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Isn’t CEO Activism Simply Doing What’s Right?

Merriam-Webster defines the word activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”

Cambridge Dictionary defines the term CEO as “the person with the most important position in a company.”

And therein lies the rub. When the two phrases get mashed together, I suppose we are left to believe it’s a good thing to have CEO activism. But what are the true intentions of a CEO and their attempts at corporate activism?

“CEO Activism” is a phrase that is surely and steadily gaining steam. When a CEO speaks out on a particularly contentious issue, however, there is no doubt an army of people has likely weighed in beforehand.

Who makes up this army?

First, there will be members of the marketing and communications team vetting whether or not the particular issue should be discussed publicly or not. Second, those marketing employees will have potentially involved polling agencies or survey firms to see which way the wind is blowing in terms of customer opinion on the issue. Third, the legal team may even become involved. Fourth, if they’re included, executives from the sales team might be asked for their opinion.

If too many customers are likely to impact the revenue or sales numbers for that quarter negatively, you can bet your last dollar there isn’t a chance the CEO will speak out.

The activism has been squashed by the need to keep all customers happy. Rather than doing what’s right, the CEO refrains from saying anything.

Weber Shandwick confirms the logic. In a research report done in conjunction with KRC Research, it found that 53 percent of marketing and communications executives “spend time discussing whether the CEO should speak out on issues.” In other words, more than half of the organizations debate whether to jump on the bandwagon of true activism rather than simply doing what’s right for a particular issue.

Even more interesting is that data suggests a positive correlation to CEOs speaking out on issues.

  • 78% of those whose CEO has spoken out are favourable of the CEO speaking out
  • Only 7% of those whose CEO has spoken out say activism hurt company reputation
  • 80% would see an advantage to company reputation if the CEO were to speak out

But it then begs the question, what truly is a CEO activist?

When Howard Schulz was CEO of Starbucks, did he demonstrate CEO activism when he asked gun owners not to bring their guns into its shops? Or, was it simply a common sense plea.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly criticized his home state of Alabama over the incredulous dearth of LGBTQ rights, was it CEO activism or, again, was it simply doing what’s right.

Perhaps it’s just semantics, but rather than coining it CEO activism I’d like to see CEOs demonstrate a commitment to purpose.

A CEO need not poll to see whether or not they should take a public stand for ethics, human rights, and good citizenship. That’s not activism, that’s societal table stakes.

The intent as a CEO is to lead and act holding a moral compass, dedicated to being purpose-driven not purpose-washing. We don’t need CEO activists we need leaders—pure and simple—defining and building a better form of humanity.

Stop calling it CEO activism; it’s simply a saner way of leadership.

Never to be confused as someone who needs to take a poll first before doing what’s right, perhaps Salesforce founder Marc Benioff said it best:

“CEO activism is not a leadership choice, but a modern — and an evolving — expectation. CEOs have to realize that Millennials are coming into the organization and expecting the CEO to publically represent the values of that organization.”

Despite Benioff’s use of the term, CEO activism is not a phrase to hold up in bright lights but as he suggests it’s an expectation. It’s how all CEOs ought to be operating. Activism is simply operating with a higher purpose.

If your organization is not 100% committed to a purpose-driven way of working, there’s no point in huddling in a meeting room to debate whether to speak out on an issue.

If you are a CEO employing this tactic, you are not an activist; you’re merely a walking contradiction. That’s not leadership either.

Why I Love Netflix’s Decision-Making Culture

Netflix recently announced it is planning to issue roughly $2 billion in bonds to fund corporate activities including but not limited to the development of new shows and content acquisitions. According to SEC filings, this would push the company’s total short and long-term debt to over $20 billion.

No one on Wall Street seems to be worried in the slightest. The company continues to dazzle with healthy subscriber growth. Notably, the number of global subscriptions has rocketed to 137 million.

How does the company balance a high debt load and lofty subscriber growth targets with the need to offer creative programming to its growing audience?

In part, it has to do with the company’s decision-making DNA. Other organizations would be wise to take notice.

