How has the role of the CEO changed in the past decade?
That was the question posed to PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini at the Fortune and Time CEO Initiative conference in New York City on Monday. Alan Murray, Time Inc.’s Chief Content Officer, noted that it is far more common for the heads of huge companies to wade into controversial cultural and political topics—from climate change to nationwide protests—today than it was the case 10 or 15 years ago.
According to Nooyi, one factor is a changing workforce, which is now heavily populated with millennial workers who want their employers to embrace social issues. “They no longer look at is as [just] a paycheck,” she said. “They look at it as ‘How can I go to work and make a difference in society?'” The Pepsi CEO said that part of a chief executive’s duty today is to ensure that a company’s business goals align with initiatives that make a positive difference in the world. “We had to weave purpose into the core business model of the company,” Nooyi said.
And yet Nooyi also said she believes it can be problematic when a CEO takes a specific moral stance on an individual issue. “The best thing is to focus on running the company, do not take positions, and just make sure that you focus on your community,” she said. Murray noted that Nooyi was among the business leaders who recently pulled out of President Donald Trump’s business advisory council in response to the president’s actions following racially-charged violence in Virginia last month. Nooyi said that was “a group decision” among the broader group of CEOs.
For his part, Aetna’s Bertolini disagreed with Nooyi when it comes to CEOs taking moral stances. “We should be able to take moral positions and support the mission of the organization,” Bertolini said, noting that these are the types of companies that most people want to work for.
Bertolini also said he believes social media has significantly changed the role of the CEO in recent years. Any message coming out of a company can be instantly dissected on a large social platform, which affects how the company is perceived by the public as well as its employees.
“All of our employees—who nowadays look for people, planet, then profits—have this broader view of how the world works and how we fit within it,” he said. “And, they’re influenced by many different factors out there. Many different audiences, many different groups.”