America’s top chief executives can be divided into two camps: those who saw the pandemic as an opportunity for collaboration, and those who seized the moment to beat the competition in their sector.

Larry Culp made the bold decision, three years into his tenure as chief executive, to split General Electric Company into three separate entities. GE is a U.S. heavyweight, co-founded by the inventor of the modern lightbulb Thomas Edison in 1892. Culp’s decision to divide the company into discrete publicly-traded companies in aviation, healthcare, and energy, announced in November, marks a radical shift in company structure. Culp said the rupture allows each to become “separate, focused companies dedicated to each of these critical spaces... better equipped to attract more of the best talent, deepest board, and the most capital.” Perhaps because of this, Culp was voted top of the electrical equipment and multi-industry category of Institutional Investor’s 2022 All-American Executive Team.

In the pharmaceuticals industry, Covid-19 has led to a coming together of private interests. “The pandemic has spurred collaboration among biopharmaceutical companies at a scale and pace that few if any of us could have foreseen or even thought possible just two years ago,” said Robert Bradway, chief executive of Amgen, and the highest ranking CEO in the biotechnology category. In September 2020, Amgen teamed up with Eli Lilly to boost the supply of therapeutic antibodies — a partnership that Bradway said went from verbal agreement to large-scale production “in a matter of just months.”

Dave Ricks from Eli Lilly and Co joins Bradway on the All-America Executive Team, ranking first in the pharmaceuticals category as voted for by II’s panel of sell- and buy-side participants. Ricks said Eli Lilly is “fighting human nature, the desire to ‘get back to the way it was’. We don’t want to go back. We want to keep that purpose-driven energy alive as we launch new medicines in significant areas of unmet need like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.”

There is, however, one thing that Ricks wants to get back to: the office. “We’ve learned, as many businesses have, that virtual ways of working aren’t the best way to maintain and grow a purpose-driven culture,” he told II. What’s so good about the office? Teamwork, inventiveness, and the all-important potential for collaboration, Ricks said. Rodney O. Martin Jr, who was voted best CEO in the insurance sector for his work heading up the New-York headquartered Voya Financial, disagrees. He said remote working can give companies a competitive edge, making them “better positioned to not only understand their customers’ needs, but also retain the great talent that they have and attract new employees.” Rodney said retaining talent will be critical for all industries in the wake of what he calls “the Great Resignation” and anticipated accompanying labor shortages. Douglas Peterson, president and chief executive of S&P Global and the top-scoring leader in the business, education and professional services category, said a flexible approach is essential: “As we transition into a more balanced approach of both in-person and remote working in 2022, I have learned that we’re capable of working flexibly while delivering the excellent level of service our customers have come to expect.”

Martin and Peterson are not the only top-ranking chief executives thinking about how to keep employees happy at a moment when many leaders are expecting to lose key staff. Ally Financial has increased its minimum hourly wage by 18 percent to $20, benefitting more than 2,300 frontline staff. In addition, the company is awarding all eligible employees stock annually. “Nothing can stop 10,000 owners collectively working to a common purpose,” said Jeffrey Brown, the top-ranked chief executive in the consumer finance sector. In April, Frank Del Rio, who came first in the leisure sector, led Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings when it committed to a 100 percent vaccination policy across its ships when they resumed cruising. “I believe this strong commitment to health and safety, and the great lengths we as a company have gone through to protect our guests, crew, and [the] communities we visit has increased confidence in us and resulted in a competitive advantage,” he said. It’s paid off, Del Rio added, as Norwegian is seeing strong demand for cruise holidays across its brands.

While Culp has a major split on the cards at GE, Peterson is handling the merger between S&P Global and IHS Markit — a plan that “demonstrated the resiliency of our company and our people, and validated the strength of our diversified product set and customer base,” he said. “I am energized by our merger with IHS Markit and the combination of our two world-class organizations and the complementary assets we plan to bring together.”

Whether forging new relationships or executing singular ideas to improve competitiveness, this is a team of executives unafraid to make daring decisions in the midst of economic uncertainty.

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