EMERGE Everywhere

Alan Murray | Fortune Media

After leading a group of 100 CEOs to meet Pope Francis in 2016, Fortune committed to advancing social progress by uniting leading minds at its annual CEO Initiative. As Fortune continues its transition from a magazine into a platform for change, CEO Alan Murray joins host Jennifer Tescher to talk about the future of the initiative, the progress of capitalism, and the need for greater compassion in business.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Written by

Alan Murray

Alan Murray

Alan Murray is CEO of Fortune Media. He oversees the business and editorial operations of the independent media company, is known for expanding its digital and conference franchises, and writes the Fortune CEO Daily. Prior to joining Fortune in 2015, Murray led the rapid expansion of the Pew Research Center’s digital footprint as president of that organization. Murray also worked for the Wall Street Journal for many years, serving as Deputy Managing Editor, Executive Editor Online, Washington Bureau Chief, and author of the Political Capital and Business columns. He served for several years as Washington bureau chief for CNBC and co-host of the nightly show Capital Report. He is the author of multiple books, including the classic “Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform.”

Learn more about the Fortune CEO Initiative and check out additional episodes of EMERGE Everywhere.

Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:
Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries, and now, I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward thinking leaders challenging the status quo and unleashing creative new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees, and communities in 3D.

Alan Murray has been on the business feed for nearly his entire journalism career. And so he’s certain that there is something really different going on with business leaders and the role they play in society. As the CEO of FORTUNE Media, and the co-host of the Leadership Next Podcast, Alan has a unique perch for chronicling the evolution of capitalism and the growing recognition by CEOs that purpose matters to employees and consumers and ultimately to investors. Ever the optimist, Alan thinks the changes are here to stay. 

Alan, welcome to EMERGE Everywhere.

Alan Murray:
Thank you. Good to be here, Jennifer.

Jennifer Tescher:
So you have long chronicled business money and power, and yet here you are running a media company called FORTUNE from which you are spreading the gospel on a kinder, gentler capitalism. How did that happen?

Alan Murray:
Yeah, it’s interesting, this is not a crusade on my part. I mean, your roots are in journalism, my roots are in journalism. I always thought that my job was to explain the world not to change the world. But I think what became clear to me over the course of the last 10 years or so, was that something very big was going on in the world of business, that it was changing, that it was different. I mean, I am in a fortunate position in that I get to talk to a lot of CEOs, people who run large companies. And it’s one of the great things about journalism, you’re allowed to go all sorts of places you really have no business being. And I ran a television show on CNBC for a number of years, early in the millennia, I did conferences of The Wall Street Journal, now at FORTUNE.

It gave me kind of a unique perks to have these conversations with CEOs. And it just became clear to me that something very different was going on in the way they were talking, in the way they were acting. So it was really, as a journalist exploring that change that got me to where I am today, believing that something profound is going on in the way business operates and that by and large, it’s a good thing.

Jennifer Tescher:
So I want to dive deeper there. But first, I want to take you back to 2016 when you led a group of 100 CEOs and business leaders to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican. So what does the pope have to do with capitalism? And tell me more about that dialogue.

Alan Murray:
It’s such a great question. I mean, think about the year, it was early 2016 when Brexit happened, and business leaders are saying, there probably wasn’t a business leader in the UK, who thought Brexit was a good idea. And the public said, “Sorry, we don’t care about you. We’re going to do this.” At the same time in the US, you had this crazy election campaign where the Republican candidate was Donald Trump, who was basically thumbing his nose at all the big corporations saying, “Oh, you guys pursued globalization, that’s what got us into this mess.” And on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was almost knocked off by a self-proclaimed socialist. In fact, Hillary Clinton told me in an interview after the election that she thinks saying that she was a capitalist hurt her in the election.

