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Should CEOs Be Activists?

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by Amani Wells-Onyioha, operations director and partner at Sole Strategies

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, CEOs face a dual challenge: steering their companies towards success while also addressing pressing societal concerns. The question arises: Should CEOs embrace activism to drive change? While integrating values into business operations is crucial, it’s equally important to recognize the potential drawbacks that activism can bring and why it’s better for most businesses to focus on their core operations and employees.

Redefining CEO Activism: Beyond Performative Gestures

The face of activism has changed over the years, from leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to Fred Hampton, to the activists who supported progress in the LGBTQ+ community, and many others. Activists had clear goals and missions in mind, and it was their sole purpose to execute and effect change. However, in recent years, CEO activism has often appeared performative rather than effective. This isn’t aligned with what consumers expect from businesses, regardless of their political ideology.

Nevertheless, running a business encompasses more than numbers. Having a clear mission and values is critical for a company’s growth, but there are lines that need to be addressed.

Balancing Values with Business Goals

Rather than focusing on activism, CEOs should prioritize protecting and valuing the lives of their employees. Regardless of the type of business you’re running, prioritizing your staff is now an expectation in 2023 and will place your company ahead of others. This not only contributes to your employees’ success and happiness but also leads to higher retention rates, benefiting your company in the long run. CEOs can start by prioritizing issues such as professional development, paid time off, sick days, maternity leave, diversity, and overall employee well-being.

However, keep in mind that each company will have a staff with individual needs, so it’s crucial to listen to them and adapt as needed. When you embed this type of culture as a natural extension of your company’s values, it can drive employee motivation, customer loyalty, and shareholder support.

Steering Clear of Performative Activism

A cautionary tale emerges when a CEO’s good intentions turn performative. In recent years, we’ve witnessed companies adopting trendy causes for the sake of optics rather than genuine commitment. CEOs who advocate for causes without meaningful action behind closed doors risk facing backlash. In a society heavily influenced by social media and reviews, “faking it ’til you make it” when aligning your business with a cause only pursued for market growth is nearly impossible. Such performative activism will ultimately harm your business because it’s more challenging to undo a tarnished reputation than to build something authentic.

The Divisive Nature of Stating Your Position

If your company aims to do more than merely maintain the company infrastructure, be aware that you might step into contentious territory. Nearly every cause, whether environmental, societal, or civil, has the potential to alienate a significant portion of your customer base, even causes you might consider harmless. This is why my personal response to the question “Should CEOs be activists?” is ‘No.’ Many companies can be successful without taking sides, focusing on supporting their staff, and setting a positive example for other businesses. In a highly polarized world, you risk not only engaging in performative activism but also upsetting your employees and losing substantial business.

The exception is if your brand has positioned and built  itself on a particular side of an issue or ideology. My own company is a political organization that exclusively works with Democrats. However, alienating Republicans doesn’t harm our business; it actually helps. By fully committing to the cause we believe in and actively advocating for our position, we cultivate stronger relationships with our clients, ultimately benefiting both our goals and theirs. Several other companies have successfully branded themselves this way and have dedicated customer bases due to their “activism.” Knowing where your company stands is essential.

Finding Your Own Stance in Business

As you determine the type of business you are or want to run, consider your product, your personal values, and whether you’re willing to potentially isolate investors, clients, and staff. If you choose to speak out on specific issues, CEOs must genuinely align their activism with their company’s values, ensuring that actions speak louder than words. Collaborating with employees and stakeholders to identify meaningful causes can promote inclusivity and garner authentic support.

CEOs have a duty to provide living wages, growth opportunities, healthcare, and a clear career path for employees. This is their most important role in contributing to social progress. While it’s important to incorporate your passions into your organization’s mission, proceeding with caution is crucial, as full-fledged activism could become messy very quickly.

 

Amani Wells-Onyioha

Amani Wells-Onyioha is a dynamic political strategist, organizer, and thought leader. She is operations director and partner at Sole Strategies, a Democratic political firm helping candidates across the country get elected.