Updated: Jul 5, 2020
That was my answer 20 years ago today when asked by the CEO of the Southern Company “what do you need from me?”. Those were my only spoken words in a meeting that included our client, and also the first time I had asked for $1 million from a prospect. I knew the CEO from previous work and there was a comfort level, meaning no need for small talk or any “getting to know you” gab. Even so, my response could be classified as direct, abrupt, bold, even brazen and yet, it was very appropriate for that particular day.
You see, 1999 was a very different time in the trajectory of US corporate culture and especially that illusive thing we all refer to as “leadership”. Pre- 9/11, pre-global recession, pre-I-Phone, pre-Obama, pre-Trump, for that matter, pre-Bush II, the 90’s CEO was outward focused – what could she do for her community, region, industry, country; how could he use the power of his corporate largesse to impact the greater good.
That’s not to say today’s CEO is not civic-minded. In fact, one could make a strong case that corporate America has never done more to advance societal needs than it does today. Just see the latest stats from Giving USA: 2017 total corporate giving reached its highest inflation adjusted level ever at over $20.77 billion! That’s double the amount reported in 1999. Clearly, US companies are spending lots of money on civic agendas!
But it is a different style of engagement and support. Those dollars, while more plentiful than ever, have also never been harder to attain. Certainly, part of the reason is corporations have generally become more strategic in their civic investments. The JP Morgan Chase Global Cities and Advancing Cities initiatives are just a few examples of this trend. Yet it runs deeper than strategic focus.
I think we can all attest to the fact that for the most part today’s CEO is less engaged and focused on civic endeavors; it’s harder to get their attention and remain on their radar screen. That’s not to say the CEO of 1999 was better than the CEO of 2019 but rather they are just different. The things that motivate, persuade, excite, galvanize and eventually drive today’s CEO are unique to our time and the environment in which these leaders have come of age.
For our industry, it means our narrative needs to be crisp, strategic, focused and compelling. No longer is “one million dollars” enough of an answer (at least for most)! It also means we need to be more committed than ever to investor engagement and communications, especially at the very top levels. We can’t “settle” for a company’s #2 or #3 telling our story because there is no guarantee that YOUR unique and compelling message is reaching the CEO unless YOU are delivering it! That’s hard work, but also maybe the most important thing you do.
How did the CEO respond to my answer in 1999? — “If I’m gonna be asking others I guess I better do that myself”. Oh, for the good old days!!