So you had reached this crazy moment in the world and I think this had been building, we can talk about the history of it. I think it had been building since the Great Recession. But you had reached this crazy moment in the world where people were really losing faith in the capitalist system. You had polls of young people saying that a majority of them didn’t believe in capitalism, they would prefer socialism. I don’t know if they knew what they were talking about, but nevertheless, we thought and by the way, business leaders were feeling this. I mean, most of the conversations I do are on the record, but I remember one Fortune 50 CEO coming up to me and saying, “We got to figure out how to do this better or we’re going to lose our operating licenses. We only have a few years to figure this out, we’ve really got to change and convince the public that we actually contribute to society, not detract from society.”

So it was that that led us to say, “Okay, let’s get all these business leaders together,” we got 100 of them, came to Rome and let’s not invite any politicians. This isn’t about telling the government what to do, or government policy, and have a day of conversations about what can big business and they were big companies. I mean, companies like Siemens which is massive, global, and get these CEOs to talk about how can I use my superpowers as a company to actually address some of the big global problems that the pope cares about. And the pope remember, he had just done that tour through Latin America. He didn’t sound much like a capitalist – not a very capitalist-friendly pope, and I think was probably a little skeptical initially about this whole undertaking.

But the second day we were there, all the CEOs, we put them on a bus early in the morning had an amazing opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel before it opened to the public. So you had 100 CEOs milling around the Sistine Chapel and then met with the pope and presented to him the work we had done the previous day, and it covered the environment, water, training workforce development, how can companies using just their own resources and profit-making focus, address some of these issues? He was so impressed he ended up spending a couple hours with him and greeted them individually. 

I think it was for me certainly a watershed event, but for many of them as well. It was the first time, we’ve done a lot of events over the years, but this was the first event where literally every CEO who participated said to us, “You have to keep this going. You have to figure out a way to keep this conversation going because it’s critical to our future and it’s critical to the future of the world.” And so we did, we created a group called the CEO Initiative out of that, but it was quite an event.

Jennifer Tescher:
Oh my goodness. So I’m an avid listener of your podcast, which is called Leadership Next and which you host with Ellen McGirt, who is just fantastic. And in your introductory episode, you talk about the paradigm shift that you’re seeing in the world of business, not just away from Milton Friedman type views around capitalism, but what it takes to be a leader. How CEOs spend their time today, things like that. Why is this happening now? What’s going on that’s driving this change, and what would drive 100 CEOs in 2016 to go see the pope? I don’t think that would have happened five years before that.

Alan Murray:
No, it wouldn’t have. The most obvious example of how much has changed is this CEO activism piece. And let me just spend a second on this because I do think it’s the one piece where as a journalist, I know, oh my God, the world is totally different than it was even 10 years ago. I mentioned that I hosted a television show on CNBC for three years. So I was in the business of trying to get CEOs to talk about controversial social and political issues. Not a chance, you know, no way would they. I mean, you’re talking about something like transgender access to bathrooms or a battle over voting rights. It’s pitting every republican against every democrat, they would have been under their desk, and say, “It doesn’t affect my bottom line. And if it doesn’t affect my bottom line, I’m going to keep my mouth shut.” Even as recently as 2014, think about this, when Ferguson happened and Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, I challenge you to find a single large company CEO who spoke out.

And now compare that to what happened last year with the George Floyd shooting where every CEO felt like they had to put a strong statement on the record. And I can trace the history of that Marc Benioff had a lot to do with the Indiana religious liberties law. He said, “We’re not going to be in Indiana if you pass this law because it’s discriminatory to gays.” But also like Bank of America, not a West Coast tech company, in North Carolina, when the state passed a law limiting transgender access to public bathrooms did the same thing. And then Ken Frazier, of course, the black CEO of Merck, who resigned from President Trump’s councils after Charlottesville, and then every other CEO resigned as well. So I mean, that’s only one manifestation of what’s going on, but it is the one where it is most obvious to me that the world is completely different than it was even 10 years ago, the world of business.

Jennifer Tescher:
And why?

