by Gael O’Brien

A number of America’s leading CEOs have spoken out forcefully this year – to employees and on social media – when U. S. public policy issues have run counter to their companies’ values. Their voices have primarily resonated around principles – not politics – as their expressions of opposition cut across party lines.

Apple CEO Tim Cook at Bloomberg's Global Business Forum (September 2017).

Apple CEO Tim Cook at Bloomberg’s Global Business Forum (September 2017).

The examples are numerous: CEOs arguing against discrimination in the Trump Administration’s travel ban; condemning racism and hate at the white supremacist protest in Charlottesville; CEO resignations from business councils after President Trump’s responses to Charlottesville; and most recently, an open letter signed by nearly 700 business leaders and entrepreneurs on saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, followed a week later by MicrosoftAmazon and Starbucks submitting formal declarations to support a lawsuit filed by 16 state Attorney Generals to stop the repeal of DACA.

“I think it’s the biggest issue of our time,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, speaking of the DACA program at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum. “This is, ‘are we human?’ Cook said he’s entered the political fray this year because he believes that as a chief executive, “silence is the ultimate consent.”

Leaders like Cook (and others talking internally to their teams about these principles) have collectively become the country’s strongest voices condemning racism, hate, violence and discrimination. Consciously or unconsciously, they have related these issues to their core businesses, focusing on those who do the work and those who buy what their companies produce. Their actions highlight the importance that stakeholders – including shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers and community/society – have for any major company seeking to do business in 21st century America.

Most CEOs don’t have a playbook for activism. In fact, many come to it reluctantly. The terrain ahead is ambiguous at best. It begs the question: where does CEO leadership on social issues go from here? The answer will depend on how effectively leaders communicate the “why” behind their actions and relate it back to what their businesses stand for. Two suggestions may help advance the next step. First, use the power of values. Second, help bystanders become stakeholders.

Aligning Actions and Values

In order to speak out effectively on social issues, it helps to know that one’s own corporate culture doesn’t have major disconnects when it comes to values. Not paying attention to core values leads to crises for companies and countries, as does extolling cultures that policies and practices don’t support (think Wells Fargo and unauthorized customer accounts). However, without evidence of obvious problems, it can be easy for CEOs to presume that their corporate values and actions are congruent.

Making sure that values are in line with actions requires hard work. It makes sense, for example, to do regular monitoring involving first line managers and others who are talking to small employee groups, letting them know that matching values and actions matters at every level. The goal is to learn what’s showing up for employees as real and what needs more attention regarding values and issues of respect, diversity and inclusion. A company becomes vulnerable when it assumes employees share a common understanding of what the values mean. There won’t be a common language created until, for example, diversity and inclusion are illustrated by consistent actions; and when mistakes are made, they are acknowledged and corrected. Values well explained can create common ground with stakeholders.

Turning Bystanders into Stakeholders

Understanding a company’s “why” and how it is related to what the company stands for can help quiet critics or those on the sidelines who might be skeptical of the value of companies getting involved in social issues. But that’s no simple task, and leaders need to continue to explain the “why” to their various internal audiences, who may see things from a variety of perspectives. For example, a 2017 survey of 1,021 American adults indicated that 47 percent of Millennials (ages 18 – 36) expect CEOs to speak up in issues important to society; in contrast, only 28 percent of those aged 37 to 71 agree with that.

An education process can help good communication bridge the gap. Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith’s blog on DACCA is an example of effectively explaining “why” that subject may impact bystanders. Research suggests that stakeholders broadly understand the importance of speaking out. A 2016 study of over 800 adults indicated nearly 8 in 10 Americans support corporate positions on race relations, while about 6 out of 10 support taking positions on immigration reform and LGBT equality. Nearly 80 percent agreed that companies can be successful and take a stand on important issues, with 7 out of 10 believing it can help the bottom line.

So, while speaking out may not always be easy, corporate America may have turned a corner. CEO responses to President Trump and recent racist and anti-Semitic demonstrations in Charlottesville represent  “a seminal moment in the history of business in America,” says Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a board member at PepsiCo. “These C.E.O.s have taken the risk to speak truth to power.”

Knowing their “why,” and how it helps business and society, enables CEOs to make their case for the critical policy issues they are championing, taking challenges in stride.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University