- Stephan Scholl, the CEO of Alight, took the company public in a July 6 IPO.
- Despite new pressures from shareholders, Scholl said employees will continue to come first.
- When workers are taken care of, they are more productive and profitable, the CEO said.
On July 6, Alight CEO Stephan Scholl and a dozen employees stepped onto the elevated stone platform overlooking the New York Stock Exchange.
As a large clock counted down the last seconds to 9:30 a.m. — the opening of the NYSE — Scholl slammed his hand on a button in front of him, prompting a bell’s ringing to blare through the speakers in the large trading room. The company — which provides corporate-benefits resources, payroll, and human-resources management tools — was now listed on the exchange under the ticker ALIT.
“Being on the balcony and seeing just the entirety of the whole room — it was an incredible moment,” Scholl said. “You know the world is watching.”
Before Alight’s IPO, Scholl was responsible for the company’s 15,000 workers, and the hundreds of clients for which the company provides employee-benefits services. Now, he’s also answerable to shareholders who expect consistent profits.
Despite this new pressure, Scholl said he’s committed to prioritizing his own employees’ well-being and success over anything else. So far, he’s been successful in convincing investors of his employee-first approach, as evidenced by the company’s $7.3 billion IPO valuation and the $2.7 billion raised before going public.
“I realized over the IPO process just how aggressive I wanted to be in really meeting the needs of the employee population,” he said. “This is the decade of the employee.”
Employee success is the top way to drive customer satisfaction, client retention, and overall profits, Scholl added. His leadership style stands in stark contrast to the customer-first mentality that’s driven companies such as Amazon and Walmart.
Since taking the helm of the Illinois company in April 2020, Scholl has expanded Alight’s paid-time-off offerings around COVID-19, giving employees 14 additional days if they are sick or need to care for a loved one. He’s expanded the company’s employee-relief fund, providing over 2,000 onetime cash payments in the past year alone, and has hired a chief diversity and inclusion officer to help promote a culture of inclusion.
“If only we treated our employees as well as we treat our clients, it’d be a different day,” Scholl said.
Many CEOs have subscribed to the 1970s economist Milton Friedman’s notion that companies exist for the sole purpose of maximizing profits for shareholders. With the worsening climate crisis and wealth gap between the rich and the poor, that idea has come under scrutiny over the past decade.
More leaders have started advocating for stakeholder capitalism — the idea that leaders are responsible to their employees, customers, and communities, not just to their shareholders.
Scholl’s worldview has been shaped by this conversation. In particular, he’s established himself as an outspoken advocate for employee wellness.
“We’re playing the long game. So the hardest part, obviously, is making sure that we tell the story to shareholders from a long-term perspective,” he said. “The business transformation we’re promising, that’s not going to happen overnight. So we’ve been very measured and thoughtful in our investor deck.”
Scholl believed that companies that aren’t prioritizing employees were losing the war for talent.
“Many CEOs are at risk now because some of them don’t have enough of the right talent. They’ve overinvested in foosball tables and free lunches.”
Instead, he said, leaders need to double down on what workers are asking for: better benefits.
“I am putting employees right on the front lines,” he said, “front and center as the transformation agent to shareholder success and to client success.”