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Episode 174: Exploring the World of CEOs with Marlene Colucci

May 11, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week Matt sat down with Marlene Colucci, CEO of the Business Council, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of GXO Logistics, Inc., and former Special Assistant to the President under the Bush Administration. Colucci highlights her experience interacting with other CEOs on the Business Council and how they all work together to learn from each other and implement best practices in their own companies. She also gives insight into a weekly Business Council meeting and popular discussion topics among many Fortune 100 company’s CEOs.

Episode Transcript

Marlene Colucci  0:01  
This is your life, this is your chosen career path and the more you learn, the more opportunities are going to open up to you.

Matt Waller  0:10  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the Be EPIC podcast. I have with me today, Marlene Colucci, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council, which is a really interesting organization I'm looking forward to you all learning about. She's currently also Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of GXO Logistics, Inc. and she has a really interesting background. And she has also been a Special Assistant to the President in the White House, and has had many other experiences. So I'm really excited to visit with you today. Marlene, thank you for agreeing to visit with me. I appreciate it.

Marlene Colucci  1:08  
Thank you, Dean Waller. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you.

Matt Waller  1:11  
One of the things I want to point out about you, you went to UCLA for your undergraduate degree and Georgetown for your law degree. So you went from one coast to the other. And you've had really amazing experiences. But I would like to start with the Business Council. I had not heard about it until a student of mine pointed it out and I pulled it up online and read through your website and was shocked to see, I mean, the executive committee is chaired by the chairman of Microsoft. And you have C-level CEOs from Nike, TIAA, Best Buy, Amazon, JPMorgan Chase. I mean, this, this is an incredible list of people. It really shocked me when I saw this.

Marlene Colucci  2:05  
Well, yeah, it's not surprising, because I feel like we're the most, a very significant organization that nobody knows about. And I think part of that is by design. The organization's actually has been around since the 1930s. So it started out with a group of business leaders getting together during the Great Depression, and partnering with government to figure out how do we get people in the United States back to work? So it was very much this partnership between business and government as a way to figure out how do you craft legislation? How do you incentivize people to work again? How do you get the economy going? So things that business leaders are very familiar with. And that is really how it got started. Now, along the way, since the 1930s, it has changed a lot. And it has become more I would say inwardly focused in terms of really developing the CEOs skill sets. So making sure they have an opportunity to network with other CEOs that are also at that Fortune 300 level, giving them an opportunity to share best practices, knowing that no matter what industry sector you're in, there are certain things that are common to Fortune 100 or so companies that you can learn from. So you might be at a retail company, but you can learn something from someone in the banking sector, for example. And so there's a lot of that, that we promote that kind of interactivity between CEOs and their peer groups to network and share best practices. And then we discuss policy as well, we don't require that we develop any kind of position. But we try to inform the CEOs about policy issues, and let them make up their own decision that in terms of what's best for their company, their shareholders, their customers and their boards.

Matt Waller  3:44  
These are some of the largest and most influential companies on Earth. And you deal with them on a regular basis, and you get to hear what they're thinking of. And I would think even though, maybe, you have changed over the years, I would think that whatever gets discussed in there, if they wind up having agreements on it, without any process or anything else, it would naturally have a huge impact.

Marlene Colucci  4:11  
I do think some of the issues that you expose the Business Council to does set off a lot of sparks and set off ideas. And I think if we were successful in any one of our meetings, it's usually when a CEO is sitting there listening, engaging in conversation and taking down notes and bringing it back to their C-suite, to say, here's some ideas that I have. I think we all know that, you know, everybody likes to think they're the first person to think of something, a lot of times we reinvent good ideas. So a lot of times they learn from one another and get those ideas and then bring them back and apply it to their particular company. So you're right while they were not requiring anyone to take a position on something or move forward in a certain idea. We do inspire a lot of that. Like to give you an example, in terms of when we had issues on diversity inclusion. There was a particular member Ken Frazier from Merck, Ginni Rometty from IBM, Charles Phillips from Infor, who had gotten together and put together a group called OneTen, OneTen Coalition. And the aim of the group was to have, you know, black Americans be able to participate, especially without college degrees, and come into the corporate world, and get really good jobs, which were not something that you know, necessarily happens in the course of, you know, a business transaction. So, they really put their heads together, and they got a lot of support amongst the members of the Business Council, and have since taken off and really tried to get out there and bring people, young people, into corporations, give them that opportunity to have success, have wraparound organizations, where they can be educated and given soft skills and help them take care of housing and other needs, and put them on the road to success. So that's perhaps one example of something that we did not create, we brought it to their attention. And I think as a result that has been successful.