Netflix has long been a favoured story in Silicon Valley for the way in which it operates. The company produced what is colloquially known as their “culture deck” put together over a ten-year period through the efforts and contributions of many employees. The simple PowerPoint presentation was publicly available off their website, and it became a manifesto of sorts. The document detailed the Netflix culture, its corporate values, and the way it expected current or potential employees to behave.

Officially titled the “freedom and responsibility” slide deck, it is the first value titled “Judgment” and the accompanying recommended behaviours that we should pay attention. That first value outlines the company’s decision-making ways and accompanying expected behaviours.

Notably, Netflix encourages its employees to “make wise decisions despite ambiguity.” The company empowers its team members not only to make the decision but to do so “based on the long-term, not near term.” Debt is not the issue at Netflix. Unable to make strategic, informed decisions based on data and fact is their quintessential concern. If employees are not making informed decisions with Netflix’s money, what good is the debt in the first place?

Furthermore, employees “identify root causes, and get beyond treating symptoms.” In a world that is low on time, addicted to busyness, and distracted by mobile phone notifications, Netflix will have none of it. The company encourages its staff to take the time first to be creative—to ensure options, ideas and opportunities are properly dreamed up—and then it moves into judicious decision-making for the long-term.

Part of its “Judgment” value stems from the teachings of Greek philosopher Aristotle. He was known for a type of thinking called “first principle” thinking. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, adopted the concept and employed it as a means in which to further define the organization’s decision-making.

In an interview, Hastings said, “First principle thinking is the idea that everything you do is underpinned by a foundational belief or first principles. Instead of blindly following directions or sticking to a process, a first principle thinker will constantly ask, ‘What’s best for the company?’ and, ‘Couldn’t we do it this other way instead?’”

It is a sublime lesson for many of us. Continue to question the status quo, act and use judgment in the best interests of the company, and never rest on the laurels of a singular decision.

Hastings has created a culture that is so used to autonomy in the decision-making process that he might not even make one. For example, during an interview with TED founder Chris Anderson, Hastings said: “I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter.”

It is the epitome of the Netflix culture, in particular how its senior leaders empower employees to use wise judgment in all of their actions. “Sometimes I can go a whole quarter without making any decisions,” he continued. He also insists that employees from all levels have access to information, other decisions and ideas. Nothing gets hoarded. He said, “What we’re trying to do is build a sense of responsibility in people and empower them to do things.”

In other words, an organization’s primary operating principle ought to be good judgment, not good administration. When a company recognizes the importance of empowering employees such that they make sound decisions on behalf of the company’s long-term goals, it becomes a recipe for operating a highly engaged workforce.

The former chief talent officer at Netflix, Patty McCord, once said: “We very much valued people who had good judgment and made the right calls. We wanted people to be able to do the right thing with plenty of context and make the right calls because they were smart people with good judgment.”

In other words, sound judgment is at the root of the thriving Netflix culture. The company may currently possess $20 billion in debt, but because of its firm belief in the importance of decision-making, they most likely will continue to be successful in the long-term than not.

$6 trillion In Assets And This CEO Says Purpose Is The Company’s Fundamental Reason For Being

Larry Fink is the CEO and chairperson of New York-based BlackRock, an investment management firm. BlackRock manages roughly $6 trillion in assets on a global basis. Because of its sheer size, The Economist once referred to BlackRock as the world’s largest “shadow bank.”

From my backseat driver vantage point, Fink long ago saw the light regarding what ails society and the leaders who are at the helm of for-profit organizations.

There is a blinding fixation on putting profits ahead of purpose. Indeed purpose seems to have been forgotten or worse ignored.

Senior leaders—and arguably a for-profit organization’s board of directors—continue to operate with their head in the sand. Fink’s annual letter to CEOs points this out admirably.

First, he sets the stage of today’s calamitous situation with the following lines. In summary, it’s not pretty.

  • The global landscape is increasingly fragile and, as a result, susceptible to short-term behaviour by corporations and governments alike.
  • Around the world, frustration with years of stagnant wages, the effect of technology on jobs, and uncertainty about the future have fueled popular anger, nationalism, and xenophobia.
  • Trust in multilateralism and official institutions is crumbling.
  • Many see an increased risk of a cyclical downturn.

