Millennials Really Want CEOs to Mount their Soap Boxes

Evidence is mounting that millennial consumers and employees expect today’s business leaders to be willing to speak out on social issues. Yet, it might surprise many CEOs to find that it does them and their companies more harm than good to be vocal even on matters that seem divisive.

Two fresh studies by top-notch outfits underscore Americans’ rising expectations for CEOs to take the soap box after a highly divisive political season and a Trump era that has brought perhaps even more polarization.

“There’s no question people are much more engaged when you consider the political environment,” Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, the giant PR firm that released one of the studies, told Chief Executive.

For example, nearly half of millennials in the firm’s survey believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society, and 56% of those under 35 years old believe  business leaders have a greater responsibility now to speak out than in years past.

“Chiefs should mainly speak out on issues that align with company values.”

Furthermore, more than 51% of millennials said they are more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue, up from 46% in 2016. Outspokenness by the chief also encourages employee loyalty, the firm found.

Almost simultaneously, consulting firm BSG released the results of a survey that found 90% of American consumers believe it is important for CEOs to take a stance on social and political issues, and 53% believe it’s highly important. The issues respondents most wanted chiefs to opine about were economic growth, healthcare, equal pay, infrastructure and minimum wage.

Interestingly, however, BSG found that even if consumers strongly disagree with a CEO’s views, there’s only a potential 2% decline in the number of Americans who would become less loyal customers as a result.

The landscape is rife with recent examples of CEO activism and its results. Most notably, chiefs found the support from employees for their opposition to President Trump’s early attempts to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries, but the reaction by consumers and customers was more divided.

Conversely, when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz directed baristas to engage customers in a dialogue on racial issues a couple of years ago, it turned most people off. Yet the misstep doesn’t seem to have done long-term harm to the brand’s business.

Polansky and Joel Benenson, CEO of BSG, offer these pointers to CEOs who feel compelled—or led—to climb on their soapboxes in this new era.

1. Be selective. CEOs must have a reason for speaking out on something particular, and it must be authentic, Benenson says. “Is it something intrinsically important to you, your business, your employees, your customers and your community?” he asks. “If the answer is yes, you’ve answered why” to speak out.

Chiefs should “mainly speak out on issues that align with company values,” Polansky says.

2. Know your audience. Benenson notes that most companies know their audience, but only as consumers: “It is essential to also know them as political beings, in terms of their social values. You need to know how strongly they feel about the issues you would speak out on and to what degree they could potentially separate from you.”

3. Reckon with differences. Millennials are the largest U.S. generation now, and they tend to be more progressive and more attuned to social action than older generations. “Millennials are much more oriented to care deeply about CEO activism than gen-X-ers and boomers,” Polansky says.

But people who lead companies with large, diverse workforces—both demographically and attitudinally—and those whose customers are older than 35—should be wary of offending those constituencies with outspoken opinions or stridency.

4. Don’t go from your gut. CEOs shouldn’t “act on instinct alone,” Benenson advises, “even if it’s a strongly held belief and core to your company’s values. That’s not to say you shouldn’t speak out in these situations, but first fully understand the impact, so you can anticipate how consumers will respond. You don’t want to get caught dealing with fallout in real time.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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