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AT&T chair Bill Kennard: ‘Legacy businesses have to disrupt themselves’

March 23, 2021, 10:14 AM UTC

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Good morning.

Bill Kennard’s rise to chairman of AT&T earlier this year is an important milestone in many respects. He is the only Black man serving as independent chair of a Fortune 500 company. He replaced Randall Stephenson, who held both the chairman and the CEO jobs, marking a move to better governance practices for the telecommunications giant. And he is a former commissioner of the FCC, giving him the perfect background to help forge a much-needed public-private partnership to ensure that every American, in his words, has “access to broadband as a fundamental necessity.” After last year, anything less is indefensible.

Kennard was Ellen McGirt’s and my guest on the podcast Leadership Next this week. I asked him what were at the top of his list of board concerns these days, and he crisply summarized the two big challenges that every business leader is wrestling with:

First: “AT&T has to continue to innovate and disrupt itself. We have to figure out in a sense what is the pace you cannibalize yourself. There is a lot of attention in the business headlines these days about how the Silicon Valley giants are disrupting legacy businesses. There is not as much attention being paid to how legacy businesses have to disrupt themselves.”

Second: “The board at AT&T, like all boards today, is focused on the role of corporations in society.  Increasingly you are seeing corporations step into the vacuum where government leadership has sometimes failed or just can’t get the job done, and you are seeing corporations stepping up…Corporations are increasingly questioning, what is their role in society?  How do corporations help solve the challenges of income inequality and racial inequality in the country, and political instability? These are questions that corporations have to address in order to be successful in society.”

That pretty well sums up the entire theme of Leadership Next.  You can hear the full interview on Apple or Spotify, and catch up on our past interviews here.

News below.

Alan Murray

Editor’s note: A previous version of this newsletter misspelled the name of the former chief executive of AT&T.


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.