Business, Government, and Society Forum Looks at New Demands on Leadership

Event highlights importance of business and government collaboration to solve contemporary problems

April 22, 2024

| by Beth Jensen
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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell was one of the keynote speakers at the inaugural Business, Government, and Society forum. Powell was interviewed by professor Arvind Krishnamurthy, | SF Photo Agency

Scores of leaders from business, non-profit organizations, government, and academia gathered at Stanford Graduate School of Business on April 3, 2024, to share their experiences — and differing perspectives— on the evolving challenges of leadership in a rapidly changing world.

“Responsible Leadership in a Polarized World” was the first forum presented by the Stanford GSB Business, Government, and Society Initiative. It featured Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and PG&E CEO Patricia Poppe, MS ’05, as keynote speakers. The event drew participants from around the nation for a day of wide-ranging conversation on issues ranging from how business and government can collaborate for a sustainable future to the responsibility business leaders hold for the health and wellness of their constituents.

“This forum was in some ways the official launch for this initiative,” says Maria Frantz, MBA ’94, BGS Initiative director. “We’ve been working internally at the GSB, but this was our first opportunity to open more broadly and to bring more people into the conversation.”

A “Collision of Ideas”

The initiative results from recommendations made by a 2021 task force of GSB alumni, faculty, and staff led by Ken Shotts, PhD ’99, the David S. and Ann M. Barlow, Professor of Political Economy at Stanford GSB, and Jim Coulter, MBA ’86, and CEO of TPG Capital. Among the findings: Today’s leaders now face — and must be prepared to make — complex decisions that increasingly consider not just the bottom line but a swirl of societal concerns that include sustainability, technological advancement, economic equity, and health.

“Today, leadership is not only about delivering a great product and getting to profitability. It’s also taking into account diverse stakeholders and making sure the organization you’re leading is mindful of the implications of its decisions on other groups,” says Frantz. “With this initiative, we want to position the business school to take on these sticky, complex, sometimes divisive issues, bring diverse perspectives together, and widen the scope of what leadership and management education includes.”

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Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin speaks with Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai at the BGS forum “Responsible Leadership in a Polarized World.”  | SF Photo Agency

The initiative includes a $10 million pilot research fund that currently supports more than 65 collaborative research projects, the addition of new classes and academic content, and, as in the case of the April forum, a commitment to bringing a range of distinguished practitioners and policymakers to the GSB to collaborate with faculty and students.

“This forum was extraordinarily unique in the breadth of issues covered, the quality of the speakers, and in our format of encouraging different viewpoints,” says Joseph Piotroski, the Robert K. Jaedicke Professor of Accounting at Stanford GSB, who oversaw the forum. “We recognize that we’re facing all these societal challenges simultaneously, and we need to think about them simultaneously, recognizing that we all come with very different backgrounds and perspectives. This forum was about hashing these issues out and trying to find a new way forward. Frequently, it’s those collisions of ideas that give rise to something new.”

Leadership in challenging times

The forum was opened by Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin, who spoke to the initiative’s goal of promoting leadership responsibility and civil discourse.

“The responsibilities and expectations for this generation of leaders are greater than at any point in the school’s history, and we believe that in contentious times we have an important role to play in bringing together people with diverse points of view to innovate and solve problems,” he said. “One of our ambitions is to use the power of the school to spark discussions among faculty, students, and leaders from business, government, and civil society, and this forum is very much in that spirit.”

Powell spoke with Arvind Krishnamurthy, the John S. Osterweis Professor of Finance at Stanford GSB and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, on monetary policy, inflation, and the challenge of navigating the changing economic landscape amid external pressures.

“We draw on the insights and experience of a wide array of business, academic, community, and labor leaders as well as others engaged in the economy,” Powell said. “We also spend a lot of time — both in Congress and internally — respectfully listening to what people are thinking and telling them what we’re thinking. People can go along with something they don’t 100 percent support — or at least they won’t criticize you as harshly — if they realize you’re operating in good faith to the absolute best of your ability and based on actual facts and what we know about the ever-evolving economy.”

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Leaders are going to have to learn how to work with others who may not share their same vision or values.
Attribution
Pier2 Group CEO Gimena Pena Malcampo, MBA ’05

Pichai, who was interviewed by Levin, described how Google developed a culture of risk-taking, the challenges of navigating the maze of global regulations, open-source technology, and the potential of AI to impact everything from self-driving cars to the prediction of protein structure. Among his greatest concerns as a leader, he says, is maintaining public trust in the companies he oversees. And AI amplifies that issue.

“Of all the things that guide me in decisions around the company, this is at the very top,” he says. “I feel the weight of people who come to search Google at very vulnerable moments, like when they need to know the dosage of medicine for their 3-month-old child. That trust is hard-earned, easy to lose, and we have to re-earn it all the time, but that’s the responsibility we have. AI will allow us to do it better, but it’s a technology we must deploy carefully and responsibly. If we get it wrong, our customers will let us know and perhaps not use it.”

The final keynote presentation featured PG&E’s Poppe, who spoke with Shotts, on the utility’s goal of providing affordable energy to customers while simultaneously focusing on employee and customer safety and building climate-resilient infrastructure. Part of the solution, she said, will be found through investment, including undergrounding a significant portion of the utility’s power lines that are at risk to extreme weather; the subsequent reduction of vegetation maintenance cost, and an expected increase in load growth through the electrification of transportation and buildings.

“We ask ourselves, ‘How do we best serve all people?’ We have multiple stakeholders, so there are a lot of voices in our decisions and not one of them has the authority to make decisions in a vacuum, not myself, the California Public Utilities Commission, or the legislature,” Poppe said. “It’s hard to have all these voices, but they make us better and we listen to one another and learn from one another, and then we have that experience to put to bear.”

Leaders as unifying forces

The forum also featured multiple breakout sessions on topics related to beneficial technology, free markets, and sustainability led by Stanford faculty members and a range of guest speakers, including Bob Sternfels, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company; Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer at Microsoft; Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global; and journalist David Leonhardt of the New York Times.

One of the forum attendees was Pier2 Group CEO Gimena Pena Malcampo, MBA ’05, who said she appreciated the day’s diverse topics and perspectives. She attended panel discussions on innovation policy, the healthcare system, and the impact of AI.

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A series of breakout sessions examined topics such as beneficial tech. | SF Photo Agency

“We all had different points of view, but it was nice to be able to express those views and learn from each other because that’s the initial step to finding solutions for these big issues,” she says. “I came out of these panels with a very different way of thinking about some of these topics.”

The BGS Initiative, she says, will be an invaluable asset to young business leaders.

“At the GSB, we were always taught that we can change society and the world, which I think is true, but the difference today is that we’re learning we can’t change things alone,” Malcampo says. “We’re going to need the people we work with, government officials, nonprofits. Leaders are going to have to learn how to work with others who may not share their same vision or values to achieve a common goal.

“In a world where ideas and values are becoming more polarized, those types of leaders can serve as unifying forces,” she adds. “It’s going to be crucial if we want to move forward.”

The BGS Initiative and inaugural forum reflect that new reality, says Piotroski.

“It used to be very easy at a business school; we would focus on maximizing shareholder value,” he says. “That’s not the way the world works anymore.”

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