not just me. It’s many, many CEOs that I’ve spoken to.

I think we have to say it - CEOs are definitely the heroes of 2020 and just look for example at the pharma CEOs, what they have done with the world’s fastest development of these vaccines, which we badly need to get pandemic under control and stop this spread before these mutations get any further.

These remarks coincided with the launch of Stakeholder Capitalism: A Global Economy that works for Progress, People and Planet by Professor Klaus Schwab

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