Lessons From II’s 2024 All-America Executive Team CEO Hall of Famers
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ResultsHall of FameAll-America Executive Team Hall of Fame

Lessons From II’s 2024 All-America Executive Team CEO Hall of Famers

From left, Brian Roberts, Richard Adkerson, Larry Culp - Illustration by II
From left, Brian Roberts, Richard Adkerson, Larry Culp - Illustration by II

“Do the right thing and don’t screw up.”

 

The first time Christopher Nolan the director of Oppenheimer, which won this year’s Oscar for best picture, spoke to Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts was on the day in 2021 when Nolan decided to switch studios to Universal Pictures, owned by Comcast through its subsidiary NBCUniversal. Nolan and his wife, Oppenheimer producer Emma Thomas, worried as they waited for Roberts to join the line, fearing bad news on the deal. Instead, Roberts said that Oppenheimer, which was about to go into production, would be “supercharged” with promotion across NBCUniversal’s many assets. Roberts was doubling down on a release in theaters at a time when other studios were betting on streaming. This unpopular conviction helped Comcast in what Roberts called their “deliberate attempt” to win Nolan.


That kind of decisiveness propelled Roberts to fourth place on the Institutional Investor All-America Executive Team CEO Hall of Fame, for chief executives who have been voted top of their sector in an II survey of sell and buy-side participants six or more times. Roberts, who has landed top of his sector ten times, credits his success to having a “clean and consistent vision” for Comcast, the company his father Ralph Roberts founded 60 years ago. “In any particular moment not everyone is going to agree so the hope is that, over time, you get it right more than wrong,” he told II.


Richard Adkerson marked 20 years as chief executive of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc, a major copper producer headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2023. In 2024, Adkerson celebrates his ninth first place in II’s rankings, putting him at number ten in the Hall of Fame. He still holds to the advice given to him by a mentor at accounting firm Arthur Andersen, when he was made partner there at the age of just 33 to “do the right thing and don’t screw up.” “Those have been the ‘watch words’ for my career,” Adkerson said. That message to keep on keeping on is echoed by Lawrence Culp, chief executive of General Electric. Culp also scored another first place this year, his eighth. He is a proponent of kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement, but it was his junior high basketball coach who first told him: “You have to practice because you either get better or you get worse, but you do not stay the same.”


While constant growth is the goal, the reality is that the careers of some of America’s most prestigious business leaders turn on a handful of investments, opportunities, and discoveries: mere moments in the arc of their professional lives. Roberts remembers the $1 billion investment Bill Gates made in Comcast in 1997, a bet that the data business would someday eclipse the television business, and one that would “change the direction of our company.” (The bet would go on to earn Gates a return of 400 percent.) Adkerson recalls being made head of Arthur Andersen’s global public company accounting and audit practice at age 40, a job he thought was his dream, only to discover he hated it. Within months he had joined Freeport where, 15 years later, he would accept the career-defining role of chief executive.


All of the Hall of Fame chief executives interviewed by II talked about the importance of workplace culture in their long-term success. Brian Roberts said his most important job of all is to foster the culture of integrity, risk taking and innovation that was established by his father, while Lawrence Culp said it’s all about the team: “You're only as good as a CEO as the team around you is strong.” Adkerson, who will be succeeded by Kathleen Quirk as chief executive in June 2024, said he will leave Freeport-McMoRan proud of establishing a culture based on teamwork and collaboration. But his biggest learning lies outside the workplace: “My greatest personal lesson has been to be more patient with a bulldog’s persistence.”

 

Read the full interviews below.

Brian Roberts, Comcast

First place count: 10


Greatest lesson you've learned as a chief executive?


My dad, Ralph, who founded the company, used to say, “listen with your mouth closed and your ears open.” When I was in my twenties, I was full of ideas, and it was sometimes hard to hear others in my eagerness to share. I hope I’m better now in my 60s… but I’m still working on it.

What's the greatest challenge you've faced as a chief executive?

We’ve always believed that you need to act like an owner, not a renter, and make decisions for the long term. Some of our biggest investments and opportunities were met with skepticism early on, from the acquisitions of AT&T Broadband and NBCUniversal, to spending capital on fiber optics, to helping invent interactive and on-demand television. In any particular moment not everyone is going to agree so the hope is that, over time, you get it right more than wrong and always try to articulate a clear and consistent vision.

What moment changed your professional life forever?

In 1997, well before the internet became what it is today, Bill Gates agreed to make a $1 billion investment in Comcast at a time when no one thought that cable TV systems could be made to work two-way. He was betting that the internet was going to change our lives forever with high-speed connections to millions of homes. His endorsement in our technological vision changed the trajectory of our company and was a shot heard around the world that broadband was the future.

What are you most looking forward to in the next phase of your career?

My most important job is to help nurture the next generation of leaders and maintain our culture of integrity, risk taking and innovation. It’s as true today as when my dad founded the company 60 years ago.

Lawrence Culp, General Electric Co

First place count: 8

What's the greatest lesson you've learned as a CEO? And what's the greatest challenge you have faced?

Fundamentally, it's all about the team. You're only as good as a CEO as the team around you is strong. And when I think about the challenge of transforming GE over the last five-plus years, we knew we had a massive deleveraging to accomplish and at the same time, a real operational transformation within each of the three businesses. Along the way, encountering external shocks like a global pandemic, it took a focused, resilient team to deliver what we needed to with such a high degree of difficulty.

