Given the tumultuous times in which we all live, there is increasing pressure on CEOs and business leaders to take public stances on highly debated issues, which has not been a required or common business practice in the past. The pressure comes from customers and from employees who are bringing political baggage with them to work and looking for clarity.
During my lifetime, apart from the Vietnam War era and Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, I cannot recall a period of greater social unrest than the moment we are in right now—and, this time, it is global in scope.
Our current political landscape has become a source of relentless social discourse. Gone are the days of public trust in politics and journalism. While society is not asking corporations to fill these roles or fix the present political climate, they are imploring them to be more accountable and responsible as global citizens.
The question remains: should companies and their CEOs take vocal positions on polarizing topics?
CEOs Should Use Their Voices for Social Good: But When?
Let me be crystal clear—I believe a CEO lending his or her voice to a cause can be the absolute right thing to do under certain circumstances. In my opinion, the right circumstance is when the cause relates directly, or at least indirectly, to the core of the CEO’s organization. Absent this linkage, the CEO’s voice may end up distracting or confusing employees, customers and investors.
The Coca-Cola Company is a great example of an organization perennially attempting to balance company purpose with social good. Russia’s enactment of an anti-gay law leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 resulted in calls for a boycott of the games. This placed immense pressure on The Coca-Cola Company, the longest continuous sponsor of the Olympics, to speak out in support of the LGBTQ community. The company ended up running the now famous “It’s Beautiful” ad during the Sochi Olympics and the Super Bowl. The commercial included what are said to be the first gay parents depicted in a Super Bowl ad. While some may have wanted to go further, the ad carried a simple message—America is Beautiful, and Coca-Cola is for everyone. It was a powerful ad that promoted optimism, inclusion and celebrated humanity. Consumer reaction, while not unanimous, was exceedingly positive, and the ad reached 87 million people and became the #1 trending topic on Facebook. The key takeaway is: the ad was about making a statement that was consistent with the Coca-Cola brand and good for the public—not the other way around.
An organization’s framework for social good must prioritize what is good for the company, above all else—as opposed to polls or public sentiment. After all, that is the fiduciary responsibility of the CEO. While I understand the gravitational pull to appeal to the social conscience, I believe CEOs must stay true to their responsibility to the organizations they lead and avoid becoming the political figures others may want them to be.
Finding Your Company’s Compass: Why Now?
The Coca-Cola Company was able to run the “It’s Beautiful” ad in 2014 because it had a very clear sense of itself and what it stood for. Unfortunately, that cannot be said of all organizations. In my opinion, every organization should have a clearly articulated purpose and a big opportunity it is destined to fulfill. This is their compass or North Star. When a company’s compass aligns with a big, provocative social issue, the CEO speaking out on that issue is one way to help employees and customers focus on what is important to the organization.
There is also a second reason, there has never been a more important time to help employees focus on the directional compass of their organizations. A clear focus on the purpose and big opportunity of an organization will assist employees in dialing down the noise created by social unrest and empower them to dial up the social good that they, and their organizations, can do for customers, stakeholders and society, at large. When each employee arrives at work each day, there should be no confusion as to why they are there, and what they and their colleagues are able to accomplish by working together.
Now is a critical time for CEOs to provide clear and relevant leadership, laser-focused on the organization’s compass and framework for social good. While I truly believe CEOs should lend their voices and public platforms to important causes, if they are going to take an aggressive stance on an issue, they must first ensure the reasoning behind their decision holds water and relates back to their core business and brand.