Alan Murray:
Yeah, why? I’m sorry. Answer the question, Alan. So let me give you the, it’s actually I could talk for about four hours on this, but instead of doing that, I’m going to give you a simple statistic that I think is really core to it. And it comes out of Colin Mayer’s book Prosperity which I recommend to your listeners. It’s a really good book, came out last year. If you look at the Fortune 500 companies in 1970, and you look at their balance sheets, more than 80% of the value on their balance sheet was stuff. It was plant, it was equipment, it was oil in the ground, it was inventories on the shelves, it was physical stuff, more than 80%. If you do the exact same exercise now with the Fortune 500, more than 80%, about 85% is not stuff, it’s intellectual property, it’s brand value, it’s intangibles. It’s all the things that are created by people.

And what that has done is made every company that’s at the forefront of the economy recognize that their most important asset is their people, that Exxon wouldn’t say that. Their most important asset is the stuff in the ground. Walmart might say their most important asset is the stores and the stuff on the shelves. But most companies today have come to recognize that their people are their most important asset. And so first and foremost, there are other reasons but first and foremost, the reason this is happening is because there is a massive battle for talent going on and employees are making it happen. And let me take it one more step. You have a different generation of employees and I really do think. I spent a couple years in my career running the Pew Research Center.

Yeah. And while I was there, we did a lot of research on the millennial generation. And what you would see in that research was, they’re slower to get married than previous generations, they are less likely to belong to an organized church than previous generations. They’re much less likely to belong to a club or a social club, any kind of an exclusive club experience. I remember looking at those numbers and saying, what this really means is that for many of these people, their only formal relationship to society, I mean, leave aside social networks and all that. Their only formal human relationship is with their employer. I mean, I don’t know, I see this in my own family, leave me out of it, I know my father went to work to make money. And he went to church or went to the rotary club or did other things to do good in the world.

But my children want their job to be the place they do good in the world, all those expectations have been focused on the employer. So you have this millennial, this change in the generation of employees, and this change in the sorts of value in the companies. And there are a bunch of other things. I think social media has an important role in it. But I think those are the two biggest drivers. Because I have over the course of the decade, every time I’ve had this conversation with the CEO, I’ve asked the question you asked, I say, “Why are you doing this?” Every time the answer begins with, because of my employees. My employees want me to, my employees demand it, my employees asked me to. So to me, that’s where it starts. It’s gotten much more pervasive and complicated and extensive than that but it starts with the employees.

Jennifer Tescher:
That’s interesting. So after all now though, corporations still wield enormous power, nothing has changed in that regard. And so how can we be sure that what we’re hearing from CEOs, the commitments that are being made, the statements that are being made, how can we be sure that the changes are more than window dressing? Like, why should we believe them?

Alan Murray:
Right, and it’s a great question, and we live in a time of enormous cynicism and a lot of people don’t believe but look.

Jennifer Tescher:
It sounds like you think that we should believe them given your reporting, your conversations.

Alan Murray:
I don’t want to say that companies have suddenly had some sort of Paul on the road, had some sort of moral awakening, companies continue to do bad things and will. But I do think something different is happening and I think you asked the right question say, okay, what I believe because I know a lot of these people, and I’ve had many hours of conversations with them, is that they are sincerely trying to do something. But then the next question is, well, how do we know if they’re succeeding, or is it just a bunch of talk? And again, I cite Colin Mayer, because the way he puts it is, look, in the 20th century, the scarce resources were financial resources and physical resources. And so we developed a very elaborate accounting system to keep track of how you were using your financial resources and your physical resources.

That’s the big four. That’s what they do. We know how to measure shareholder returns by God, we do that really well. But his argument is, in the 21st century because of these changes that we’ve already talked about, the scarce resources are talent, high-end human capital, also natural social capital, acceptance by society, this whole notion of I may lose my operating license if I don’t figure out how to do this better, and natural capital of what’s happening to the environment. And we’re really just beginning to put metrics around those things. So it took us a century to get this elaborate system of financial metrics. It’s going to take a little time to get the, “ESG metrics” right, but it’s starting to happen.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah, I like that perspective. For us, we’re all about measurement, because we know that what gets measured gets managed. And so for us, the core of promoting an agenda around financial health for all is, well, you have to know what it is, you have to be able to measure it. You have to disaggregate the data to understand that averages don’t really matter much, right? You got to know how it affects different people. And then you have to be able to hold yourself accountable when you take action to see if it actually makes any difference and you’re right, there has been quite an effort over the last decade around ESG and other similar kinds of measurement systems. And it’s frustrating in terms of there’s more work to do there, but it is better now than it was.

