Leading CEOs Share Key Learnings from 2020

CEOs from Cisco, Microsoft, and Nasdaq talk about a year of both tragedy and resilience, why digital technologies are critical to the health of our economy, and why companies must accelerate efforts around social justice and opportunity for all.

CEOs are responsible for guiding the path forward for their companies—whether it’s through their observance of important trends, their keen insights into the future, and even their ability to see what’s positive in the midst of great difficulty. 

During Conversations for a Changing World, our digital event on Oct. 20, we heard from three insightful leaders: Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins. In discussions with Fortune CEO Alan Murray, they talked about a year of both tragedy and resilience, why digital technologies are critical to the health of our economy, and why companies must accelerate efforts around social justice and opportunity for all. 

Digital Transformation Meets Human Resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the power of human and business resilience—and how digital technologies are making that possible. The CEOs discussed how education, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and other industries have leveraged digital technologies to better serve millions of people who, for the most part, are staying home. 

“One of the most fascinating things for me is to see the level of productivity and economic activity in spite of what are real constraints,” said Nadella. “When I look forward, I think that digital technology is very key to all resilience.” 

Friedman observed how the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation. “A lot of retail moved online very quickly.  Three years was condensed into three weeks of change across many industries.”

Throughout the year, the world has relied more heavily than ever before on technologies such as the internet, online collaboration, and video, which in turn have proved people can work and learn from anywhere. 

The newly distributed work environment also shows us what’s possible for providing underserved communities with online education and hiring programs. Robbins said Cisco has been making inroads in this area with its Cisco Network Academy, which it’s expanded beyond universities and community colleges to include refugee communities and prisons. 

“I think as we come out of this, there are going to be more and more opportunities where we've realized things in 2020 will influence what we need to do as we move forward,” said Robbins.

Nadella said the pandemic’s impact on the economy has emphasized a need to reskill and upskill workers to keep up with accelerated digital transformation. In July, Microsoft announced an initiative to help 25 million people gain the digital skills they need in an economy that’s been dramatically changed.

Social Issues Move to the Forefront

In addition to the pandemic, which has been particularly harmful to underserved communities, it’s been a year marred by horrible acts of racism and social injustice. One positive: This difficult year has influenced companies to become even more involved in helping address  social issues.

“My hope is that this creates a long term, new way of thinking for every company around the world,” Robbins said. Employees, customers, and shareholders increasingly expect their companies to take on more social responsibility. “Your purpose, and whether you really care as a company, is going to come through.” 

Those discussions also have increased among those who participate in the Ford Foundation. Robbins, who serves on the board of trustees, said, “We have a mandate as a society to go create more equal opportunity for everyone, and I think some of the trends we have seen this year can actually help as we come out of it.”

Speaking of the pandemic, Nadella observed, “It’s a crisis of unprecedented proportions that impacts us all, but it impacts the people who are most vulnerable.” He said as a society, we need to be asking some realistic questions, such as how we can help underserved communities without core infrastructure in place. “It’s very hard for us to talk about educational outcomes in a remote learning situation, if you don't even have broadband access to everyone who now needs to learn remotely,” he said. 

Nasdaq has increased its focus on social justice this year, including expansion of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, a free educational resource for company founders, with an emphasis on underserved communities that lack access to capital, said Friedman. Nasdaq also worked with its Black employee network to launch the “Our Talk” series, featuring speakers who share their experiences in business and in life.  

“We have a lot of work to do here in the United States and around the world to create a more inclusive economy,” said Friedman, adding that what matters most right now is not what business leaders and their companies say—it's the actions they take. “Our employees will hold us accountable, and our clients will hold us accountable,” said Friedman.

Interested in hearing more from Friedman, Nadella, and Robbins? Watch their full sessions at Conversations for a Changing World.

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