Once one digests Fink’s landscape setting, one gets the sense we sit on the cliff of a perilous future. From an ingrained short-term, myopic, shareholder-return-is-the-goal strategy to a yellow vest uprising, the world seems destined for moral bankruptcy. Fink sees this, too.

But he implores CEOs to think differently with an astute observation.

  • Society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues.

And there it is — a call for purpose. Fink rightly points out that as the world crumbles, it just may be the CEO’s role to save it. He suggests there is “an extricable link” between purpose and profit. “It must begin with a clear embodiment of your company’s purpose in your business model and corporate strategy,” he wrote. “Purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them.”

And there’s the rub. Few companies and a scant number of CEOs think this way.

The irony continues.

Research has proven that purpose-driven organizations are more successful if they operate with the long-term in mind. Serving all stakeholders (customers, team members, partners, suppliers, community, and environment) and being ethical with all actions is essential. Refraining from managing to the short-term—often referred to as short-termism—has to become a CEOs new raison d’etre.

study conducted by McKinsey Global Institute in cooperation with FCLT Global demonstrated that firms focusing their business on the long-term had 47% higher revenues and 36% greater earnings. Furthermore, over 14 years, these firms added 12,000 more jobs on average than their peers. The study went on to suggest that had all organizations acted in this manner the U.S. economy would have grown $1 trillion, creating more than five million jobs.

Further down the letter, Fink highlights the positive relationship between purpose and profits.

  • Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time – not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities.
  • Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities.
  • Purpose guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of your company.

I spent three years (2013 through 2016) researching the relationship between purpose and profits, as well as its importance on organizational culture, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and productivity. Out of that research came my second book, titled The Purpose Effect.

I discovered that when an organization balances the obvious need for profits with an operating model that is purpose-driven, all stakeholders (not just shareholders) end up winning. Employees are happier. Customers return for more purchases. The community earns positive spin-off and windfall benefits. The environment and our planet are protected. And yes, profit seekers and shareholders are rewarded.

But it requires a higher level of leadership, not just of the CEO, but the board, the C-Suite, and every leader throughout the firm.

Fink concludes his letter with the following passages:

  • One thing, however, is certain: the world needs your leadership.
  • Companies that fulfill their purpose and responsibilities to stakeholders reap the rewards over the long-term. Companies that ignore them stumble and fail.
  • And in turn, the world depends on you to embrace and advocate for a long-term approach in business.
  • At a time of great political and economic disruption, your leadership is indispensable.

Indeed, “your leadership is indispensable.”

It is time to stop the rhetoric of purpose and instead CEOs and senior leaders ought to do something about it.

Time is running out.

Dan Pontefract February 2019 Playlist (for the lovers)

My latest project is centred on love.

I’m spending an entire two years or so noodling on the word love, and its relationship to leadership.

We need more of it in our lives and in particular our organizations. Our places of work desperately require a little more love.

It is arguably cliché, however with February upon us I started to reflect on the word love and its partnership to music.

A year ago I started this little side project; a monthly curated music playlist. I love it. I love music. I love spending time listening to it, finding new sounds, artists, poems, and so on.

It really is a part of me.

And I love it.

And that’s okay.

This playlist is for those who love, who want to love more, and who need to be loved.

Maybe by you.

Are You Empathetic? Shame On You If Not.

In this episode, Dan Pontefract highlights the critical importance of empathy with stories about The Giving Tree, Christmas Truce 1914, and the three different types of empathy. Love Based Leadership provides insights, thoughts, stories and truth bombs concerning the state of leadership in today’s organizations.

My Big Beef With The Term “Soft Skills”

LinkedIn released its annual list of top skills that are in demand by executives.

The company writes:

These are the skills your boss and your boss’s boss find most valuable, but have a hard time finding – and the skills that’ll most help you better serve your clients and customers.

