CEO Activism: Society Demands Change Leaders
11 de June de 2021
11 de June de 2021
The unreachable leader, behind closed doors, with his private elevator, only worried about profit graphs and unapproachable to the rest of the workers, teams and competitors, is an endangered species.
Times are changing and, with them, the types of leadership. For Bryan Moynihan —CEO of Bank of America—, “now, driving initiatives that we see as the right thing to do is part of our work as CEOs; it’s not strictly activism, but it’s action beyond the business aspects”. A new approach to the policies, transformations and trends that the world has experienced during the last decade among the big executives in the United States and that, little by little, is growing in Europe.
CEO Activism considers great businesspeople to be assets of society. And, as such, they must, within a communication framework, join or lead causes that represent their brand values. But, they should also join or lead other causes that are outside their field. Consumers are gradually demanding companies to take a stand instead of just taking care of their own business. “Companies have a great influence capacity. It’s only natural that consumers demand to know what they think”, pointed out Bethlem Boronat —Directress of the Master in Design Thinking & Customer Experience— during the webinar “CEO Activism as a Responsible Communication Tool”.
According to Edelman's 2018 report, 64% of global consumers think that CEOs must “lead the change instead of waiting for institutions to impose it”. Half of them tend to feel less respect for those who keep silent. It’s the new generations —consumers between 18 and 35 years old— the ones who demand a higher commitment from executives. They don’t want leaders in the shadows. Many executives are very well aware of this and have taken a stand, particularly, in causes related to diversity and the environment. Twitter is the place to be for these Loudspeaker CEOs like Elon Musk. Bethlem Boronat thinks that, in Spain, there’s only a few that have dared to give their personal opinions on their private accounts.
In these past years, in the United States, we’ve experienced quite turbulent times regarding racial problems and other social issues. This situation has put the country’s leading executives in the eye of the storm. Leaders such as Apple’s Tim Cook, who has shown his commitment to the LGBT+ movement, or Ken Fraizer —Merck & Co.’s CEO—, who made his stand against the ex-president of the United States for his racist policies.
Wait a second! Even though CEO Activism is on the rise, speaking empty words won’t do it. We need a “Responsible Communication” that comes from a genuine interest, born out of values that have been thought about, established and backed with coherent deeds. Subjects to tackle tend to be sensible: current political affairs and heated topics. So, it’s important to be clear about what we want to communicate and why: “A fundamental point is to make sure that, no matter what we do, it’s coherent with our company values and the values of the people that represent us”, insisted Bethlem. Overcoming the barriers of a pure old-school company and opening up to society in order to lead the upcoming trends can be praiseworthy, but it’s also risky. It can even cost a lot of money if things don’t go as expected.
We must be ready to face any sort of reaction in the best way possible. The communication strategy must be implemented from the very first moment the CEO takes a stand — or even before that. It can’t be an improvised idea. Directors must be part of the initiative, as well as employees when possible. The relationship with the stakeholders can also be affected. In order to minimise the impact of a possible crisis, these would be some of the communication keys of CEO Activism:
Usually, it’s the CEOs of the most powerful companies the ones that seem more prone to exercising this kind of activism. Something that seems only logical, given that their greater visibility puts them in the spotlight and they can achieve great change with any comment they make. 28% of the S&P 500 companies’ CEOs have spoken out on behalf of their company, while 10% have done it on their own behalf.
The danger of having consumers suspect that CEO Activism is just an attention grabbing strategy is always present — although this is more true among older users. According to them, the fact that CEOs give their opinions on social and political topics is hiding pure economic and media-visibility interests only. For employees, having their visible head taking a stand is also a tricky matter: there’s a polarisation between those who think it doesn’t do anything good for the company and those who think it increases loyalty.
Bethlem Boronat is sure that, like so many other trends that came out of the United States, CEO Activism will conquer more space in Europe —and, more specifically, in Spain— in the coming years.