CEO Stories: Leadership Through Communication and Involvement

Steve Odland
CEO of The Conference Boar

Steve Odland, CEO of The Conference Board, one of the nation’s premier business research organizations, shares his corner office experiences and lessons learned from a career that has taken him from oatmeal to auto parts, from Sara Lee to the U.S. Commission on National Transportation Surface Policy.Over the course of his career, Steve learned that to serve all stakeholders, a business leader must find the right balance in meeting the needs of customers, employees, owners, community, and the environment.

Steve Odland is CEO of the Conference Board, a premier business research organization, which provides deep insight into the economy and human behavior. He considers it a fitting step for someone who started his career in the low-margin, data-rich supermarket business. Everyone shops at supermarkets, he notes, voting with their dollars and cents, giving critical insight into what drives consumers. According to Odland, big data is nothing new, as grocery stores started capturing data for more than 20 years ago.

His first major CEO job was at Auto Zone, at the beginning of the 2001 recession. While a DIY business focused on keeping cars running is somewhat insulated from other recession-related trends, it was a time, in Odland’s mind, to focus on leadership, ethicism, and invigorating both the shopper and the staff with a strong emphasis on culture. Odland’s bet saw the Memphis-headquartered company stock increase by more than 400%.

The Committee for Economic Development was a seventy-five-year-old think tank in Washington D.C., which merged a couple of years later with the Conference Board—an unusual move for two non-profits. One of the first products of the newly merged groups: A public policy book called Sustaining Capitalism. Odland points out that he believes Adam Smith did not so much create capitalism in 1776 when he wrote The Wealth of Nations but instead described what was happening around him.

Odland thinks it is the responsibility of the business community to restore public trust that has eroded in corporations and believes that in order to sustain capitalism, it must evolve. One evolution is going beyond the popular B-School theories promulgated from his time as an MBA student, which centered on short-termism and shareholders, in favor of a longer-view that focuses on a broader group of constituents: customers, employees and owners, community, and environment.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.