Matt Waller  6:01  
Well, I would think, being with a group of these people would be a bit intimidating, you know, but looking at your background, and you've worked for President George Bush, and you've been around some really powerful individuals in your career, but I would still think this would be quite intimidating. Did you find it that way at all, at first?

Marlene Colucci  6:25  
Oh, extremely. I think, you know, you'd be arrogant beyond belief if you weren't intimidated, just because of the level of success in the room. But the nice thing is that, you know, like every one of us, everybody is struggling with similar issues. You know, for CEOs, I think it's on a much larger scale, they impact so many more people, but at the same time to you know, they're human beings. And I think because of our meetings, really just involving them, and their, you know, their spouses, their partners, it becomes a very personal exercise. So it's easy once you get to know people not to be intimidated, but really trying to think, How can I, as a leader of this organization, translate what they need, and ideas that I get from them back into content? We do that in a couple ways. We have three kind of in-person meetings in a typical year. And these last few years have been anything but typical. But in a typical year, we have three in-person meetings. And each meeting is co-chaired by two different CEOs. And so I work with them to kind of get ideas about what are CEOs thinking? And where do you feel like you need help? Where do you feel like you would expand your knowledge base if you had speakers? You know, that might be just in the group. I mean, some of our most successful panels are really just panels of our membership, talking about everything from developing human capital to working remotely, to a coalition of those of us in the healthcare sector talking about COVID and its progression. So an opportunity to really to learn from one another.

Matt Waller  7:52  
Would you mind sharing with us just a few of the issues that you've covered that you've seen generated lots of interest?

Marlene Colucci  7:59  
Certainly, I think that, you know, the issues, like, as I mentioned, come from the CEOs themselves. So it's always been a little bit of having your finger on the pulse to try and figure out what's going on in people's minds. So to give you an example, at the start of COVID, this was something that no one had ever dealt with. Certainly not you know, us as individuals, but as employers, nobody had ever seen something with the magnitude of such a global issue. So at the time, my chairman was John Donahoe, from Nike, and he and I talked, and he decided, alright, instead of three in-person meetings, which were obviously not going to be possible, we would start doing weekly calls. And we started convening weekly calls at the outset of COVID for an hour each week. We would have 150 CEOs on a call. It's a little mind boggling. But when you think about it, on a very basic level, this is something that no one had ever seen coming. And we have within our membership, the ability to help one another get through this. So as I mentioned, whether we're healthcare CEOs in the pharma industry talking about what was the latest in terms of, you know, vaccines, or on the treatment side, what was the latest or even some of the companies that are based in Europe or based in Japan, looking at Asia, saying, here's where the pandemic is progressing. What is it going to look like when it gets to the United States? We had a session with governors, where we talked about how governors were handling the situation and how they could work more closely with business to make sure that they were implementing plans that would get people back to work safely, or help them deal with, you know, the pandemic as it was going along. To anything like, you know, Black Lives Matter, when, you know, some of the issues that arose with diversity inclusion, there was a lot of things going on and differently handled in different parts of the country. So there was a lot of information to be shared, that CEOs could ask other CEOs, How are you dealing with this? And get great ideas and really, you know, try to do the right thing, as I think all CEOs really have the opportunity to do and want to do. And sometimes it's just a matter of getting an idea of how best to go about it. So it gives you an idea, I think remote working and getting people back to work dealing with mental health issues, by having this remote work lasts for such a long time. So that's some of the ideas, some of the concepts that we really discussed in greater detail.

Matt Waller  10:22  
I could imagine. I know business school deans were talking to each other a lot. Right? When we realized we were gonna have to go remote, like how do you do this? Faculty are gonna have to teach remotely that have never done that before. So yeah, that that's really impressive.

Marlene Colucci  10:39  
That's a perfect example, too, because when you think about it, nobody had ever done it before. But we did find out that some people do it better than others. And that teaching, you know, remotely required a completely different skill set, just like leading remotely, you know, you're not getting that in person satisfaction and interaction. But instead, you're trying to host zoom meetings, and you're trying to host team meetings, and you're trying to get the same result. And how do you do that, when you're not having that personal interaction?

Matt Waller  11:07  
So I know that you all have started this financial survey, would you mind speaking to that a bit?

Marlene Colucci  11:14  
Absolutely. So we do a financial survey that we have partnered with the Conference Board on really measuring the CEO level of competence. And we ask them, all of our CEOs, quarterly to take a survey. And then we take those results. And we actually used to keep them internally and share them with the rest of our members. And then we thought, you know, this could be an educational tool for the public, whether you're in business school, whether you're running a small business, to have a sense of what are CEOs thinking about in terms of the economy in terms of human capital, in terms of investments, what do they see on the forefront. So we did start to this past year, take this a little bit public and release it. And we've had, you know, for example, Roger Ferguson, is the former CEO of TIAA, and also a former member of the Fed, really talk about the results on TV. And I think that helped to kind of translate it not only for our members, but for the public as well, and be a part of the public dialogue, not with an intent to lobby, but with an intent to educate.

