“The CEO-whisperer”: Inside Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute
The School of Management program, led by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, has strived over three decades to encourage corporate responsibility.
Yash Roy, Contributing Photographer
When School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld first pitched a space for corporate leaders to join together in 1988, John McArthur, Harvard University’s then-business school dean told him it was impossible to convince CEOs to listen to each other in a group instead of seeking the spotlight for themselves.
Today, Sonnenfeld’s impossible idea has manifested as the SOM’s Chief Executive Leadership Initiative, which is the world’s first school for incumbent CEOs. CELI is a space where corporate CEOs, civil society and political leaders come together and learn from one another. Before finally settling at the SOM in 2000, CELI originated at Harvard Business School in 1988 and moved to Emory University in 1989.
One of CELI’s important focus areas is working with corporate leaders, data and historical analysis to conduct research that demonstrates how “doing good is not antithetical to doing well,” according to CELI Head of Research Steven Tian.
“CELI’s mission today focuses on showing corporate leaders that they can make a profit and a difference in the world,” Sonnenfeld said. “CELI is a pioneer in research on corporate social impact, our program aligns closely with SOM’s founding mission on Business & Society.”
CELI also grants a “Legend-in-Leadership” award, to those who exemplify CELI’s vision of business and government leaders who work to do good around them while also running their companies effectively. In recent years, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and American Airlines Group CEO Doug Parker have received this honor.
“I have been coming to the summits since really the beginning,” AMC CEO Adam Aron told the News, “Jeff and CELI run them in a way that allows for me to expand my perspective on important corporate issues while also keeping me engaged and hearing from my peers.”
While CELI has been at Yale for 22 years now, its origins do not lie at the SOM.
From Harvard Business to Emory to Yale, CELI’s journey to SOM
Fresh off the success of his book, “The Hero’s Farewell,” which was the first systematic study of top leadership succession, Sonnenfeld pitched the idea of a leadership institute for executives to McArthur.
Drawing upon scholarship in political science, folklore and mythology, history, economics, developmental psychology and corporate governance, the book examined the transfer of power between CEOs and how a leader’s character and conduct can impact company culture. And, according to Sonnenfeld, it garnered significant response.
“I started to get letters from CEOs who were interested in learning more and getting more information on how to better lead,” he said.
Sonnenfeld explained that most academics and members of the business community did not think that CEOs would be interested in learning since they had already reached the peak of corporate leadership and were instead expected to be teachers.
While McArthur was not sold on the idea at the time, he opened up his house for Sonnenfeld to host his first CEO Caucus. But, that caucus did not go as expected. The first session resembled what McArthur initially feared — a group of CEOs trying to establish dominance, rather than a group of students seeking insight. As the session disintegrated, he realized he needed a critical mass for CEOs to control each other and engage with each other to truly listen.
After the meeting, Sonnenfeld was concerned that Harvard did not see the potential in his idea. Having already received offers from the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and Emory, Sonnenfeld decided to move to Emory with the institute.
At Emory, Sonnenfeld quickly built up the institute’s summits and caucuses.
During CELI’s 10-year run at Emory, the institute grew in size and impact ahead of the later appearing World Economic Forum at Davos and CEO forums by Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and others which Sonnenfeld helped to design.
In 2000, then-SOM Dean Jeffrey Garten came to Atlanta and recruited Sonnenfeld to bring his institute to Yale. Yale then purchased CELI and made it a part of the SOM.
Kerwin Kofi Charles — professor of economics, policy and management — attributes part of the program’s success to its founder.
Setting the standards high, Charles said Sonnenfeld “may well be the best convener of leaders across various sectors operating in the context of the modern academy.”
This is not a rare opinion: Sonnenfeld has been dubbed the “CEO-whisperer” by Business Insider.
From Liz Cheney to Volodymyr Zelensky, what is CELI’s “Legend-in-Leadership” award?
Throughout the year, CELI hosts events including CEO summits, caucuses, mayor’s summits and higher education summits in New York, New Haven and Washington, D.C. and in calmer pre-Covid days held CEO Summits in Beijing, Delhi; Mumbai; Shanghai; and Mexico City.
During the CEO summits, CEOs of many companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, NASDAQ and S&P 500 attend. Prior guests include the CEOs of IBM, McKinsey, Dell, HP, Google, GE, American Airlines, GM, Pfizer, Deloitte, PepsiCo and Honeywell. These hundreds of CEOs mix with Yale scholars from disciplines and schools at the University.
Summits are broken into multiple sessions focusing on specific issues ranging from maintaining faith in American democracy to the benefits available for companies that pull out of Russia. The larger theme of all summits is demonstrating to CEOs that they have an interest in incorporating corporate responsibility into their company’s work.
“CELI remains as the only true non-partisan, non-commercial, informal peer-driven learning devoid of speeches, lectures and sales pitches — focused on candid free-for-alls,” Sonnenfeld told the News. “No one is required to speak, but if they do speak, I stop them from reading notes, let alone Teleprompter cues or PowerPoint slides. The format is built upon lively, reflective, honest exchanges of differences.”
During summits and caucuses, Sonnenfeld and CELI present corporate and government leaders with Legend-in-Leadership awards that commemorate leaders who have gone above and beyond in their industry and represented CELI’s mission of being socially responsible.
In September, Sonnenfeld presented U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney with the Legend-in-Leadership award to commemorate her response to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“Liz Cheney represents the best of American public service,” Sonnenfeld said at the CEO Caucus. “She put her country over her party and her own career. She is an example to all leaders about the importance of standing behind her convictions. History will remember her well.”
Past recipients include Anthony Fauci, Ambassador Andrew Young, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Merck CEO Ken Frazier, Colin Powell, Target CEO Brian Cornell and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.
In June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky won the award for his leadership amidst the war with Russia. Zelensky Zoomed into Yale on Oct. 28 to speak to students after having spoken with corporate leaders in the summer. Zelensky spoke to students because he wished to speak to the “next generation of leaders” at Yale
Corporate Social Impact: “showing CEOs they can do good while also doing well”
CELI’s work tracking companies who maintain business ties in Russia is just one component of a large body of research, writing and analysis on corporate responsibility, which undergraduates and SOM students have the opportunity to join.
“We really want to emphasize that anyone can get involved with our research in corporate social responsibility,” Tian told the News. “We want people from all fields of study from future business leaders to grassroots advocates to journalists to math majors to come and work with us and look at the importance of social responsibility.”
Past projects have ranged from studying how the market reacted to the Russian invasion and how companies who exited Russia actually saw increases in stock valuations to breaking down the growth of the aviation sector in Connecticut in recent years.
Yash Bhansali ’23 has worked with CELI for the last two years and credits it as one of the most important parts of his time at Yale.
“Engaging with the CELI has been a unique privilege in terms not only of the exposure it gives to leaders across the corporate and political spheres, but also a true form of learning in watching them respond at a macro scale to some of the most socially pressing issues of our time,” Bhansali told the News.
Bhansali told the News that he hopes to help get more Yale students involved with CELI and is helping launch a corporate social impact club for undergraduates to become involved with. The club will allow students to engage with CELI and Sonnenfeld helping in research, caucuses and summits.
The next CEO caucus is scheduled for December 13-14 in New York City.
Correction, Nov. 10: A previous version of this article included a misspelling of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s first name. The article has been updated.