CEO activism is on the rise. Taking a cue from CEOs, business leader activism embraces societal issues and tackles them with a problem-solving mindset. Gun control is a recent example. After the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, the community rose up to address gun issues. Business leaders took note and made changes of their own. Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, acted by raising the age to 21 for the purchase of firearms and banned the sale of assault-style rifles (Garcia, 2018). Walmart joined the effort within 24 hours after the Dick’s Sporting Goods announcement (Garcia, 2018).
CEO Stack indicated that if the Parkland students are brave enough to organize for change, then their company can be brave enough to take this stand (Garcia, 2018). Mutual society and business bravery moved the CEO to act in solving a problem within his realm of influence.
Business Leader Activism: A Generational Call to Act
Weber Shandwick and KRC Research added to their CEO activism research in a report entitled “CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite.” Not too surprising, the research found a generational difference in CEO activism. While Millennials were more positive about it, Gen Xers and Boomers remain skeptical. Forty-seven percent of Millennials believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up on issues important to society, and only 28 percent of Gen Xers and Boomers believe they should. As an American society, 35 percent believe CEOs should speak out on important issues.
In the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, 72 percent say they trust their employer to do what is right, and 64 percent say they want CEOs to take a stand on policy changes without waiting for the government. CEO activism is more than solving problems; it is building trust and engagement.
A Business Leader Activism Contemplation Model
While government officials avoid issues and seem incapable of solving problems collaboratively, business leaders act. Determining when to tackle an issue depends on many factors. A beginning point is this straightforward model highlighted below.
What CEO activism entails is understanding the impact at the intersection between society and business. In considering an issue, business leaders need to think through various elements and determine how to address a challenge or let it go.
Where there is low societal and business impact, the expectation from communities is for the issue to be sidestepped by business leaders. There may be a local community effort to address, but there is not an expectation that business address it directly. Citizens make the same choice. The impact is small, so it may be addressed with less effort and attention.
Some issues impact a specific business or a specific industry, and these issues or problems may be less of a concern for society. In some cases, the business interests also may conflict with society’s interests. Although CEOs can be vocal about these issues, they will likely enlist lobbyists to help them pursue a resolution. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2017, over $3 billion was spent on lobbying efforts. Lobbying has been around for a long time and, in the early days, unions spent more on these efforts than businesses did. Today, business lobbying spending far outpaces unions and other organizations.
When reviewing school shootings, removing assault weapons and raising the purchase age may have a negative impact on a business like Dick’s Sporting Goods. However, the society impact is immense, and business leaders may get restless in waiting for the federal government to address these issues. From a business leadership standpoint, they understand that they carry a bigger responsibility than just maximizing shareholder value. After all, their customers and employees are being impacted by school shootings, so just waiting is not an option.
In these situations, business leaders step up and work collaboratively with a societal movement. Positive societal changes create better communities in which businesses can thrive while also offering some safety to their employees. Society and business working together can produce positive impacts.
Certain issues concern both communities and businesses. Immigration is one of those issues. While a strong majority of Americans oppose families being separated at the border, a solid 75 percent of Americans believe that immigration is a “good thing,” and 84 percent believe that legal immigration is good for the country (Chokshi, 2018). On the business side, over 60 CEOs recently signed a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raising concerns about changes in immigration policies. Like most American, business leaders expressed their opposition to family separations. Added to the mix, other immigration policy limitations and uncertainties impact attracting the talent companies need.
Immigration challenges highlight how business and society align and provides CEOs and other business leaders an opportunity to pursue policies that benefit a wider audience. While still creating challenges for some businesses, including being viewed as a Red or Blue company, added public support can lead CEOs to make bigger moves to change current policies.
Activism: An Expanded Role for Business Leaders
As we review the intersection of business and society, we see a future business leadership model evolve. It is more than a new leadership model. To the point, it is an imperative to determine how to lead with an activist mindset and incorporate business and society into meaningful actions, pursuits, and results.
Our politicians have failed to solve real problems collaboratively, and our society cannot wait. Business leaders need to show the way. Choosing to wait is not an option. A generational shift and expectation are present, and their presence and expectation will grow.
CEO activism is more than just a headline. It is a new way to lead for the good of business and society.
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Lobbying Database. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/index.php
CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.webershandwick.com/uploads/news/files/ceo-activism-in-2017-high-noon-in-the-c-suite.pdf
Chokshi, N. (2018, June 23). 75 percent of Americans say immigration is good for country, poll finds. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/23/us/immigration-polls-donald-trump.html
Garcia, T. (2018, February 28). Dick’s Sporting Goods raises the minimum age for gun purchase to 21, asks government to do the same. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/dicks-sporting-goods-raises-the-minimum-age-for-gun-purchase-to-21-asks-government-to-do-the-same-2018-02-28
2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer