I sent my book proposal to a publisher today, 50 days after I started working full time on this book. (The timing seems apt since my kids just got their report cards.) Looking for a publisher in Canada is such as mystery that it’s stunning that any new writers are published at all, particularly in business.
Start with an agent or go direct to a publisher? Cut straight to self-publishing? I’ve received generous amounts of advice from unexpected places on this and related subjects. My current strategy is a mix of adhering to the “build it and they will come” mantra, crossing my fingers, and taking every bit of help that’s offered.
The biggest challenge, though, has been deciding how to spend my time. Start with writing a sample chapter? Write a thorough outline that means researching bits and pieces I might not use for months (and hence have to learn over)? Conduct interviews early in order to show a publisher I can get the big interviews, or wait until I have a publisher in order to help get the big interviews?
My conclusion seems to be Yes. Just do stuff. In this vein, I’ve lined up my first CEO interview (hurray!) and have requests in for others.
Unless I’m a unicorn or really lucky, it will be a journey to find a publisher as confident in this book as I am. That’s okay, though. After 50 days, I can say without any doubt two things: people are interested in what I have to say, and this is fun. So much fun.
I leave you with Kevin Costner. Like most culturally notable movies, I’ve never seen Field of Dreams. But I know the line. Or at least I thought I did. The line in is actually “If you build it, he will come,” the he being the long dead Shoeless Joe Jackson.
It’s “a lonely position to take.” That’s what Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh told TOMS founder and former CEO Blake Mycoskie about his plan to take a stand on gun violence. Get some personal security, Bergh said, according to an excellent piece in Fast Company.
On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday night, Mycoskie, announced that he was making a $5 million contribution to organizations fighting gun violence, and had set up on TOMS website a way for Americans to send an actual postcard (nice touch) to their representatives, calling for universal background checks, in 30 seconds. In doing so, Mycoskie has jumped into one of the most polarizing debates in America today, using his company’s weight as a tool.
Mycoskie already knows from experience of what one person can do by intertwining business and social activism. (The 86 million pairs of shoes he’s given away thanks to his business model are a pretty convincing proof point.) His tipping point on gun violence was a phone call from his wife after the recent shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., near where they lived. She was afraid to take their child out.
This campaign is filled with risk, though less so than you might think. Yes, some stores may drop his brand, while others will become more loyal. But data suggest his target customers will embrace the effort – 71% of millennials expect CEOs to use their positions and influence to advocate for causes they believe in according to a recent Stanford study.
The operational risk is a bit higher. He completely overturned TOMS planned Black Friday strategy with 12 days’ notice.
Here’s what the U.S. site’s landing page looks like today, on U.S. Thanksgiving:
versus what landing page on the dot ca site.
He’ll have data in a few days on the impact on one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year. Did the people who made an impulse purchase or made a purchase to support him after sending their postcard outweigh those who went to the site to buy shoes and bounced because they were turned off by the campaign? Did the news and social media coverage help find new lifelong customers?
One of the important parts of this story, from a CEO activism perspective, is that Bain Capital, which owns 50% of TOMS, said yes when he told partners what he wanted to do. In doing so, Bain is tacitly accepting reputational risk. It’s unlikely that Mycoskie could have done this if TOMS was a widely held public company. Most of the CEO activism that we’re seeing in the U.S. today is coming from CEO founders who control their companies and are immensely successful.
It might seem that the $5 million donations and a postcard campaign are relatively small things when measured against the size of the gun violence problem facing the U.S. Mycoskie chose after all, to address an aspect with almost universal agreement among Americans – universal background checks. Yet he is indeed in a lonely place right now, as Levi’s’ Bergh said. In doing so, he carries the burden of media attention, backlash and reputation risk. In doing so, he has provided air cover for other CEOs who want to step up. The third, fourth or fifteenth CEO to join in his action, faces much much lower risk, as was illustrated in 2016 when Salesforce’s Marc Benioff took a stand against 2016 legislation that was anti-LGBT rights in Georgia. Hundreds of CEOs eventually joined that movement that helped push back on that bill, but mostly their participation will be a footnote.
Last month, Stanford’s David F. Larcker and Brian Tayan published 2018 CEO Activism Survey, a U.S. survey (included at the end of this post) of 3,544 people across age, gender and political leanings to ask about CEO activism. The findings in the survey echo others in the past couple of years. Almost two-thirds believe CEOs should be CEO activists, but millennials have very different expectations from brands and CEOs than older cohorts. 71% of millennials expect “CEOs of large companies to use their position and potential influence to advocate on behalf of social, environmental, or political issues that they care about personally”, versus 46% of baby boomers.
