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Reigniting CEOs’ civic leadership

Once upon a time, the CEOs in town were extremely civic-minded, and invested deeply not only in growing their companies but in building community. A handful of them would meet as a small group around breakfast or lunch, and the decisions they made at that table went a long way in shaping the city. Their work was vital to the city’s health, and helped explain why there was a disproportionate number of Fortune 500 companies in a city this size.

Times change, though, and so did the dynamics around this small group of CEOs. The city grew and diversified, and over time the CEOs of the big companies in town became more focused on running global enterprises and grew a little bit less civic-minded. CEOs would move in from out of town, lead their companies for a few years, then take their millions and move on to the next frontier.

We’re talking, of course, about Minneapolis. If you thought we were talking about Charlotte, that’s because Minneapolis’ story is strikingly similar to ours, as a group of about 130 Charlotte business and civic leaders learned during a visit there last month.

Charlotte has talked for years now about the disappearance of “The Group” – that handful of CEOs who largely made Charlotte what it is today with their decisions in the 1970s, ’80s and into the ’90s – and what leadership approach should replace it.

As the Observer’s Eric Frazier reported last week, Minneapolis has a model that Charlotte could emulate.

The Itasca Project is a group of about 50 Twin Cities leaders. Most of them are CEOs of large companies. They meet regularly to tackle big community problems. There is no staff; individual CEOs take on a particular issue and assemble a task force of fellow Itasca members.

It is, close observers in Minneapolis tell us, a widely respected group, and a way to keep the tradition of CEO civic-mindedness of past decades alive.

Charlotte needs a tool that does precisely that. While the big businesses in town unquestionably still put their stamp on things, the most powerful figures at those companies are generally more concerned with their global dealings than with solving Charlotte’s challenges. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan lives in Boston. Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf lives in San Francisco. While their deputies are capable and committed, the city is not benefiting from any organized effort by CEOs to get deeply and regularly involved with the community’s toughest problems.

Charlotte will never re-create The Group, with its secrecy and exclusive membership, nor should it. But Charlotte needs its highest levels of business executives to be personally invested in the city and region, partnering with public and nonprofit officials on common-sense solutions. The Itasca Project, with its dozens of top leaders meeting publicly, should be instructive.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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