The 2019 skills are listed in a hierarchical order of importance. Of note, LinkedIn catalogues two separate lists. One is denoted by “hard skills” while the other illustrates “soft skills” in demand. The latter came out as follows:

  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Time Management

While I have no issue with the list, per se, there is one point to make.

Soft skills.

Why does LinkedIn—and other organizations in the communication, PR and marketing space—continue to refer to them as soft skills?

How ridiculous is it to suggest these critically important attributes as being “soft.” That’s like saying my favourite meal is food. Or perhaps my preferred type of music is one with instruments.

“Hey, Danica Patrick. What’s your favoured type of racing car?” She responds, “One with wheels.”

“Dan, what is your much-loved type of hat?”

“One that covers my head.”

LinkedIn goes a step further by using the following definition for soft skills:

Soft skills are defined as less tangible and harder to quantify, such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.

Less tangible?

The entire leadership development industry is estimated to be worth greater than $50 billion. How can soft skills be worth $50 billion? That does not seem so soft. That certainly looks quite tangible.

Soft skills are not soft; they are professional. We might even suggest that professional skills be considered leadership skills.

Each of us is a leader, be it a leader of self, leader of teams, leader of projects, or leader of business units and organizations.

Leadership is not a soft skill. It’s a practice, an art, an entire discipline. Leadership encompasses all facets of leading people, teams, projects, initiatives, organizations, and so on. It cannot be whittled down to a soft skill. LinkedIn is doing a disservice to those on the hunt for development options, let alone those leaders consuming the findings and trying to make sense of a “soft skill.”

Soft skills is far too derogatory a term—and too archaic to categorize as a skill category—for it to be on LinkedIn’s list.

Since when did leadership become soft? It’s hard. (But don’t get me started on whether it should be considered a soft or hard skill. It’s neither.)

Leadership is the practice of a multitude of professional skills, often employed simultaneously to achieve an outcome. That could be the development of people, the execution of a task, the motivation of a team, or the creation of a product or service.

Leadership is the pursuit of revenue and profit, ideally balanced by a purpose-driven mindset. It is about building relationships inside and outside the organization while sustaining a culture that is open, collaborative and engaged.

Leadership is holding the capability to influence, inspire, and course-correct. It is managing a budget, forecasting, and selling. Leadership is about being a mentor, a coach and a trusted advisor.

Within leadership, multiple different skills ought to be employed by a leader. Embedded inside the concept of leadership are attributes and behaviours that in totality make up the responsibilities of a leader.

Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management—skills from the LinkedIn “soft skills” list—are all excellent examples of leadership skills. Whether you are a leader of self, teams, projects and/or the organization, if you do not possess these skills in this day and age, you will ultimately fail as a leader.

But they are not “soft skills.” There is nothing soft about creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management.

In the 2020 LinkedIn “Skills Companies Need Most List,” I encourage the company to begin using the term “professional skills” or preferably “leadership skills” to designate what they now refer to as “soft skills.”

Let’s raise the perception and understanding of what it means to be a leader, and to develop one’s professional skills. There’s nothing soft about that.

Podcast: Time After Time, The Importance Of Time

In this episode, Dan Pontefract discusses the critical importance of time. Are you in control of your time? What is the relationship between time and being a love-based leader? Find out. Love Based Leadership provides insights, thoughts, stories and truth bombs concerning the state of leadership in today’s organizations.

A Proven Way To Be A Better Sales Account Executive

If you are an account executive on the sales team of your organization, no doubt you live and die by a few key factors. There is one opportunity, however, that sits at your fingertips as something that could change the way you sell. In turn, you might end up with both higher customer satisfaction and quotas.

But initially, let’s review those core factors of an account executive.

First, there is your funnel. If things are looking a wee bit bleak concerning your pipeline, not only will your boss be hovering over you as mosquitos do in the heart of summer, you’ll feel a gnawing sense of panic as the days and weeks progress in the quarter without any movement.

Second, there is account planning. Fail to pay attention to the sales cycle of your customer—be it where they are on the renewal stage or otherwise—and you can kiss goodbye the likelihood of President’s Club happening this year. Account planning might be boring, but it’s necessary.