Alan Murray:
A really important thing happened at the last in-person Davos meeting before the pandemic. And I honestly, I’ve been going there on and off for 20 years, I thought I would never say the words, I just said that a really important thing happened at Davos. I mean I went because everybody else was there and it’s a great time but I never thought it had much importance. But something important did happen at the last meeting. They have a group called the IBC, the International Business Council, and Brian Moynihan again, Bank of America, not what you think of this isn’t one of those left coast technology companies. This is salted the earth, Irish Catholic, Brian Moynihan running a bank based in North Carolina. He agreed to head the effort of the International Business committee to start to come up with a limited set of metrics that would define the things we’re talking about, environment, social goals, governance goals. And he worked with all four of the big four accounting firms, and they came out with their report in the middle of the pandemic. It’s not the answer, but it’s really significant movement towards the answer.

Jennifer Tescher:
I agree. When I saw that report, I was excited to see the CEOs themselves do this work, much of the work here to for has been done by others, encouraging CEOs to use it. So once the CEOs take it on themselves, I think you start to see even more progress.

Alan Murray:
Yeah, and one of the places you’re seeing this happen dramatically this year is in the climate change area. A number of companies committing to 2050 goals, net-zero 2050 goals has shot up by a surprising amount. Now, you can still say, “Well, 2050, I mean, they’re going to be dead when 2050 comes so who cares? Who cares about the goals they set?” But then a lot of them are of doing the work to take it from 2050 back to 2035. So there’s something very different in the air and in the water going on right now in the way business leaders are thinking about social responsibility.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah. It seems to me that race and gender equity may be the ultimate test of just how meaningful the shift is. And this is not just a shift required of business, right? This is a shift required of all of us, a really truly cultural and systemic set of shifts. What’s your take on how business is responding? And is this just going to be let’s put a woman and a person of color on our board and maybe one in the C-suite and we’re done? Or do you think that folks are really getting into the meat of what this is?

Alan Murray:
You mentioned I did this podcast with Ellen McGirt. The reason I have Ellen there is because Ellen can always see the cloud inside any silver lining.

Jennifer Tescher:
Excellent.

Alan Murray:
And I may focus more on the silver lining, but let me just talk about some things that have happened in the last year that I think are different. I mean, it’s easy to be cynical about that issue in particular, because we’ve been talking about it for decades and yet, you look at the numbers and say, “Well, what was that all about? And we don’t seem to have done anything.” But there’s some things going on that are very different. First of all, you had this coalition of business leaders, Ken Frazier from Merck, Ken Chenault who used to be at American Express, Ginni Rometty who was at IBM, who came together and said, “We have to use our powers to really do something here.” And they created this organization called OneTen and they got a whole bunch of companies to commit to hiring a total of a million people from OneTen. And the whole point is, let’s not just, there’s a limited group of diverse talent in corporate America right now.

And then when people get concerned about diversity, their pay goes up because everybody’s competing to bring them in. But what can and can and Ginni said was, we have to work on the pipeline. Let’s create an escalator. We have to redefine the way we think about jobs because we tend to say, “Oh, you went to Williams. Okay, great. I’ll hire you, as opposed to here are the skills I need, and can I get you trained in those skills?” So I think that’s real. We have teamed up with Refinitiv, which is a data company, used to be part of Thomson Reuters to challenge companies to disclose their diversity metrics, which they hadn’t done before. Because we believe, as you just said that what gets measured gets managed, and we’re seeing pretty significant take up on that. So I think that’s going to happen. So there are things happening that are real.

