Should you make a stand?

Reflections on CEO & employee activism

I was recently interviewed for The Times Future of Work report, looking to get my perspective – and any insights from our recent research on SMEs & Purpose – on the pitfalls and potential of CEO activism.

Off the back of the coverage we secured on Monday Dec 7th (available to view behind The Times paywall), I thought it worth sharing some wider reflections on the do’s and dont’s of business leader activism…

Our motives will always be mixed.

When leaders decide to take a stand on social issues or push the envelope on purpose within the company, it’s less a question of “Is this driven by altruism, or is this driven by profit?” and more a question of “What is the over-riding motivation for this?” Because as humans our motives will always, inevitably, be mixed – and we should account for that nuance when evaluating the decisions our leaders take.

Stand for something ownable and relevant.

CEOs are increasingly under pressure to speak out and take a stand. The best approach? Avoid spraying statements about any and every issue, or even taking on a pet cause that seems easy, convenient and non-controversial. The biggest opportunity is to tackle something that is meaningful and relevant to your workers and customers – something which relates to your core business and which the business has genuine agency over.

Avoid the temptation to ‘go off on one’.

The rolling eyes. The raised eyebrows. The puzzled looks. The danger of the CEO taking a stand ‘out of the blue’ is that it all feels rather disconnected – even random – to those who live and breathe the culture every day. The aim of the game is to avoid surprises, but instead have decisions on activism feel like they are part of the fabric of the culture, and what your employees – potentially even your customers – would expect.

Connect your activism to the DNA of the company.

A lone statement or one-off foray on a specific issue will have limited impact, not just on the world but on your workforce. Leaders who are effective in this area get their whole company and its culture aligned behind this mission – weaving a sense of commitment and care into the organisation’s purpose, values, charity giving, staff away days, etc.

Activism can be your secret employee engagement weapon.

All workers – but especially your Millennial and Gen Z employees – need a strong sense of purpose in their work and careers. Choosing to take an activist path as an organisation, and to create tangible ways for employees (not just leadership) to participate in that, has the potential to rocketboost the level of buy-in your employees have to the company.

Don’t be afraid to get emotional.

The future will be built by leaders of purpose – those individuals who are not afraid to put their head above the parapet, to get personal (even emotional!), to show that they care about more than just the company’s fortunes. Tread carefully and wisely, for sure, but also go forth boldly and with the courage of conviction – it is an attractive quality for a leader to have.