Third, there is product knowledge. Oh oh. The product team changed things again. Maybe the partner updated the stack again. Now there’s more to learn, and more to pitch. “I can’t believe everything is new again,” you might mutter to yourself. Better start reading the updated user guide or signing up for the latest sales training offerings. I know. You’d rather sit for a root canal, but that will have to wait.

Fourth, there is Salesforce, or whatever CRM tool you may be using. Spending time in the CRM is sometimes as welcomed as an underwater sneeze. So many fields. So little time. So boring. But the bosses above you want it filled out regularly. Better carve out time on the weekend to make sure it’s current. It looks like you’ll have to forgo binge-watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix.

Each of these factors makes up life as a sales account executive. There are others, of course, but a good portion of your time is spent making certain each of these key areas is being addressed. You’re just going to have to—as my wife often says to our children—“suck it up buttercup.”

There is an opportunity lurking in the background of these never-going-to-change activities that you may want to consider.

Whatever it is that you’re peddling, stop selling features.

Instead, start building a relationship with your customer that focuses on the bigger picture. Then offer up a solution that is more than what you sell. Bring to the customer a value-add proposition that is more than your products and services. Bring to them a vision, a bigger picture.

What is the bigger picture? It’s the customer’s current pain points and future long-term plans. It has almost nothing to do with what you’re selling. (Okay, it might have a little to do with what you’re selling.)

As an alternative to pitching the latest features that come with your products and services, engage in a conversation with the customer that discusses all facets of their business, their issues, their threats, as well as their opportunities. The topics are real, and they may not have much to do with what you are selling.

There are culture, leadership and organizational dynamics issues that need addressing. There are bad processes, silos and bureaucratic nightmares to solve. There are supply chain and partner management problems to fix. There are creativity, innovation and modernization options that need discussing.

When an account executive can strike a conversation with the customer that doesn’t once focus on their product or service features, that is a customer willing to spend more time with you. When an account executive can have a multi-faceted and deeply rooted conversation about real business issues, it’s the customer who then begins seeing you in a different light.

You have become a trusted advisor, somebody not solely interested in meeting your quota or contract renewal schedule.

Not only should you be able to have such a conversation, but you may also have an opportunity to bring subject-matter experts found within your organization to future discussions. Now you look like a true rock star, acting on behalf of the best interests of your client.

When you look out for the long-term success of your customer—aiming to bring value-add options to the table, regardless of what you sell—I find that more often than not that customer not only accepts your proposal (or renewal) they often consider other options that you may bring to the table.

An account executive is never going to change the need to update the funnel, account plan, attend training or spend time in the CRM. There’s some real estate on Mars I’d like to sell you if you think you can.

But an account executive who creates an entirely different relationship with the customer—someone focused on a long-term, value-add affiliation—is one who is likely to be much happier, more engaged, and a lock for President’s Club every year.

You can now binge watch Peaky Blinders.

Are You Recognizing Your People?

In this episode, Dan Pontefract highlights the importance of recognition. 87 percent of employee recognition focuses on tenure-based awards. (e.g. you get a 10-year plaque or watch.) That’s just wrong. Find out how you can recognize peers and employees far better. Love Based Leadership provides insights, thoughts, stories and truth bombs concerning the state of leadership in today’s organizations.

Dan Pontefract January 2019 Playlist (homage to Peaky Blinders)

I don’t know what took me so long, but I finally sat down and began watching Peaky Blinders, the epic family gangster series from BBC set in post-WWI Birmingham, England.

It. Is. Fab.

I’m just about to watch season four. Don’t spoil it for me.

The series got me thinking about my love for hard, guitar-laced and somewhat dark indie music. The series also contains softer, reflective music, poetic in its symbolism with the show’s plot and characters.

Peaky Blinders is chock full of excellent music. Each episode is a testament to the importance of curation.

My first playlist in 2019 is dedicated to this brilliant series and the people who have put together the music.

Of the ten songs in this playlist, there are three taken directly from the Peaky Blinders series. You’ll just have to guess which ones they are! As for the other seven, I humbly suggest that they could play a part in a future season. 😉



Executive Assistants Are The Real Heroes

I have worked full-time for five different organizations in telecommunications, high-tech and academia over twenty-five years. The employee population in those organizations has ranged from 1500 to well over 50,000.

