Why Corporate Chieftains Should Talk More…

At the recent IHS CERA Week — considered the world’s premiere international energy conference — a phalanx of chief executive officers made their cases to a generally friendly audience filled with energy industry leaders.

The audience — whose members paid $7,500 to attend the elite event — was surprised at times by the differences in viewpoints and opinions each executive expressed — with many disagreeing with the others in what proved to be a thought-provoking, almost existential “debate” on issues ranging from future energy prices to the roles to be played by competing energy resources to corporate responsibility to Climate Change.

The common element throughout the event, however, was how impressive the executives were in their knowledge, articulateness, and ability to make the case for their perspectives.  Most even exhibited a keen sense of humor — a necessity when speaking any time after lunch.

Conference keynote speakers such as Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Presidential Economic Adviser and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, CNN Senior Analyst and Harvard Professor David Gergen, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius were expected to be smart, articulate, entertaining, and humorous — and were.

But the private sector professionals were their equals in every respect — demonstrating superb speaking abilities.  Andrew Liveris, CEO of DOW Chemical, brought down the house when he mentioned his company’s annual utility bill was $30 billion and then, after pausing before the 2,000 energy industry attendees, said “You’re welcome.”

It was obvious when top industry leaders such as Saudi ARAMCO President Khalid Al-Falih, ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva, Edison International CEO Ted Craver, GDF SUEZ President Jean-Francois Cirelli, Apache CEO Steve Farris, Baker Hughes CEO Chad Deaton, TOTAL Gas & Power President Phillippe Boisseau, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, Spectra Energy CEO Greg Ebel, American Electric Power CEO Michael Morris, RasGas CEO Hamad Rashid Al Mohannadi or Southern Company CEO David Ratliffe spoke, they knew the issues and had the answers — and could deliver information in a compelling and engaging manner.

Today many CEO’s hide behind communications and public relations staffs.  This is a mistake and represents a loss for companies who waste such a valuable resource.  While their time is limited due to their responsibilities, CEO’s often are the best spokespersons for their organizations.  And when it comes to public policy related to energy issues, they need to become far more engaged — making the case for their perspectives and being willing to debate the issues with those who have different views.

The conference demonstrated there are no better people to do this than CEO’s — the people who know better than anyone else the issues, their industries, their companies, their business partners, their customers, and the public policies under which they function.  These men and women should not shy away from those who disagree with them.

If CEO’s more actively engaged in public debate, it would give everyone the chance to hear what the needs and concerns of all stakeholders are.  And that would be good for CEO’s to hear other opinions as well.

In addition, such an initiative creates the opportunity to create relationships which can serve the interests of companies, their customers, other stakeholders, and members of the public.  Furthermore, this has the potential to positively impact regulatory requirements under which different industries labor.

Although not every CEO is a great public speaker and or a great debater, most are.  They rarely obtained their positions by being wallflowers.  It’s time to let them bloom and get out in the public arena more than ever before.  If they do, everyone will benefit from the information they have, the knowledge they can share, the caring and commitment they can convey, and the sense of humor they have.  It also is an opportunity for the CEO’s to get new information and better understand the concerns of others.  Let a thousand CEO’s bloom!


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