Interestingly, Larcker and Tayan show that there’s also a big schism between Republicans and Democrats – 72% of Democrats agree, versus 57% of Republicans.
Both statistics tell both brand managers and CEOs something that should already be obvious – when deciding if, when and how a CEO should speak up, it’s critical to know who your target customers are, and the relative lifetime values of various subgroups. In a world where staying silent is no longer equated as staying neutral, CEOs are being increasingly put in a position where they have to speak up or take an action, and it’s a given that some people will agree and some will disagree. Knowing whether your alienating an occasional shopper with no brand loyalty, or a young loyalist with a potential 40-year relationship with your brand can make the decision easier. Not knowing can be fatal.
Nike’s decision to run the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign is the most obvious example of this. Nike was counting on the loyalty of its core customers’ and brand advocates’ support of Kaepernick to be solidified, knowing it would likely alienate another group of people. I’m willing to bet the company knew exactly who fell into the latter camp – people who buy white running shoes and only at the outlet mall and don’t have 40 years of purchasing power ahead of them.
While Larcker and Tayan reinforce the importance of CEO activism, the gap in academic research that still remains is a longitudinal study of what shoppers actually do in the face of that activism. It’s one thing to say they will switch toothpaste or banks because the CEO pleased or offended them. It’s quite another to actually follow through and change long held shopping habits or resist a sale. Some shopping habits are stickier than others, too.
As we know from the 2016 U.S. presidential election, even voting outcomes – a one-time action – can differ widely from advanced polling. Not everyone who says they are going to vote actually does, just as not everyone who says they’ll change brands does. To truly understand the impact of CEO activism on business outcomes, more data is needed. Certainly Nike results over the next few quarters and the rise in its stock price may hint at the answer, but it’s the long game that really matters.
I wonder how Marc Benioff is feeling this morning. Leading up to the U.S. mid-term elections, Benioff, CEO of San Francisco-based Salesforce led a spirited campaign for Prop C, which will see Salesforce pay about $10 million a year in additional taxes to support homeless solutions.
Prop C’s victory means the homeless will have a home & the help they truly need! Let the city come together in Love for those who need it most! There is no finish line when it come to helping the homeless. Thank you amazing supporters of Prop C! pic.twitter.com/0JOXCua1m1
Benioff has been the poster child for CEO activism in the past year, taking on politicians in Indiana and Georgia in defence of LGBTQ rights, confronting fellow CEOs in public debates, such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey about Prop C, and alternatively providing air cover for other CEOs to speak up in Indiana and Georgia without sticking their heads too much above water.
With this latest win, what’s on Benioff’s calendar today? He is, after all, the founder, chairman and co-CEO of a publicly traded company. Would love to see an analyses of how much of Benioff’s reputation is embedded in Salesforce’s stock price. At midday today, Salesforce shares were up 5.8% while the S&P was up 1.29%. Over the year to date, Salesforce shares have climbed 27%, versus 1.6% for the S&P. While I’m sure there are board members who are just hoping Benioff is in the office today, they should be doing the math on the halo effect that he’s bringing the company, in its share price and sales by such aggressive CEO activism and reputation building.
I’ve thought a lot about writing a book over the years, in vague, someday terms. When I fill out my marriage licence, more than two decades ago, and was still in journalism school, I listed my profession as “writer” rather than journalist; still not sure why, but perhaps it was a wise challenge to myself to make it true one day. More than once, I’ve come close to quitting my day job, fed up with the grind and the stress of it all, in order to write the book. The first time, it was a book about mergers and acquisitions in Canada – a how to guide for fighting off the activists through storytelling, inspired by the recently deceased Bill James, who fought an epic battle as the head of Inmet Mining. The second time, it was a book on media training for CEOs – working from the “write what you know” playbook. But I never really had the courage to just do it.
Years later, after pushing close friends to bet on themselves, I am finally in a position where I have the means to take a time out from the quest to make more money, build the resumé, climb, climb, climb. So here I am, sitting at the writing desk, and there it is, self-doubt.
Over my career in public relations, I’ve had countless conversations about why women turn down media interviews. I’m always reassuring both men and women that they know more than they give themselves credit for, and if not them, then who? I talk to my women friends about why we limit ourselves, even though we know we’re the experts in our fields.
The book I’m writing is a cri de coeur to CEOs, particularly in Canada, to speak up – on not just their businesses, but also social policy, economic policy, and nation building. Our future, and your business success, depend on it.
And yet. This morning I’m having a bout of self-doubt – who am I to write about this? Why is my outline so awful when I read it the next day? How do I find an editor? Will I ever get a publisher?
It’s a good reminder to myself, this sick feeling, that speaking up, putting all the theory into practice, is done by actual humans.