No matter the firm, business unit, or team, it is the executive assistants and support personnel who are the real heroes, the unsung makers of order. They are the lifeline to anyone and everyone in the organization.

Assistants come in all forms. Quiet and unassuming. Bold and boisterous. Some seem meek, while others come across as overly confident. Do not be fooled. However you perceive them, beware because it’s a trap!

The assistant is all-knowing.

Equally important, they are the glue that binds all pages together.

The assistant is paid to support the executive and by extension the team. Ultimately they are an individual contributor. There are no direct reports to an assistant, ever. But that does not stop the assistant from commanding an army.

From their very first day on the job, they begin a natural process of finding, building, and maintaining their tribe. It’s a tribe that does battle every single day, and it wins.

Who is their tribe?

Other assistants scattered across the organization. What’s more frightening than the one assistant who knows everything? A pack of wolves who can slaughter their prey in a matter of seconds with ubiquitous knowledge and wolf-like reflexes to get things done. This is the assistant. They form a pack of wolves like no other.

Not only does the assistant team up with other assistants through some invisible, cement-like bond, but they also begin the process of sleuthing.

Their ability to memorize an org chart is uncanny. Knowing who the alpha dogs/cats are in their second hour on the job is remarkable. From the confines of a desk—and the occasional strolls across a floor or building—the assistant amasses a network of contacts, intelligence, and superior processes to fool Napoléon if he were still around.

The assistant arrives early and often stays late. They answer emails and texts at all hours of the day and weekend. Proactive, collaborative, and intuitive, the assistant has a sixth sense anticipating what might hit the fan before it ever reaches those sharp blades. They stitch a wound before the blood ever reaches the ground.

Too many people classify them solely as schedulers, approvers, and organizers. Those that do often suffer the wrath of the assistant’s spell. Be mean or condescending, and you welcome yourself into a hellhole of nothingness. I have seen it many times before. The macho team member who undermines the raw talent of an assistant is quickly put in their place, often with a tail between their legs in the corporate version of a “walk of shame.”

Judge a book by its cover, and you will miss out on the brilliant knowledge found within. The same can be said for assistants.

Apparel company lululemon provides an example. In a recent job description for an executive assistant, lululemon asks for the following concerning the “day in the life” of the role:

  • Principle scheduler, timekeeper, planner and coordinator to a member of the lululemon Executive Team, the Executive Assistant has a vital role in the success of their department
  • Heavy calendaring: You will be the point of contact for internal & external requests as well as being responsible for organizing travel itineraries, coordinating meetings, and preparing briefing notes and minutes of meetings.
  • Coordination and execution of events.
  • Maintaining professional finances including all expenses, tracking of finances, paying invoices in a timely manner and keeping all spreadsheets up to date.
  • Opens, distributes and follows-up on standard incoming mail. Screens and directs incoming calls and some emails, and helps to file.
  • Composes and prepares documents for signature. Coordinates the preparation of corporate documents, as requested.
  • Delegates and follows up on action items that fall within the realm of responsibility.
  • Maintains an easy to use filing system for archived documents and computer files.
  • Provides confidential personal support and maintains confidential personal information.

Every assistant known to humankind understands the bullets outlined above. It’s the gig. They perform each of these actions not only admirably, but without hesitation.

I left one bullet out. It’s the final one found in the job description:

  • Undertakes special assignments and projects as needed.

It’s where the assistant shines, where they exhibit those wolf-like skills, cunning, networking, sharp as a knife. “Special assignments and projects as needed” is perhaps a throwaway line, but it’s precisely where the assistant becomes one of the single most important people in the organization itself.

I have been blessed to work with many assistants over the years. Kim, Wendy, Stephanie, Heather, Michael, Anna, Ryan, Linda, Winnie, Georgia, Mehroon, Kim (again) are just a few of the colleagues I have witnessed deliver incredible leadership.

They are superheroes without the cape.

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