In a recent column in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki wrote that businesses in general, and CEOs in particular, have entered an era where their public statements are bound to upset one side or the other of our polarized population. He mentioned as an example PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi saying something negative about Donald Trump only to find that his supporters were planning a boycott in response. In some cases, speaking out has even led to a CEO losing his job, as was the case with Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, after news broke that he contributed money to a California initiative banning same-sex marriage. The sometimes aggressively conflicting positions of CEOs, employees, and large swaths of the general public have created a minefield for corporate leaders.
So what in the world should a CEO, or any leader, do? Should they speak out on political issues, and more generally, social issues? As leaders, what responsibility do they have? I decided to ask Tom Andrews, the President at SYPartners, a consulting firm that helps CEOs and executive teams transform their businesses, brands, and cultures to fulfill their potential. He’s had a seat at the table for 15 years, and has thought a great deal about this very challenge.
Sydney: The day after the U.S. election in November, it became clear that Americans are living in a very divided nation. Some communities emerged encouraged by the outcome, while many continue to struggle to make sense of it. If you were leading an organization in which both communities existed as these tensions have surfaced, what would you do?
Tom Andrews: There’s no tidy answer to this, as I learned in conversation with several of our executive clients after the election. They resist taking sides publicly for fear of turning business into politics. And many do not feel they have the skill to successfully navigate the nuances of a polarized debate. As one put it, “our business should be a haven from the divisions in the culture—a place where you can put aside differences to focus on what we have to do together as a business. I’ve no desire to take sides.” As another CEO put it, he tries to avoid “moral judgments about what is right and wrong… I can only make better or worse decisions for the business.”
What I would do, and what several leaders I admire have done, is two things. First, forget “sides” and go to first principles: every great company has a clear sense of societal purpose and guiding values. In a time where people feel divided about their nation, you can create unity at the level of your organization—which means a reiteration of the values and purpose that bind you all together. As one of my favorite execs put it to her 8,000 person unit, “things can get nasty out there, but in this company, here’s how we behave, here’s what we care about, and here’s how we will be positive and respectful of each other.” Second, create a framework for productive conversation and action about the topic that people are wrestling with—i.e. stick to the golden rule of confronting the issues vs the people. As a leader, I would work to create the space for people to come together to talk through their hopes and concerns and channel the energy into something they can do that is consistent with the business’ purpose and operations. Rather than wallow in fear of what might be, I’d be encouraging my people to shape what kind of society they want, directly.
Sydney: What advice would you have for a CEO who has chosen to speak out publicly on social issues and faces a backlash, whether from consumers, board members, or shareholders?
Tom: Go back to first principles: is what you are doing the right thing? And by right, I mean consistent with your organization’s purpose and values, and responsible to your stakeholders. If it is, then is the backlash a “planned” one—in other words, you knew what you were doing would upset people, and you accepted that. If that’s the case, stick to principle and reiterate the why. If the backlash was unplanned, then it’s worth moving not away from it—getting defensive, or avoiding—but moving toward it. Get curious. What is going on that you didn’t reckon with? What do you have to learn? What is the framework by which you can have a constructive conversation to work things out? What is the right channel for constructive dialogue? If the backlash is from your core constituency of consumers or shareholders, then your job is to enroll the board in your plan for addressing the backlash. In moments like this it is critical to look at the data. There’s a difference between the noise of social media and the actual behavior of consumers and your business performance.
Sydney: Stories are the currency of social intercourse. How can any manager, regardless of official position in an organization, effectively convey their personal story to others
Tom: By having one, to start with! At our firm we have moments where people share their “where I’m from” story as an introduction story in front of groups. What’s good about the “Where I’m from” story is that it is a fundamentally human one. We are all “from” somewhere, and we all have a shared human heritage of growing up with various pressures and external circumstances and weird shit that happens. The nice thing is that this kind of origin story helps relate you to other people from different walks of life without making you a faceless caricature—because it has dimension and because it does not define your future, only your past. The abstract, if I were having a difficult conversation with someone of a radically different persuasion than me, would be “here’s where I’m coming from, this is my story, it’s a story of me, and what has shaped me… Now, tell me yours…”. It’s humanizing and shifts the conversation from one between strangers to one between acquaintances, with less suspicion and more openness to each other’s ideas, regardless of status or disposition.
Let me close by re-iterating one of Tom’s key points: the power of storytelling. He reminds us that everyone needs to have a story. But here’s the good news: we do! By virtue of living our lives, we have experienced many things, some good, some bad, and these events, engagements, and experiences have shaped who we are. Whether or not you’re a leader in any organization – and that means not just corporations, but public institutions, volunteer organizations, and clubs, among others – sharing our personal stories is powerful. It’s also enjoyable. And it is self-affirming. So, here’s your homework:
1. Write down the outline of your story, in brief. It should not be your entire life history of course. It can even be an anecdote that reveals something about who you are.
2. Be proud of that story. Even if you don’t share it with anyone, taking ten minutes to think about it means you’re sharing it with yourself. And that’s good.
3. And if you want to, it's OK tell someone else that story, and maybe even ask them to share their own story. If you want to share your story with our readers, send a Comment to this page.
In our ongoing race to work, take care of kids and home life, and everything else that occupies our time 24/7, it’s easy to forget that we are really just people doing the best we can as often as we can. Given all that is happening in America, it's also a particularly good time to remind ourselves of that simple fact. This ongoing journey, as SYPartners’ Tom Andrews reminds us, is our own personal story.