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CEOs of Fortune 500 companies usually steer clear of anything that is remotely political or culturally combustible in their public statements — let alone in an company-wide address to thousands of employees. Not Randall Stephenson.
The AT&T chairman-CEO turned heads last year with an address to employees that urged them to move beyond platitudes about tolerance to more challenging conversations about race in an effort to better understand one another as human beings. The impassioned 12-minute speech that was meant to be a private conversation with Stephenson’s “AT&T family” went viral when an employee uploaded a cellphone video to YouTube.
On Tuesday, Stephenson was feted for those words, and other actions AT&T has taken to build a “social contract” with employees, by the UJA-Federation of New York with its Steven J. Ross Humanitarian Award. The event at Cipriani 25 Broadway brought in $2.5 million for the UJA’s various charitable activities, a record haul for the org. The high number of media CEOs in the room was a testament to AT&T’s growing prominence in the entertainment industry as it awaits approval of its $85.4 billion merger with Time Warner.
The evening was emceed by Conan O’Brien and included a four-song set by Zac Brown Band. Peter Chernin, whose Otter Media has a joint investment venture with AT&T, declared the night to be the bar mitzvah for a country boy from Moore, Okla., who came up in the world of Ma Bell before the telephone market was up-ended in the 1980s. Chernin called Stephenson “one of the most caring, honest and decent men I have ever met.” But Chernin also couldn’t help observing that, given Stephenson’s decidedly gentile background, “not since Menachem Begin shook hands with Anwar Sadat have Jews reached so far into a different culture to embrace the greater good.”
During a 20-minute Q&A with his corporate fiancée, Time Warner chairman-CEO Jeff Bewkes, Stephenson explained his assertion that “tolerance is for cowards” came on the heels of the string of racially charged police shooting incidents. The slayings last July of five Dallas law enforcement officials by a sniper had a particularly jarring effect on him as it happened just blocks from AT&T’s headquarters.
Stephenson told Bewkes that he hoped to bring some context to the importance of addressing difficult questions about race and racial tension in America. His intent was to empower employees to have those conversations, and in that he has succeeded.
“I’m not suggesting we have fixed racial tension,” Stephenson said. “But within our circle at AT&T it is wide open — and not just about race. There are folks in the LGBT community, Latino groups — we’re having those conversations and it’s amazing what’s been transpiring.”
Stephenson and Bewkes made scant mention of their pending nuptials, as the Justice Department’s review process is well under way. But Stephenson did speak to broader social concerns that amounted to a 21st century variation on “what’s good for AT&T is good for America.”
“What is in the interest of AT&T is a good, healthy, prosperous, growing economy. What a company like AT&T really needs is a good, prosperous, growing middle class,” Stephenson said. “What are the things that are fundamental for having that kind of environment? It starts with things like a good, civil, peaceful environment (and) the rule of law. When you think about racial tension, it’s hard for people to feel secure and wanting to engage in commerce when they’re very insecure about things such as race and racial tension. Those are issues that I think we CEOs should speak out about. If there are remedies, things that can make them better, we ought to press for those things.”
Stephenson cited education and immigration policy as examples.
“If you want a good, healthy, vibrant, growing middle class, you have to have a good, healthy, vibrant educational system,” he said. “We have to be engaged in driving a better educational system because we can’t having a growing middle class without it. Despite some of the current political sentiment, immigration is vital. If you have a (U.S.) population that is slow-growth, you have to have a vibrant population of immigrants.” He cited the importance of the skilled labor that immigrants bring as a “fundamental” part of the nation’s competitive advantage.
“These are issues we ought to engage in,” Stephenson added. “If we can say things, invest in things and do things that move the needle, we ought to.”
Bewkes also drew Stephenson out on AT&T’s large-scale corporate development program designed to help retrain many of its 275,000 employees in order to prevent them from becoming outmoded in a fast-changing business landscape.
The program, detailed in Thomas Friedman’s new book “Thank You For Being Late,” was born about five years ago when Stephenson realized that running AT&T was going to require “far fewer people in the future and they would need radically different skill sets.” He added that as a large-scale employer, AT&T has an obligation to its rank and file to “help you go with us” into the future.
Stephenson has been with AT&T and its predecessor Southwestern Bell Telephone since 1982. The UJA tribute closed with none other than Dr. Ruth Westheimer handing the CEO a custom-made yarmulke with an AT&T logo on top.
“I thought I’d seen this logo just about everywhere,” Stephenson joked. “Now I’ve seen it everywhere.”