Is CEO Activism a Must?

How to navigate the new normal for executive leaders

The modern-day executive still balances budgets, increases organizational value and drives operational excellence. However, today’s leaders also experience growing pressure to build personal brands as social activists for good without making a misstep that could hurt the bottom line.  

The Power of the CEO Voice

Prominent CEOs like Tim Cook at Apple or Elon Musk at Tesla often come to mind when thinking about executive influence. These leaders have an enormous platform to make statements about a range of issues. 

 

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, researchers examined the power of social statements on buying habits. As part of an experiment, they conducted a national poll and provided participants with information about some of Tim Cook’s social stances. They found that “people in the group exposed to Cook’s activism… expressed significantly higher intent to buy Apple products in the near future.” 

 

That sounds great, but there are only a handful of CEOs with this kind of profile. It begs the question, what about the rest of us not in charge of one of the largest companies in the world? 

The CEO Brand Matters Regardless of Organizational Size

In a spring update to its annual trust barometer, Edelman notes that 77 percent of survey respondents said their employer is the most trusted organization in their life. This places a heavy burden on CEOs at every organization to properly manage this trust, including taking stands on critical social issues. 

 

2019 Gartner study notes that “87% of employees said businesses should take a public position on societal issues relevant to their business. Seventy-four percent said businesses should take a position on issues even when they aren’t directly relevant to their business.” 

 

The truth is that we all want to follow leaders who help us feel our work matters and our company is doing the right thing for society. This is true whether your organization is at the top of the Fortune 100 or a small business. Choosing which issues to engage in is key. 

Three Factors to Consider Before Taking a Social Position

Fortune and Deloitte regularly conduct a CEO survey. In the 2021 summer edition, researchers asked CEOs about their considerations before taking active stances on social issues. The top three factors are questions all leaders should consider.

  1. Does this stance align with my organization’s strategy, purpose and values?

    Even though the CEO or executive director of an organization is likely to be the standard-bearer for the decision, it’s critical to ask first if this “fits” our company or nonprofit. If it does not align with the value we offer to society, we are not likely to have the same influence in advocating a specific position.
  1. How will my employees feel about this decision?

    This is more than just appeasing employees. Employees are placing a lot of trust in executive leaders. Understanding our workforce and the things they care about is one of our jobs.
  1. Can I meaningfully influence the issue or topic?

    No one has time to tilt at windmills with little chance of success. If I am Elon Musk, I am actively casting a new vision for a sustainable future. As a small business owner, it may be a local referendum for fair wages. Each has its place, and both are meaningful.

Making Sure You Are Heard

Executives actively considering their role as thought leaders and influencers for good need to understand that you build this brand over time. To effectively communicate a vision, there must be consistency and visibility for your positions.I suggest that CEOs dip their toes in the water and regularly begin to comment or post thought-leadership articles about carefully considered topics for social good. There are two core reasons for this approach.

  1. Authenticity starts with an established track record.

    People trust leaders who regularly support social positions and display knowledge, understanding and passion for the cause. This is not a one-off proposition. Find the channel today where you are comfortable establishing your track record. Examples include internal communications platforms, media interviews and social media, such as LinkedIn or a curated Twitter feed. Consult with your communications team to determine the best choice for you.
  1. You need an audience to be heard.

    As I mentioned, there are only a handful of Tim Cooks out there. Most of us have to build our audience through regular communications internally, within our industries, online and through media outreach. As your audience grows, so does your influence.
Every executive’s personal brand reflects on the companies and nonprofit organizations they lead. Executives who recognize this responsibility and find the right voice for that brand help their careers and the viability of their organization. Authentically building that brand takes time, but leaders can make a difference for their workplace and society as a whole by approaching these opportunities thoughtfully.
CEO, Clear Strategy Partners
Working with a great group of communications professionals to translate challenging topics for our clients’ audiences. We get to figure out this puzzle every day and it is rewarding to be part of a firm that cares about finding communications solutions that are honest and compelling.