Matt Waller  12:13  
So shifting gears a little bit, in addition to this, you've been a Director and now Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of XPO, GXO. So that's a impressive position. And an industry that is really important. And now the public knows how important it is. They didn't used to, but I'd love to hear about, you know, how you got involved, your role in governance and anything about logistics you might want to share.

Marlene Colucci  12:42  
Especially during a time where now you see increasingly, you know, more diversity with women, people of color on boards. One of our members, Brad Jacobs is the founder of XPO logistics, he has been the founder of I think five different companies, and several of them are roll up companies where he's consolidated an industry. You know, I find him just to be very entrepreneurial, really brilliant. And one day I was talking to him, and he was asking me, he said, "I'd really like to expand my board, make it a little more diverse. Can you give me some suggestions on women who might be a good fit for the board?" So I think we had at least two or three conversations where I gave him ideas I had about different women that were both on the Business Council and also off the Business Council, who I thought he would, you know, benefit from. And then in this one conversation, he said, "Well, what about you?" And thankfully, I was smart enough not to say, oh, no, not me. I could never do that. And I actually said, You're right. What about me? I'd love to do it. I would love to be considered. For your students, I would say, when an opportunity like that comes, make sure you say yes. It is more my nature to say, oh, no, there's someone much smarter than I am. And to be honest with you, I think I believe I've been a benefit to the board. But I also think it's been a benefit to me being on the inside of a company's board, seeing a CEO in action, seeing his interaction with the executive team in a very successful company, in a burgeoning industry. But also it translates back to the Business Council in terms of being able to understand a CEOs needs and what they're thinking about, and what are the things that they need to do to really become the best CEO that they can be.

Matt Waller  14:21  
In these times when logistics companies are really in high demand. They've been pushed beyond their capacity, repeatedly. As a board member, have you had much visibility to that?

Marlene Colucci  14:38  
I, you know, I think mine might be a little bit of a unique experience. But I think all board members do have visibility. We have a lot of visibility. So we're always invited like to be on part of the quarterly calls, the management review calls, and that's helped us kind of get insight into different markets, as well as you know, where are the business customers going? What are they thinking? Where are we having issues, including supply chain issues, where are we having issues with inflation? How are we going to adjust the business to deal with that? Are we going to make our numbers? How do we anticipate, you know, being accurate and being on budget. And so all of those issues really do get discussed in the boardroom. And I think in this, you know, for GXO and for XPO, in particular, we've had just tremendous insight, which I think makes us more valuable board members as well. Because you're not there to manage the company, but you're there to be an outsider and observe and then hopefully, from your perspective, give as much helpful advice as possible.

Matt Waller  15:33  
Speaking of advice, what advice do you have for students?

Marlene Colucci  15:40  
Well, I would say, you know, we were talking about our mutual acquaintance, John Gaither. So I will use him as an example, I would say, you know, he is someone like many students who are very eager to learn, and I've met many, you know, other students along my path, I think most of the Business Counsel in the White House, and in other places that, you know, there's people that are just exceptional in that they want to be in really involved in everything. They're not just taking a course, but they want to be involved in the subject matter. They want to get to know their professors. And in terms of business, they want to know about business opportunities by talking to people in business. And I would say that's the best advice is just jump in there, volunteer for everything you can, believe me, you have a lot more energy when you're in your teens and 20s, than you do later on. So take advantage of that energy. And learn as much as you can. Because there are tremendous opportunities out there. And I do think that people in the business community in particular, are very eager to pass along advice and to help you in any way possible, especially if they see that there's some initiative on the other end, in terms of follow through. So I'd say you know, that would be probably my advice for students was just get out there. If you want to go into business, then get to know as many business leaders as possible, do as many internships as you can, figure out what people are thinking about, what are the issues and really listen, and take that in, and then translate that, you know, when you're involved in taking your courses, be an active participant, don't look at it as someone lecturing to you remember that, you know, this is your life. This is your chosen career path and the more you learn, the more opportunities are going to open up to you.

Matt Waller  17:18  
That's great advice. Marlene, thank you. This has been a fun conversation and I'm glad to learn about the Business Council and what you're doing and congratulations on your tremendous achievements as well.

Marlene Colucci  17:31  
Thank you and congratulations on the success of your podcast.

Matt Waller  17:36  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be EPIC. B e E P I C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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