5 Takeaways from Blackstone’s 2022 CEO Conference
At Blackstone, we take an active approach to partnering with the CEOs in our portfolio, helping them strengthen their businesses and accelerate growth. That support extends far beyond Blackstone’s walls, as our portfolio company leaders form a powerful network of thought partners navigating common experiences in a rapidly evolving business environment.
This spring, we welcomed our CEOs and other business leaders back after a two-year hiatus to our annual CEO Conference, reimagined with new programming under the leadership of Global Head of Portfolio Operations Jennifer Morgan. Over two days of networking, panels and authentic exchanges, attendees explored the most pressing issues facing their businesses today, with a goal of generating actionable insights to take back with them.
“We’re thrilled to bring our CEOs together for a profound experience that supports them in creating breakthrough ideas and measurable outcomes across their businesses and throughout our portfolio.”
― Jennifer Morgan, Blackstone Global Head of Portfolio Operations
Here are our top five takeaways from the event:
1. Find power in your network. Listen to employees, lean on your board and learn from your business partners.
This gathering was a testament to the power of the Blackstone network—the talent it draws, the insights it sparks and the partnerships it supports. CEOs spoke candidly about the pressures of their role, including the sense of isolation that can come with their responsibilities. Having the humility and vulnerability to lean on the people around them, speakers agreed, was crucial for success.
“Being CEO is a very, very lonely job…The way I see my relationship with the board is there are very, very different people with different skills, different backgrounds, and I know who to go to for what problem I’m facing….It’s really about building that relationship of trust where I know I’m not alone.”
― Nitin Rakesh, CEO, Mphasis
“Informal contact—five minute phone calls, ten minute phone calls—make sure you’ve got…a full range of a relationship with the board, not just the kind of formalities, so when you do have to smash the glass…you’re talking to a friend and a supporter.”
― Mark Thompson, former CEO, The New York Times, Board Member, Ancestry
“We have aligned ourselves with a team that really cares about our mission and has been incredibly, incredibly helpful…When you’ve picked an exceptional business partner, collaborate with them to influence the business but don’t lose sight of that mission around which everything else will pivot.”
― Bryce Maddock, Co-founder & CEO, TaskUs
2. Hire what you don’t have – and hold onto it.
Employees today are the top stakeholder group, as the Great Resignation forces CEOs to reconsider how they recruit and retain talent. For our portfolio company leaders and guest speakers, building a successful team means hiring people who think and work differently, giving them a sense of purpose, and delivering an exceptional employee experience.
“What you should want is the best people in the world from every demographic group leaning into your company and helping to achieve its purpose…You have to have less sameness to have the best talent, because less sameness leads to more ideas, more potential, and so on.”
― Michael Bush, CEO, Great Place to Work, guest speaker
“As soon as you can afford to, hire your weaknesses…You really have to recognize what you’re best at in the business and stay in that lane. For me, it was product. And when I started spending too much time in other areas, the business suffered, and I suffered. So I would check in with myself and say, ‘What percentage of my time today did I spend doing what I’m best at?,’ because that’s how I can best serve the business.“
― Sara Blakely, Founder, SPANX
“Having employees feel like they’re part of something that’s bigger than themselves, something that they believe in and that is actually making the world a better place—in whatever construct you’re in—is an important part of bringing in new talent and retaining the best talent.“
― Adena Friedman, Nasdaq, guest speaker
“We are in the middle of a huge cultural shift that goes back to the first Industrial Revolution. The goal with machines and later with software was always to minimize downtime. But we’re recognizing that for the human operating system, downtime is not a bug. It’s a feature. We were all brought up in a world where people brag, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ And now we’re changing that world because we realize the tremendous business cost of not changing it.”
― Ariana Huffington, Founder and CEO, Thrive Global, guest speaker
3. Simplicity wins over complexity.
Digital transformation has generated massive amounts of data and new tools that promise to make decision-making ever more sophisticated. Yet several conference speakers argued for finding success in simplicity. Whether it’s product development, people management, or branding, prioritizing simplicity helps leaders identify, communicate and grow their value.
“Complexity is not your friend. Simplicity is your friend as you run companies. A lot of CEOs keep everything very complicated… They think that makes them look like they’re smart. I totally disagree with that philosophy. Keep it simple and keep it focused on the 80/20 of what’s important for that company to be successful and grow shareholder value.”
― Maggie Wilderotter, Board Chair, DocuSign, Board Member HPE & Costco, Senior Advisor, Blackstone
“My aha! moment was that the data doesn’t matter, the AI doesn’t matter – what matters is solving a real problem.”
― Mohamad Ali, CEO, IDG
“Throw ten tennis balls at someone, they won’t catch any. Throw one, and they catch it. The goal in brand transformation is to have one tennis ball. If your brand stands for too many things, your audience won’t know what to hold onto.”
― Jonny Bauer, Global Head of Strategy and Brand Transformation, Blackstone
4. Innovation can’t happen without permission to fail.
Our speakers run businesses serving a wide range of customer needs—from cloud infrastructure to clean energy—but many agreed that their success depends on a company culture that embraces failure as a path to fresh ideas and new knowledge.
“Decriminalize failure. If you’re not constantly experimenting, looking at new audiences, testing new things, you’re really missing the boat… A lot of it has to do with the culture you set up… you’re learning from all the failures, you’re cleaning up your garden by cutting off the branches that don’t make sense, and then you’re able to double down on the things that do.”
― Deb Liu, CEO, Ancestry
“We’ve always felt that failure is a way of learning. You learned what did not work…We have what we call internally a blameless postmortem on ‘why did it not work?’ And the goal of that is not to blame somebody or to say ‘what did we do wrong?’ but ‘what we can learn from it so we can go forward and not make the same mistake?’”
― Thomas Kurian, CEO, Google Cloud, guest speaker
5. ESG is essential for business resilience—but it has to come from the top.
From climate strategy to supply chain management, CEOs and senior executives across industries are putting ESG at the top of their agendas. Many shared the view that ESG is more than just a trend—it’s crucial to building resilient companies that can learn from problems, adapt, and continuously innovate. However, realizing the benefits of strong ESG policies is only possible with executive leadership.
“[The energy transition] is not a trend. This is the future… My firm believes ESG has to be started from the very top… It has to start with the CEO who says, ‘I’m committed’ and then creates structures to do it.”
― Michael Polsky, founder and CEO, Invenergy
“We see leading organizations all have one common thread—they bake sustainability into the business operations. They’re making their financial and their business decisions based on it, not viewing it as a separate category.”
― Deb Cloutier, CEO, RE Tech
“Companies must understand what their ESG superpower is…To do that, you need your ESG superhero—your chief sustainability officer or your head of ESG—to be in your inner circle as a CEO. ESG is not a sideshow anymore, if it ever was. It’s just integral to how you go to market.”
― Jean Rogers, Global Head of ESG, Blackstone