CEO Activism

Why CEOs are (Thankfully) Refusing to Mind Their Own Business

You would think we’ve learned our lesson. Wealthy businessmen are bad news. Look no further than the White House to see what happens when we invite business leaders to have a bigger role in shaping our lives. The devastating impact of powerful CEOs like Harvey Weinstein running amok, illuminated again and again might suggest that inviting more influence from CEOs, particularly male, rich and white, is foolish. And yet. We need them to do just that.

The CEO has become an avatar for privilege and greed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I have a job for these men, the CEOs of our biggest and most powerful companies. Save us. Save the world.

Blake Mycoskie is trying. The founder of shoe company TOMs mobilized his customers and the public to fight for universal background checks on gun buyers in the U.S. But when he sought out CEOs to sign an open letter to Congress, only three agreed. Hundreds of others were too afraid to sign, even while they agreed with what he was proposing. They quietly offered him money and in-kind help instead – support that could be done anonymously, silently.

Mycoskie may be lonely on the issue of gun control, but he’s part of a growing group who passionately believe they should use their CEO power for good.  A software company CEO threatens to boycott states that discriminate against LGTBQ and campaigns for a tax on his own company to alleviate homelessness. A payments processor CEO cancels an expansion plan into a state over anti-transgender legislation. A pharma CEO quits a high-profile business council out of principle, creating a domino effect until the council collapses. 180 CEOs sign a full-page ad making access to reproductive rights a business issue.

The U.S. is ground zero for CEO activism. CEOs are speaking out, fed up with the perceived failure of government, threats to equal rights, and government’s inability to advance even those causes with broad bipartisan support. They are chastising state and federal governments on Twitter, funnelling corporate and personal money into non-profit organizations, and using the economic power of their businesses to put the squeeze on ideological opponents. 

At the same time as they are demonized for outsized pay packages, these CEOs are finding themselves facing increasing expectations and public pressure from their employees, customers, and shareholders not just to make money, but advocate on behalf of their stakeholders for what’s right. The consultants and academics declare CEO activism not just the new normal, but a matter of business survival. As issues flare, more CEOs are accepting this new mandate. They are throwing around their weight, often in opposition to democratically elected government officials.

We should welcome this. We should encourage this. We need more CEOs to rise up, not just in the U.S., where the fissures in the political system are perhaps more obvious, but also in Canada, where our governments are also failing us, in a more…Canadian…way.

While some are understandably loathe to encourage business leaders more influence in our daily lives, there is a leadership gap that needs to be filled. Government must be challenged to do better. While we’ve seen many instances of bad behaviour from CEOs, just as many care passionately about their country and feel a responsibility to help make it better. Their views and experience add nuance and richness to debates on the issues of the day.

In CEO Activism, true CEO activists, the ones who are willing to step into the most divisive yet important debates of our day with viewpoints and action, will tell you they’re driven by a sense of personal responsibility to do something, after yet another mass shooting, another racist tweet from a politician, another law that punishes the poorest and most vulnerable. Critics, and there are lots of them, say these CEO activists are stepping out of line, should go back to their desks, and mind their own business. Others think these CEOs are wildly naive about the potential damage to their businesses. They suggest that CEOs making public pronouncements on gay marriage, abortion or pipelines, when those issues have nothing directly to do with their business, will be punished by shareholders and consumers.

This is where wealth matters. The CEOs who have taken the lead in activism can afford to not care about the blowback. The most vocal are independently wealthy, often founders of their companies and have already proven themselves. But while they can afford both financially and reputationally to lose customers and alienate shareholders, they are building the case studies to show that CEO activism can actually strengthen your business. They are doing the math. The math works. Poking their noses into society’s fights is not only the morally right thing to do, done right, it’s good business.