CEO Activism: Demonstrating the true meaning of leadership

CEO Activism: Demonstrating the true meaning of leadership

It’s no secret that there has been a fundamental shift in the role and purpose of individuals in senior management positions. Long gone is the expectation that those in the C-suite, or at the helm of a business must be formal, stuffy – and let’s be honest, driven by ego and pride.

Millennials have been at the centre of this transformation. Money and power were once viewed as the ultimate achievement, with employees, suppliers and consumers perceived as mere stepping stones to be downtrodden along the way. Their position has been used, often successfully, to influence government policies when it comes to taxation and legislation – benefiting the corporate world at others expense.

This approach is now considered outdated and quite frankly frowned upon, with businesses still operating this way finding their ability to attract high-quality employees a real challenge – not to mention long-standing customers.

In this post, we take a look at what CEO activism means, why it has become so important and what it means for the businesses adopting this approach.

What is CEO activism?

CEO activism describes the new wave of action being taken by CEO’s and those in senior management positions, speaking out and becoming involved in social issues that are not directly linked to, or going to benefit their business.

It is a new approach to doing business in which c-suite individuals are honing their moral compass, refining their ethics and core values and taking a public stance when it comes to the issues they feel strongly about. Whereas before, people would shy away from being so outspoken about such things in fear it would be damaging to their profits. CEO activism is almost saying ‘to hell with the profits’ – we are going to use our platform to speak out against injustice and unethical practices.

Leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to contribute to something meaningful and transformative. With little else more powerful than tackling social and environmental issues – CEO activism should be deeply ingrained in the psyche of true leaders.

But what does it really mean to a business?

In 1949 the world-renowned Harvard business school interviewed business leaders about the need and value of adopting social initiatives that fell outside the scope of their business. Rather than seeing it as a necessity and something of high importance, the majority of the participants felt it was something that should be undertaken voluntarily. 

It no longer pays to sit on the fence and stay quiet. We’ve seen the data that suggests standing up and taking action for a cause that you believe in is going to provide a return for a business. Although it’s important to note that this isn’t about paying lip service, in today’s conscientious political climate this is about authentically and fearlessly speaking out about a cause that you believe in. 

From an employee’s perspective, it encourages advocacy of the business and its leaders. A 2019 Global Trust Barometer survey found that more than 70% of employees believe that it is critically important’ for their CEO (or those in a senior leadership position) to earn the trust of the workforce through activities outside of ‘business as usual’. Seeing these people take actions leads to employees that are loyal, committed and engaged. With employees being responsible for the delivery that makes a business successful, it makes good business sense to shake off the imposter syndrome and commit to being proactive. 

We now live in a culture that welcomes disruption, seeing it as a catalyst for innovation and transformation. Whereas previously associated with being outspoken spelt trouble for potential customers and investors, it now translates into the positive perception of a brand and meets the modern expectations of consumers. 

In fact, the Brand Trust Survey found that 53% of people expect businesses to get involved in at least one social issue that is not directly related to their business. Further to this, 68% of consumers report that they engage with brands that positively impact society, while 76% of the public want to see CEOs taking the lead on change, rather than sitting back and waiting for government and policymakers to impose it. 

If you want to stand out and be noticed, as well as meet the expectation of today’s consumer – it’s important to identify the social issues that you feel strongly about and start to take action.

What about the brands ignoring it?

Think back to the global uproar of Donald Trump’s immigration ban? Companies like Starbucks and Airbnb spoke out against the ban and stepped forward with arms wide open to embrace and help those affected, demonstrating their inclusive approach.

And then there was Uber, who stayed quiet, surged prices and continued to operate as normal, believed to be undermining the widespread taxi strike taking place as a protest against the immigration ban. This led to public outcry with #deleteuber trending for days on social media, and thousands deleting their account. In the meantime, it’s competitor Lyft donated $1 million to the ACLU while CEO Logan Green tweeted their reasons for doing so.

It doesn’t start and end here though, brands are getting behind social causes of all sorts, Kenco coffee with its initiatives that train young boys to be coffee farmers to prevent joining gangs, Doves ‘real beauty’ campaign and Patagonia closing its stores on voting day to make sure people didn’t have an excuse not to vote.
And more recently – the UK’s free school dinners scandal. Marcus Rashford urged the government to reconsider their questionable strategy (or lack of) to provide those children that need them with free school dinners. There was a public backlash with businesses in the food and hospitality industries taking it upon themselves to support those in their communities. These businesses are likely to be not only remembered but rewarded with brand loyalty for years to come.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how businesses refusing to acknowledge the social issues and doing what they can to influence change will become obsolete with falling profits. And the opposite? Businesses unafraid to take a stance will attract loyal and engaged brand advocates to their workforce and customer base, securing increased profits for the long term.

Examples of CEO activism in action

CEO Marc Benioff of Salesforce Stands Against Trump’s Anti-Gay Law

In 2016 Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff caused a political storm standing up against Indiana’s anti-gay law. The state of Georgia wanted to pass a bill that would let businesses decline to provide services for same-sex couples.

In an effort to reverse the law Marc Benioff cancelled Salesforce company events in the state and asked his Twitter followers whether his company should move some of its operations out of the state. 

Tech CEO’s Stand Together Against US Muslim Ban

 In 2017 President Trump gave an executive order to ban citizens from seven Muslim countries entering the US. 

Companies including Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Apple and other tech companies, filed what’s known as an amicus brief voicing their opposition to the ban. 

Many CEOs were outspoken about the issue taking to social media to urge others to sign the petition and to raise concerns about how the ban would directly affect their employees. 

LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner wrote a post noting that many Fortune 500 companies are founded by immigrants or their children, and that “all ethnicities should have access to opportunity”.

Apple CEO Tim Cook Speaks Out About Being Openly Gay

In 2014 Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a personal essay for Bloomberg about his experience of being openly gay in the tech community.

Tim admitted that he has been fortunate in working for a forward-thinking tech brand, who knows it can only flourish when we accept people’s differences. 

While many CEOs are extremely private about their sexuality, Tim Cook believed that his role gave him the opportunity to publicly speak about his experience of being openly gay.

The moral of the story? Gone are the days of being tight-lipped and hoping to please everybody. Speak up, stand out and take action – it’s going to matter to your people and your customers.


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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.