July 28, 2021
No CEO Left Behind
Twenty-first century leaders that refuse to recognize the social needs and interests of key actors will fail to capture market share. CMOs can help CEOs understand and act on emerging opportunities honestly, openly, and strategically.
Old norms die hard.
Nowhere is that more true than in corporate America, where executives are struggling to understand and accept, let alone keep up with, the expectations and demands of a new reality: what’s good for society is good for business.
As Fortune reported recently, more than a few CEOs are now “more willing to speak out on controversial social and political issues;” some leaders at the helm of progressive brands like PayPal, Intel, and Lyft have in recent years not only taken stands on selective social issues but changed company policy to connect company values with to shifting opinions and beliefs.
Still, many leaders cannot or simply will not waver from old business norms—specifically, the expectations that government, not companies, should address and tackle social issues. Not necessarily because they’re blind to complex issues like diversity, equity and inclusion, and voting rights but because they haven’t been able to reconcile both the philosophy and logic of capitalist economics, as Milton Friedman explained it in the last century. And do so with genuine, not performative, expressions of social responsibility.
For an elevated CMO, the C-suite’s “new utility player” as we reported in the first of our series of articles on the new norms of executive leadership, this moment presents a unique opportunity to serve and support his/her/their CEO and other members of executive leadership by designing new ways of connecting the social to business in this still-uncharted reality.
And before said reality leaves present-gen leaders behind.
Words followed by deeds
Once upon a time, a CEOs’ greatest tool was the language of obfuscation. Secrecy and privacy of a company’s top leader created an aura of control and power; decisions were made almost exclusively and unilaterally on the golf course or at the dinner table
Before the digital age, a CEO had limited inputs – and a certain degree of control over – predictable outcomes. Now, information and inputs to consider in decision-making at the C-suite level are seemingly infinite. As such, sticking one’s digital head in the digital sand on everything from climate change to voting rights, whether through avoidance, obfuscation or silence, bespeaks of indifference or ignorance (or both) at a company’s highest levels.
On the other hand, if a company assumes a hastily conceived position that smacks of the performative, then it’s “let fly the rotten tomatoes!”
But the days of lip service and “let’s not and say we did” are over; the pandemic and technology made sure of it.
Part of the challenge – a big part – is understanding how, when, why, and where to have the conversation. Rare is there alignment between what is communicated one-on-one and in confidence over an almond milk latte at the nearest coffee bar, and what is expressed publicly in the conference room in the presence of executive and senior leadership, and peers.
The same goes for external comms – maybe the most effective press release isn’t a press release at all. It’s a proclamation AND a manifestation through deeds.
Or, said another way, its words with acts.
Whatever a company does, whatever public position it takes or doesn’t take on a social issue, it must be willing to face and accept the fact that it’s going to make some group or groups of actors unhappy. That’s actually OK, if a CEO means exactly what he/she/they declare publicly; backs it up with swift, decisive action; and is willing to explain to clients and employees the reasons for the company’s behavior.
Most rationale actors in a corporate setting can live with said unhappiness; but no one likes to be left in the dark.
Or worse, deceived.
At such moments, the CMO can step in and help the CEO connect a social position to a company’s strategy and long-term goals; and in a way that makes sense for existing and future employees. He/she/they can use data and insights through a marketing lens to inform and influence discretionary behavior of employees; motivate them through new sets of expectations, and imaginative performance goals, thereby being a friend to the CHRO, too.
Why? Any CHRO worth his/her/their salt knows that talent is an asset on the balance sheet; and companies do well when said asset trades at a higher value.
Working together, the CMO and CHRO can, for example, design incentives for brand ambassadorship for all organization talent; confronting social issues and framing them in ways that make employees believe that they’re about something bigger than the product or service; bigger than even the company itself. (Think of a famous business school case study of a hot dog company that proclaimed its mission was to head-off a protein shortage in the future.)
Even if it’s simply an invitation to be a part of a larger conversation about the issue—in fact, corporations that convoke assemblies to discuss issues openly and honestly with actors of all ilks may find themselves in the best possible position of all if there is one in such highly charged times: the convener.
Such initiatives can have a direct, positive impact on employee efficiency and effectiveness, which are absolutely critical to a company’s growth, and, as important, to raising the value of the talent asset. These assets are welcomed, not shunned, from the table in a corporate-sanctioned forum and encouraged to discuss the most important, meaningful, and complex social challenges of our time.
Coming up next in our executive leadership series: The Virtue of Accountability