February 17, 2019

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.

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