There is little doubt in my mind that historians will look back at the last few years as a significant turning point in the history of business. Most large companies—the Fortune 500—have significantly increased the attention they pay to social and environmental issues, and are more willing to speak out on controversial social and political issues. Critics see this as political posturing. But in fact, it reflects a fundamental change in the way businesses are run. 

Those changes were evident in a virtual roundtable Fortune hosted yesterday, in partnership with McKinsey & Company. Some excerpts:

On CEOs speaking out about environmental and social issues

“If somebody would have asked me (when I became CEO) whether I was going to be partaking in a conference to discuss this topic today, I would have said: ‘What are you talking about? I’m here to run a business.’ But it has accelerated during the pandemic, and it isn’t just North American, it’s global. We see it happening across the world, and it has accelerated dramatically.”
—Patrick Fisk, CEO, Under Armour

“We do need to address climate change. We do need to reduce carbon emissions. We do need a more inclusive society, and we can’t stay polarized. And if business can be a leader and helping bridge the divide between two diametrically opposed political parties, then shouldn’t we take a shot at that?”
—Jim Fitterling, CEO, Dow

“It’s not really an option to say nothing… If you don’t make comments, at least a certain amount of your employees think you don’t care, or think you’re not listening.”
—Mike Kaufmann, CEO, Cardinal Health

“I think that we as global CEOs have to speak up for the people who have no voice.”
—Hikmet Ersek, CEO, Western Union

“We only exist as businesses because society allows us to exist. It’s that simple. The moment society sees us as part of the problem not as part of the solution, in a few years, our businesses are going to be irrelevant. They’re going to disappear.”
—Carlos Brito, CEO, AB InBev

“Clearly the business of business is no longer purely business. Our constituents are watching us.”
—Stan Bergman, CEO, Henry Schein

On why Edward Jones has made major contributions to addressing Alzheimer’s disease

“Last year we did the largest survey of retirees and pre-retirees that’s ever been fielded. And we did it in the middle of the pandemic. They said there were three things more important to them than their finances—health, family, purpose. They were three times more afraid of an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis than they were of getting COVID.”
—Penny Pennington, Managing Partner, Edward Jones

On physical and mental health

“Where we’re going now—and I would say it’s very early days on this journey—is a commitment behind well-being as a skill….The more we can engage the next generation in that balance between mind, body and purpose… it will make them that much stronger.”
—Liz Hilton Segel, Managing Partner, North America, McKinsey

On diversity

“When we have more diverse perspectives around the table, we found our portfolio companies perform better. We’ve done the analysis. In our portfolio companies, those with more diverse boards, their earnings grow 12% faster than those companies without diverse boards.”
—Kewsong Lee, CEO, The Carlyle Group

On stakeholder capitalism

“I think we wasted a lot on this philosophical debate over shareholder versus stakeholder, and I think now we need to get down to the nitty gritty, and actually work on some of the metrics and priorities and trade-offs involved.”
—Mark Schneider, CEO, Nestlé

On decarbonization of the economy

“The push of electricity into the energy mix of the world is meaningful, because it makes money, it is economically viable, and it beats the marginal cost of producing energy with fossil fuels. So it’s just there to be done.”
—Francesco Starace, CEO, Enel

On life after the pandemic

“As you talk about the topic of modern leadership, I think what’s really changing is the need to be authentic.”
—Kristin Peck, CEO, Zoetis

“We’ve hired 9000 people in the last year, none of whom have been to the office.”
—Michael Neidorf, CEO, Centene

“This is kind of the dawn of an era. I think it’s just super intense, and it’s affecting everybody.”
—Mark Little, CEO, Suncor

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