And then, frankly, some of this is going to happen for better or for worse from the government level. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the SCC require what we are asking companies to do voluntarily, which is disclose diversity data so that everyone can see if you’re holding up on your promises. So there’s just a bunch of stuff going on right now that makes me think this is more serious than it has been in the four decades I’ve been watching this stuff. I can’t speak for what happened before that.

Jennifer Tescher:
So where are the investors in all of this? So you see a company say, “Okay, I’m going to step up and pay my workers $15 an hour.” Or in the case of Bank of America, $25 an hour, now they’re going to promise and the next day they’re stock tanks.

Alan Murray:
Yeah, that was the Walmart example. But to me, that’s the most interesting part of the story, because I thought the investors were always the least engaged on these topics. But then two years ago, you had that Larry Fink letter come out from BlackRock and BlackRock is like the single biggest investor in companies in the world. And they said, “Hey, you got to start paying attention to this stuff.” And then more people jumped on board. I haven’t been able to find out where the statistic comes from, you may know it. Someone told me, today 40% of the money that is invested in the stock market, or financial markets generally goes through some kind of an ESG screen, 40%. Now, the screen may be bullshit but there’s at least the nominal nod to ESG. And then, of course, what happened during the pandemic was that the particularly on the environmental front, the companies that were the darlings of these funds of these environmentally friendly funds soared.

I mean, all you have to do is have Tesla in your portfolio and you outperform everyone else. So now coming out of the pandemic, there’s all these studies showing that if you do ESG investing, you’ll get a better return. It used to be, people thought you would accept an inferior return in order to do good in the world. And what the studies are now showing you is you get a superior return by doing good in the world. And the logic around that is that it’s a kind of a risk proxy, that if companies are paying attention to their employees and paying attention to the environment, and paying attention to the needs of the communities they operate in, it’s probably a sign that they’re a well-run organization and less likely to run into some big, big problem, like they were selling opioids or they were dumping toxic chemicals in a river somewhere that brings them down.

Jennifer Tescher:
So for someone who’s been in journalism for as long as you have, starting back in the good old days, as I’d like to call them, you are one of the least cynical journalists I know, which is so refreshing. I can see why you and Ellen are a good foil for each other because you are an optimist. I want to talk a little bit about where that comes from. So I was in junior high school when I knew I wanted to be a journalist. And that has been my day job in a long time but that’s sort of how I self-identify. But you say that you have been a journalist since you were nine years old. Tell us more about that.

Alan Murray:
Yeah. That’s correct. And the problem with that is, I don’t know why. It’s not like I sat down and said, “Here are the pluses and here the minuses and this is going to be my future career.” I just started, I was a very active kid, I did lots of things, had lots of little projects, but at some point, I started walking up and down my neighborhood road with a pad and pen and asking people questions, and they would tell me about their grandmother visiting or their lost cat or whatever was going on in the house and I would take it all down. And then my poor mother who is still alive, bless her she’s about to turn 98 and would be appalled that I said that on this podcast, but I’m pretty sure she won’t be hearing it. But anyway, I would come back and I’d have all this written up and she would type it up on her typewriter and this is before the days of Xerox machines.

Jennifer Tescher:
Sure.

Alan Murray:
But I had this jelly sheet copying machine and we had a special carbon paper, and she would type it up on the special carbon paper and I’d put the copy down on the jelly sheet and then I could make 30 copies and sell it for a nickel apiece. So I did start early, and there was a period in my life where it bothered me and I thought I’m going to go do something else, but it didn’t last long, I came back to journalism. But I mean, I’m an optimist by nature, but I don’t think I lack the journalist skeptic gene, I just think on this story I’ve had unusual access that other people don’t have. And it’s just so blatantly obvious to me that something is going on that wasn’t going on for the first three decades of my career.

And frankly, it kind of frustrates me like I’ve spent most of my career at the Wall Street Journal and the folks on the editorial page there I know and love well, but I think they look at all this through a political lens. And they think this is all about CEOs somehow trying to game the political system or curry favor with a new administration or something like that. I just know from hundreds of hours of conversation that’s not what’s going on.

Jennifer Tescher:
But Alan, everything is political right now, come on. We’re living in a moment where everything is political. So I understand the skepticism, but I listen I have the same experience. I spend a lot of time with business leaders and I like to think, I’ve got a keen eye, I’m watching out for people telling me what they think I want to hear. But I agree.

Alan Murray:
So I mean some of the people you’ve probably interviewed for this podcast, but you spend time talking to somebody like Dan Schulman of PayPal, or Ajay Banga who just stepped down as CEO of MasterCard, they’re the real deal. They are the real deal. This is deep heartfelt stuff that they are doing. And now there’s some other people I’m less convinced of, but there are enough of those sorts of examples to make me think that this isn’t just a bunch of purpose washing PR talk.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah. So I want to talk about journalism for a minute. So you have had a front-row seat to the transformation of the media industry, you’ve been part of it. And you find yourself now, in what I daresay is a very special seat. You get to take what was once a thing we called a magazine and turned it into a content and events platform with the backing of a very wealthy, relatively private businessman. I’d love to talk a little bit about the evolution of the media industry which obviously still continues today, because I’m really interested in what role if any, that evolution has had in the coverage of the topics we’re talking about today. How capitalism is evolving, the role that business plays in society. Are those two things related to each other at all?

Alan Murray:
Well, they have to be, right? I mean, but it’s a complicated question. Look, what happened in media was that we got hooked on this advertising business model that was really kind of sweet in the old days when. This is a sign of my age, but I used to sight watching Leave it to Beaver, which I guess some people have at Nickelodeon even if they’re not as ancient as I am. But you would watch Leave it to Beaver and Ward Cleaver, who was the Beaver’s father, the only time you would see him he’d be sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. That was all, in fact, I don’t think it was ever clear if he did have a job, what his job was. You never saw any of that, he would just sit at the table and read the newspaper. And you realize, if you wanted to get to the Cleaver family, if you wanted to get them information or sell them something or whatever, you had to go through that newspaper, you didn’t have any choice.

And so there was a convenient convergence of the needs of advertisers and the role of the media that worked until the day you took that newspaper away and stuck a computer in his hands because then there are thousands of alternatives ways to get to him. And we discovered that most advertisers don’t really care about good journalism, they just care about getting the eyeballs, finding the. So that’s led to a long and not so slow demise and a lot of silly game playing trying to attract cheap eyeballs with whatever the most shocking or compelling piece of information you could put out there.

Jennifer Tescher:
Click bait.

Alan Murray:
Click bait, yeah, which often deteriorated the quality of the journalism. But what has finally happened and I mentioned I was at the Wall Street Journal, The Wall Street Journal was one organization that escaped this, because Peter Kahn, who was CEO back in 1996, when this was all starting to happen said, “I don’t know why people are giving all their content away for free online, I’m never going to do that. This is valuable stuff, and you’re going to have to pay for it.” So he never went that route. He said, “Online journalism is valuable, and you have to pay for it.” I think in terms of quality, that clearly has been a plus and now you see more and more, I’m sure it drives people nuts paywalls thrown up in their face all the time.

But more and more, most of the good stories in journalism these days are organizations that have established that direct relationship with their consumer, The Washington Post, The New York Times. Now, that too is changed journalism in that instead of worrying about advertisers people are catering to their audiences. And so the New York Times has a fairly, it’s not a cross-section of Americana, it’s a fairly liberal urban readership, and they cater to it. The Washington Post has specifically nurtured a kind of a liberal readership. So you lose the kind of Walter Cronkite, I can trust this as my unbiased source of information. But if you have discerning readers who are paying you for the information, then presumably you got to be careful about making sure what you provide them is good information.

There’s a democracy piece of this too which is, the ultimate upshot of what I’m saying is the people who get good news are the people who can afford to pay for it. It’s not necessarily a great outcome for society, but I don’t know that we know a good alternative.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah, I haven’t seen any of the nonprofit models really, they maybe have produced some really good journalism. But I haven’t seen the sustainability there.

Alan Murray:
No. And then in the UK, you have the BBC but that carries its own set of problems and would never work in the United States if you had government funding.