What is the best piece of business advice you've received and who is it from?


The best business advice I ever got was from my junior high basketball coach who said you have to practice because you either get better or you get worse, but you do not stay the same. That meant a lot to me back then. And I think that is very much the essence of Kaizen, or continuous improvement, which is a mindset that I have adopted in the years since—and one that we have worked to operationalize across our company. This principle is at the heart of our lean transformation at GE and now FLIGHT DECK, our proprietary lean operating system at GE Aerospace.

Was there a moment that changed your professional life forever? And what are you most looking forward to in the next phase of your career?

Back in the early 1990s, when I was 30 years old, I had the opportunity to run my first P&L, Veeder-Root, where I could really get deep into that business and what our customers needed. That was the last time I was able to play in one sandbox, squarely focused on one business. Now, I will have the opportunity to do that again with 100% focus on all things GE Aerospace, and I couldn’t be more excited. The opportunity to support the ramp and invent the future of flight, both on the commercial and on the defense side of the business, is something I'm very much looking forward to.

Richard Adkerson, Freeport-McMoRan Inc.

First place count: 9

What is the greatest lesson you've learned as a chief executive?

The important role that organizational culture plays in delivering long-term value. In my tenure, I am proud of establishing a culture based on teamwork and collaboration, with leaders who have character and competency, and who are committed and enthusiastic about their work. We call it the Freeport Family. My greatest personal lesson has been to be more patient with a bulldog’s persistence.


What's the greatest challenge you've faced as a chief executive?

The most significant challenge occurred in 2012 when Freeport made a major investment in oil and gas assets, despite my objections. That investment and subsequent spending resulted in significant value destruction and a financial crisis. Following a restructuring of our board and our management, we took decisive actions to restore the financial strength of our company, refocused our strategy on being foremost in the global copper industry, executed our business plans effectively and emerged as an industry leader with a bright future. Regaining investor confidence was key in our recovering from this difficult situation.

What's the best piece of business advice you've received (and from whom)?

I joined Freeport 35 years ago and have served as CEO for over 20 years. Previously, I had a two-decade career in public accounting with Arthur Andersen which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had two special mentors there who were senior leaders in the firm. Von Graham was the “gentlemen’s gentlemen.” I was a hard driver as a young man. Von smoothed some of my rough edges. He taught me empathy and how to accomplish more by working with people and leading them. My other special mentor, Randal McDonald (“Mac”) was straightforward and smart, a leader in the oil and gas industry. After I completed a two-year term as an Accounting Fellow with the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, I became a partner at Arthur Andersen at a young age. Shortly afterwards, Mac promoted me to head the firm’s global oil and gas practice. I was only 33. He advised me that he would keep his eyes on me, but I would be on my own in this new role. He then conveyed to me, in his words, very clear instructions on how I should fulfill my new responsibilities. He said, “Do the right thing and don’t screw up.” Those have been the “watch words” for my career.

What moment changed your professional life forever?

There are three. It’s hard to choose one. At age 40, I was made head of Arthur Andersen’s global public company accounting and audit practice. For me, it was a career dream come true. I discovered the job was consumed with administrative management. I had enjoyed working on transactions and with clients. I was also turned off by the internal conflict within the firm between its traditional business and the consulting practice that became Accenture. Less than six months after being named to the position, I shocked the firm’s managing partner when I told him the position was not a fit for me. Within a year, I joined Freeport. The second was the discovery of Freeport's Grasberg mine in Indonesia. I first visited the mine site in early 1988 as exploration drilling was taking place. After joining Freeport in 1989, I began traveling to Papua, Indonesia, several times a year and was actively engaged in the project’s multi-stage development, permitting and complicated community affairs. Freeport is one of the largest and longest tenured foreign investors in the country. Grasberg is one of the largest, most complicated and most successful operations in the global metals industry. The lessons our team learned there enabled us to operate effectively around the world. I had the great honor to witness the development of the Republic of Indonesia over the years and its successful transition to a strong democratic country. Building successful relationships with the government and developing strong friendships with the special people of Indonesia has been rewarding professionally and personally. The third was Freeport’s 2007 acquisition of the much larger Phelps Dodge. It was the then largest merger in the history of the mining industry, with record setting financings in the global high-yield market. Adding Phelps Dodge’s set of global assets to FCX’s Grasberg created the modern Freeport and established our company as global leader.

What are you most looking forward to in the next phase of your career?

Freeport’s Board has announced a CEO transition plan. Kathleen Quirk will become CEO. She joined Freeport in 1989 at approximately the same time I joined the Company. She became CFO when I became CEO in 2003 and president when I became chairman in 2001. She has the strength, capability and experience to lead our organization. As chairman, I will remain active in working with our board and with governments, communities, external constituent groups and industry relationships. I will work with Kathleen and her team on Freeport’s opportunities to grow our business. Over the years, I have been actively involved and served in leadership positions with several philanthropic and community initiatives. It has been and will continue to be an important part of my life. Looking forward, I hope to focus in an advocacy role on causes where I have passion – diversity advancement, income inequalities and conserving nature. I look forward to sharing my love for the natural world with my family and friends.

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