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The Conscience of the CEO

A CEO’s conscience is as important as their business acumen. Whether they like it or not, CEOs are becoming CEO activists. How can becoming involved in social issues possibly be smart business?

A CEO’s conscience is as important as their business acumen. Whether they like it or not, CEOs are becoming CEO activists. How can becoming involved in social issues possibly be smart business?

A lot of responsibilities come with being a CEO, but one is always on top of the list. A CEO is supposed to act in the best interests of a company’s stakeholders.

For years there was a simple formula to do that. First, keep a close eye on the business and make sure profits go up. Second, make sure your board and your shareholders stay happy (see #1). Finally, if you don’t want to upset #1 and #2, stay as far away from social issues as possible.

Today, that’s impossible. Every brand, and every CEO, faces pressure from all directions to take a stand on social issues. Customers, potential customers, employees, partners – all aided by social media – are watching what CEOs say and do.

Whether they like it or not, then, CEOs are becoming CEO activists – business leaders taking public positions of social issues. This is a concern for many of them. Won’t the company lose customers no matter what stand it takes? How can becoming involved in social issues possibly be smart business?

The answer is that we’ve entered the age where the new standard is taking a stand, and where a CEO’s conscience is as important as their business acumen. I believe that taking a stand will ultimately link directly to a positive impact on shareholder value.

Conscience and Courage

Being a CEO Activist is not easy. CEOs are the decision makers, but they’re also the face of the brand. Stakeholders today listen closely to the words and, crucially, watch the actions of the CEO. It’s how they judge not only the brand’s values, but whether the brand actually lives them. Increasingly, that judgment is the biggest factor in buying decisions (both B2C and B2B).

Another thing that’s changed: Because of this immense power that business has to shape the world, society itself is a stakeholder in every company. With that kind of power comes great responsibility. So being a CEO Activist means having a conscience and following it. You can’t have separate business and personal identities: You only have one.

CEO Activism also takes courage. It means taking heat – sometimes lots of heat – for taking a position on issues that may be polarizing to many.

If the issue is big enough and divisive enough, a CEO may risk a lot more. Just ask Delta’s Ed Bastian, whose company could lose huge tax breaks for deciding to terminate a discount fare program for NRA members after the Parkland school shooting. Or ask Jack Dorsey about Twitter being assailed by conservative celebrities for even temporarily suspending what appeared to be “robo” troll accounts. Or ask UPS (which doesn’t ship firearms) and FedEx (which does) about what can seem like a no-win situation.

Yes, taking a stand risks the loss of some customers. Taking none risks losing them all.

That’s why CEOs need to stop looking at spreadsheets, look at the world around them, and make a decision based on conscience about where they stand. If that stance creates a better world — even if it drives down profits and share price this quarter — a CEO is, in fact, serving stakeholders well.

The Conscience of Communications

As CEOs transform into CEO Activists, CCOs and CMOs have to transform themselves as well.

In this new age, the CEO Activist, one who stands up publicly for what is right and ethical, and uses the power, credibility and visibility of their position and their brand to bring positive change to the world, is in fact acting in the best interest of all her stakeholders. Communicators need to remember is that it’s hard to do, and there’s a lot of other things on a CEOs mind.

What we can be is the catalyst to raise the important issues, test them against the values of the company and make recommendations on how to make the right decisions for the entire brand.   We have insight into what stakeholders are thinking, saying and doing – we can use that knowledge to identify issues that are emerging before they become front-page news. We can help shape the company’s stance on them and work with the CEO to ensure words and actions match.

It’s imperative that we tell those stories so that every stakeholder understands not only where the company stands but why. In the midst of a backlash over an issue, people get confused; our job is to cut through the confusion with credibility.

That will take the same conscience and courage on behalf of the communicators as the CEO needs. It’s also the strength of our profession, and one of the greatest opportunities that has come along for communications in a long time.

It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it. Read more about Nike changed its brand narrative to fit their values.

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