If there was previously any doubt about whether CEOs should and could play a critical role in tackling major societal challenges – from climate change to social injustice – this has been firmly dispelled by COVID-19 and the racial equality movement that sprung to life in the US and around the world following the death of George Floyd. But for Verizon’s Hans Vestberg, a prominent role for CEOs in addressing societal challenges is not something new – it is second nature and intrinsic to the company’s overall strategy.
“When I have opinions about societal challenges, it’s when it’s part of my strategy,” he explains. “Many of the challenges we have on earth will not be solved in the same way we have done in the Western world, or in the urban areas, with brick and mortar. We need to use mobility, broadband and cloud. I think what we're seeing in this pandemic of course, is that mobility and broadband and cloud has made it possible for us to continue to be connected to our business, to our work, to our friends, or to study.”
Hans Vestberg follows up his statements with actions. He mentioned that early in the pandemic, Verizon increased their capital expenditure in their network by almost a US$1 billion dollars, “The second week, when the pandemic hit the US, we increased our investment in the network,” he says. “We thought it was the right time. We didn't know how the network will be used. So we wanted to be prepared and we wanted to accelerate the investment in technology at that time, because we're a responsible company, we could invest in that time, and we thought it was good for the country and for our customers."
This commitment for change flows through to the issues of inclusion and diversity, “I was always an extremely strong advocate for diversity and inclusion. I’ve lived and worked on four continents, and I’ve learned that if you have seven people like me in the room, it’s just going to be a disaster. Diversity and inclusion is one of our leadership philosophies and part of our credo as a company, and so talking about it comes very naturally for us.”
Hans Vestberg, who was visibly emotional in a video announcement to his staff where he announced Verizon was committing $10 million to organizations that are dedicated to racial equality and social justice, believes that a strong stance is a moral imperative if you find something simply unacceptable. “We knew racial injustice was something we needed to talk about because we’re not going to accept it,” he says. “We’re really building diversity right here: our customer base is diverse and our company is diverse.”
But while Hans Vestberg is proud of the company’s stance on social injustice, he also recognizes that May’s tragic events also required companies and society to raise their game even further on racial equality. “What we learned in that moment is that the bar just went up 10 feet,” he says. “Whatever we have done before doesn’t really matter: the bar is so much higher, given the racial injustice and all the anger and fear that we saw. So we felt we could take a look and see what more we could do. And, while we have done a lot of things, we need to do even more still so that all our stakeholders – customers, employees and shareholders – understand that we care about this issue. They need to understand that we care about these societal issues because we’re determined to be a better company.”
This commitment to diversity also extends to Hans Vestberg’s own leadership philosophy as a CEO. “For me, developing leadership starts in self-assessment,” he explains. “I self-assess myself based on what I’m really strong at and what I’m less accomplished at. That is also the basis for recruiting leaders into Verizon. I need to find people very different from me that therefore complement me. I’m always looking for a diverse team that brings different strengths so that we have better decision-making and a better way of executing our strategy.”