Who are Minnesota's Radical CEO's? And Why We Need Them.

  • Blog Post by: Ernest Grumbles III
  • April 26, 2010 - 7:38 AM

Does Minnesota have any “radical CEO’s”?  I’ve asked this question many times, and I usually get blank looks or, “I can’t really think of any.”  Why is this a problem?  First, you have to understand what a radical CEO is.  My definition is: a CEO who (a) understands the effect that their company has on the socio-economic, political and cultural circumstances of their workers, customers, investors and partners and (b) is able to articulate and share a credible vision for the company’s role in improving those circumstances (beyond mere foundations and donations).  
Radical CEO’s, who are, in larger enterprises, analogous to political figures, understand the clear connection between what their business is trying to sell and its cultural and social impact.  This is obviously a vital business skill in the sense that to be able to sell products and services well, you need to understand the environment that you are trying to sell into.  But I think there is an aspect of how radical CEO’s operate that shows that they are fundamentally concerned with both the economic and social impact of their enterprises.   
Here are three random examples:  Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple - no groans); John Chambers (CEO, Cisco); Lynn Elsenhans (CEO, Sunoco).   
Why Jobs?  Do I have to answer?  The guy gets the connection between great design and the cultural and social forces it engenders.  Jobs understands the impact of technology on human lives and cares enough about that impact to create things of beauty that provide entertainment and accessibility for millions of people.  I recently read a quote that said that “I would buy tissue paper from Apple if they sold it.”  This is also why my 69-year old non-techno mother told me a few days ago that her relatively new iPhone was “one of the best things she’s ever had.”  Does this mean Jobs is not robustly trying to grow profits and market share?  Of course not.  But in our age of fickle consumers, you don’t get those without connecting company and culture.   
Why Chambers?  Consumers are demanding accountability and connection in communication with the people that sell the things they buy and radical CEO’s are willing to engage in that conversation.  In fact they encourage it and facilitate it.  Chambers figured out that his company, known for building routers and switches, is really about communication and collaboration.  The networks and systems the company develops and innovates are about connecting people – not machines.  And the philosophy starts at home – with Cisco’s dismantling of traditional corporate hierarchies and information pathways in favor of open innovation and communication.  Chambers is now facilitating the creation of entire wired cities in Asia
Why Elsenhans?  This former basketball player and math major from Rice, one of the 15 women CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, is making an oil company an advocate for environmental change.  How many oil companies are advocating for climate change legislation, an increase in federal gas tax and move to all sustainable energy sources?  That Sunoco is out in front on these issues is her doing.  Elsenhans knows that the companies with the greatest influence on energy (the oil companies) need to lead the way – not fight. 
It’s too simple to say that these are simply clutching, greedy people who are just manipulating society at large to line their pockets and enrich their investors.  That’s to fundamentally miss the personal passion for changing the world that lies at the heart of anyone pushing innovation, whether at a large or small enterprise.  I firmly believe that CEO’s like Jobs, Chambers and Elsenhans could just as easily have ended up running powerhouse soup kitchens or leading public health efforts in Africa.  Corporations with these kinds of CEO’s have public/private missions that drive the loyalty of employees, investors and customers. 
Another important feature of radical CEO’s is the willingness to speak out.  Radical CEO’s recognize the responsibility to govern and lead and talk openly about what revitalizes communities, technology, creativity and new enterprise.  They set an example for other CEO’s and corporations, who are often struggling to figure out what and who they are beyond a purveyor of a particular good or service. 
Yes, many CEO’s have big egos and can be brash and arrogant (like some of the folks above).  Name a social enterprise or movement that didn’t have dominant personalities or titanic characters at its heart (think: Samuel Adams; Abby Hoffman; Lucretia Mott; Newt Gingrich; Cesar Chavez; Emma Goldman; the list goes on).  
So radical CEO’s are CEO’s who fully understand that a large scale economic enterprise is a large scale cultural and social force movement.  In an age where government and business share hegemony in preserving social stability, businesses and CEO’s that don’t understand and actively cultivate the social impact of their enterprises are leading enterprises that may or may not have relevance in 20 years (how’s that for market impact).  
The question then is: who are Minnesota’s radical CEO’s.  Who are the outspoken business leaders that blur the lines between economic, social and cultural leadership while leading energetic and successful enterprises?  Where are the titanic personalities that put Minnesota enterprises on the map as innovation engines?  You should not have to struggle to name names.  
Minnesota in fact should be a prime breeding ground for such radical CEO’s.  It’s a populist state with economic might, with strong connections between rural and urban, academic and “real world,” whose citizens give among the greatest percentages of income to charity of any state, a home of radical theater and agricultural cooperatives. 
Minnesota CEO’s who get the deep and organic connection between business, society and culture, and are willing to be outspoken community leaders, will be the ones to drive Minnesota innovation and attract investment dollars.  Finding, highlighting and nurturing these radical CEO’s is a critical step for the Minnesota economy.  In a joint effort with Tech.MN, I will be digging into the Minnesota soil looking for Radical CEO's.  If you have names, name them here. 
(Adapted from a post on Tech.MN - "Who Are Minnesota's 'Radical Tech CEO's?")


© 2018 Star Tribune