Jennifer Tescher:
Right. So should we be bothered by the trend of very wealthy capitalists purchasing media properties from Bezos to Benioff, to your boss, others?

Alan Murray:
I’m speaking my own book here, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Look, in an earlier generation, those people would have used their money to buy a sports team or a stadium. Would I rather they buy a great media property and nurture it along? Yeah, I think I would. I’m delighted that Jennifer Powell Jobs bought the Atlantic and that Marc Benioff bought Time Magazine and the Jeff Bezos bought and not just bought but resuscitated a guy in Washington Post. I think those things are all good.

Jennifer Tescher:
So you have really covered a whole mess of topics over the years, including politics for quite some time. But you’ve spent really, maybe the majority of your time at business-driven publications really focused on business. Why do you think that is? What is it about this subject that really captures your interest and attention?

Alan Murray:
Look, I grew up in the 1970s when the economy was falling apart. I mean, we were in a very serious and dangerous place. And I actually studied as an undergraduate, I studied English literature. But as I got towards the end of my undergraduate degree, you looked around and said, “There are bad things going on out there. And if you care about society, and you care about people and you care about their future, you’ve got to start thinking about the economy and business because that seems to be the driving force.” So I actually I went to my hometown in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and worked for the hometown paper, the Chattanooga Times. I was only going to do it for one year and then go to graduate school in economics. But the Chattanooga Times has this strange family relationship with the New York Times and The New York Times had just created a business section.

So they asked me – punk kid that I was – to stay another year and start a business section for them. So I did and then I went off to the London School of Economics to get a degree in economics and the rest is kind of history. I mean, I always cared about policy, not politics so much, but policy and society. It just became clear to me in the cauldron of the 1970s, that the best way to understand what was happening to society was to understand economics. And I really pretty much spent my whole career at that triangular intersection of economics, politics, and business.

Jennifer Tescher:
So given the incredibly unusual time that we’re living through now, as we’re fingers crossed, knock on wood seem to be emerging, at least in this country, from the grips of the pandemic. With racial awakening, racial reckoning still very much in play, and increasingly employees, but also society in general, turning to CEOs to the business community for leadership. If you could give CEOs one piece of advice about how to lead through this time, what kind of leadership is demanded of them? What would you say?

Alan Murray:
Well, if I can use two words, I think it would be authentic purpose. You have to recognize that your job is not to make money. Your job is to help solve the problems of the world and money is a byproduct. And you can’t simply say, “Oh, okay, great, I’ll go out and find a purpose.” You have to mean it, you have to live it, you have to embed it in your company, because your employees are going to be cynical too. And they’re going to see right through you if you don’t really mean it. But there’s so many great stories of companies that have done this, and their employees recognize it and celebrate it and support them as a result. I mean, I had this conversation with Paul Polman, who was an early passenger on this train. We’re talking about, he took over Unilever what, 11 years ago, 12 years ago? And spent 10 years as the CEO and built and quickly became recognized as a leader in purposeful, both environmental and social business.

And he said to me at one point, “We sell soap, it’s like not, people graduate from colleges and say, ‘I want to go sell soap.’ But people did graduate from college and say, ‘I want to go work for Unilever’” because Unilever was doing good in the world. And again, it gets back to that point about talent, if what’s going to determine your success as a company is being able to attract great people. And what’s going to enable you to attract great people is having an authentic purpose that they can relate to, you got to go for it. And by the way, the world is a better place if you do that. Excuse me for sounding naive, but I think the world is a better place if you did that.

Jennifer Tescher:
Let’s call it optimistic. Alan, thank you so much for joining me on EMERGE Everywhere.

Alan Murray:
That was great fun. Happy to be here.

Jennifer Tescher:
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a Financial Health Network production. I’m Jennifer Tescher, and I’d love to hear your ideas for future guests and your reactions to the show. You can connect with me on Twitter @JenTescher. If you liked this episode, please review the show and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about the work and research we do, please visit emerge.finhealthnetwork.org. See you next time.