The Modern Board and the Soul of Business

Kira Ciccarelli

The Modern Board and the Soul of Business

Listen to Episode 63 on Apple Podcasts

Guest: Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune Media

Hosts: Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, and Meghan Day, Senior Director of Board Member Experience for Diligent Corporation

In this episode:

  1. A Confluence of Changes: Murray discusses the combination of three major trends in the business world and how boards and leaders should adapt to grapple with their interlocking effects.
  2. Speaking Out on ESG: Murray gives his perspective on how the idea of business leaders taking a stand on ESG issues has changed over time.
  3. Stories to Watch: Murray clues us in on some important stories to watch in the news moving forward and what we can learn from them.


How can boards and senior leaders weather (and even thrive in) significant changes to the business landscape as we know it? Guest Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune Media, now a Diligent partner, provides his insights on the confluence of the three biggest trends in the business world, the changing role of the CEO when it comes to ESG and what developing stories we should be paying close attention to.

Alan Murray will also be a featured speaker at Diligent’s Modern Governance Summit 2021.

A Confluence of Changes

Murray discusses first the three biggest trends changing the way business leaders need to approach their jobs: “The first trend is the rapid pace of change in technology, which has been accelerated by the pandemic. The sheer power of new data technology is staggering; we now have the ability to collect, analyze, and digitize data in ways we never could have imagined just a few short years ago. This allows for increased accessibility and enables a complete re-thinking of a corporation.”

He goes on to discuss a second challenge for leaders and boards: “Pay close attention to the rise of stakeholder capitalism and the increased focus on stakeholders. Now, leaders need to focus on creating a vision, direction and motivation for employees. Employees want their organizations to be doing good things, and that means expanding the focus on important social issues.” He registers some surprise: “I thought that the pandemic would put stakeholder capitalism and ESG to the back burner. But the nature of the crisis caused people to double down.”

The third trend Murray discusses is how the workplace is changing: “Business leaders need to figure out how to bring people back into the office, and whether they should do so at all! They’re faced with lots of thorny questions: What does hybrid mean? How do you make it work? How do you make sure people are collaborating on equal footing?

“The business trends colliding at this moment has created the biggest challenge for businesses and boards that I’ve seen in my forty-year career.”

-Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune Media

Speaking out on ESG

Murray details how these trends are changing the board’s responsibilities: “Boards were once keepers of strategy. Now, they’re keepers of the value. They need to ensure that guard rails are in place, values in place, and that the company’s direction is appropriate.” He references a conversation he had with renowned economist and business leader Dambisa Moyo: “She had been involved in several CEO replacements, none of them based on the financial performance of the company. This tells you something about the set of values and concerns that are rising in prominence for the board. We are thinking beyond financial success.”

Another big change for business leaders has been the prevalence of public statements and commitments around social issues: “As a journalist, I know how dramatic this change is,” Murray explains, “Ten years ago, it was unheard of for a CEO to speak publicly on a hot-button issue that didn’t affect their bottom line. In this day and age, we’ve seen the CEO of bank of America publicly supporting transgender rights!”

This change has accelerated in the last year: “When Michael Brown was killed in Missouri in 2014, no CEOs said anything about it publicly. This does not indicate their stance on the issue, only that they did not feel it was their place to speak out. Compare this to the hundreds of statements from business leaders in the wake of George Floyd’s death and resulting protests.”

Changing norms around public statements on social issues can be challenging to navigate. Murray touches on this: “It’s hard to know when to speak out and when not to. You can’t speak out about everything. Some people want to speak out for the sake of racial justice and their employees, but they don’t want to be drawn into a partisan battle. This isn’t going to go away, and it’s an important component of leadership today.”

“The need to businesses to speak out and address issues that society deems important will only become more prevalent. It’s an important component of leadership today.”

-Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune Media 

Stories to Watch

To end the interview, Murray gave some recommendations on which developing stories to pay close attention to in the media: “I’m watching how commitments to stakeholder goals have intensified during the pandemic. How will companies follow through? We have elaborate accounting structures for total shareholder return, but not return to stakeholders. Companies are wrestling with how to make this real.”

Of particular interest to Murray are the motivations behind environmental pledges and commitments: “I think we’re at a turning point. Some of the action is merely talk, but it’s increasingly becoming real. It’s amorphous, and often unclear, but we’re starting to see real action in the form of things like net-zero carbon pledges.” He gives an example: “I had a conversation with the CEO of a large shipping company. I asked why he was working on making his business more sustainable, and he said because his suppliers and vendors were moving that way, and because his employees and customers were demanding it.”

Murray then goes back to the opportunities presented by returning to the office: “We have a chance here to rethink the way we do work. There’s a certain beauty in having no clear right answers. This opportunity will only present itself for a short amount of time before we form new habits that it will be hard to break out of again. Right now, we have an opening to create good and healthy change over the next 3-6 months.”

On a related note, Murray advises leaders to watch the battle for talent: “Historically, it’s clear. if you go back to the 1970s and look at Fortune 500 balance sheets, more than 80% of the value were physical things like oil or inventory. If you do that now, more than 85% of the value is intangibles, like intellectual property, brand value or other things created by people. Human capital is a bigger part of the enterprise than it used to be compared to physical and financial. Human capital will determine success.”

Also in this episode…

Murray tells us why he became a journalist: “I went into journalism because it was a method of lifelong learning. I love hearing and thinking about what’s happening in the world.” He also details some worrying trends: “That said, we’ve got some bad trends, particularly the explosion of platforms proliferating mis- and disinformation. We’re all struggling with this bizarre notion now that everyone is entitled to their own facts! To move forward, we have to be able to agree on fundamental facts about our society.”

Resources from this episode: