Recently, an article in Harvard Business Review by Professor Mike Toffel (Harvard Business School) and Associate Professor Aaron K. Chatterji (Duke University) called Divided We Lead came to my attention. In the conversation about the article that ensued during its HBR Webinar, people were clamoring for best practices for companies dealing with activist CEOs. This topic comes up frequently with my clients with Story Engage, so I thought I’d share what works for me across a variety of industries.
I think “best practices” are emerging now, and are 1. company by company: what works for Target won’t work for JPMC, for example. 2. ever-changing, the activist landscape is fast-moving and fluid #HBRWebinar
— Leslie Poston (@leslie) April 5, 2018
I’ve found it helps if companies build playbooks for possible outcomes fm CEO activism, anticipating a variety of things that could happen (boycotts, hacks, etc) and then anticipating the level of risk the company feels they can withstand, and how they might respond. #HBRWebinar
— Leslie Poston (@leslie) April 5, 2018
How do you know if your CEO is an “Activist CEO?”
For some companies, it’s easy to tell if you’ve got an Activist CEO because you are already dealing with the fallout from a stand they may have chosen to take on an issue. Recent examples like Target’s CEO taking a positive and inclusive stance on non-gendered restrooms come to mind. For others, your CEO may not be as prominent, but in this age of connectivity their views could still travel beyond your usual bubble. If your CEO (or a member of your Board, or another member of the C-Suite) decides to codify or enforce their stance on an issue as part of company rules or culture, you might have a budding Activist CEO on your hands. One example of this might be asking HR to add a policy of non-gendered bathrooms (like Target) to the employee handbook, or codifying a better environment for working parents to offer better feeding rooms, family leave, or daycare. Often, these are first steps towards being more vocal outside of the company (in interviews, on social media, etc.) regarding issues that the CEO feels are important. This is not (usually) a bad thing, as long as you are prepared.
Best Practices for Companies with Activist CEOs
- Hold a preliminary meeting about the company culture. Make sure the company is largely aligned with the CEO and Board’s viewpoints and values.
- Determine your acceptable risk level and use that to lay out a playbook of responses to various possible outcomes.
- Create a cross-functional team that will be empowered and prepared to act quickly in a time when an Activist CEO’s statements could go viral on and off line.
- Meet quarterly to continually revise the playbook and assess new areas of risk and new potential outcomes you may need to handle.
Too often, companies approach the inherent risk of a connected world where people communicate fluidly online from a place of controlling or silencing the employee (or in this case, the CEO). A better approach is to gather together people from your legal, HR, communications, marketing, sales, and finance departments and plan for how the reaction to a policy or statement could impact the company. This would be the preliminary meeting in item 1 above. Determine what risk your CEO and Board are willing to absorb to uphold the values of the company as espoused by the CEO, and how much pushback your bottom line can handle if your CEO wants the company to be a driver of change. For this conversation, it’s important to understand how consumer activism interacts with CEO activism as it pertains to your company.
Consumer activism is on the rise. Often triggered by an event in the news, consumers are more and more willing to use their wallets to make their views heard. You can see examples of this in recent campaigns to get major companies to stop giving discounts to NRA members from supporters of gun control, in various boycotts of companies who advertise on hate sites (often, the company isn’t even aware their ad is appearing on these sites!) or who place their ads on shows that espouse intolerant world views. As consumers become more and more savvy about banding together to put their wallets where their values are, your Activist CEO could get some pushback. Using marketing analytics and buyer data to understand how your customers interact with your brand (alternative uses for that loyalty card information goldmine you are sitting on) as well as surveying your customers about what’s important to them can give you a roadmap for how much risk to anticipate from various Activist CEO scenarios.
Once you understand how to align your values in your communications and have a fluid, easy to understand risk playbook in place, it’s time to activate a team empowered to respond to the outcomes of CEO activism. I can’t stress enough the importance of empowerment for this team. We’ve all had an interaction with a company that was so close to being resolved but was thwarted because the person who was charged with handling the situation did not have any authority to actually take any action to resolve it. This team should be comprised of people who meet certain criteria: in a place where they will see public activity around the company quickly, are high enough in the company food chain to make decisions, are embedded with enough cross-departmental connections to understand the impact of their decisions on others within the company, and savvy about the ways people use media (on and off line).
Once you have your playbook, your values, and your response team in place, run a few test scenarios. Treat this like disaster preparedness drills for your business. Have the CEO give a mock interview where they talk about their most deeply held values. Do a thought exercise and imagine every potential response to this from the public, positive and negative. Take each scenario and cross reference it with data you have on your customers. For example, if you know that 80% of your customers have behavior that indicates progressive views, then a CEO statement on gender neutral bathrooms will likely have less fallout for you than a CEO statement about not offering certain reproductive services in your company health plan anymore for religious reasons. Plan accordingly. Use the results of these drills to refine your playbook. Define guardrails for the team empowered to act on the company’s behalf, such as: at what point do they need to fall back and get the Board involved, what’s the baseline for a first response, what is the budget for monetary responses like refunds or recalls, what is the plan for social media response, where is the threshold of panic for loss of revenue.
Once you’ve had your meetings and gotten your ducks in a row, schedule quarterly meetings to keep everything on point and everyone in sync. Two things will help you through any crisis: constant open internal communication and keeping things simple. As long as you are staying agile and staying in touch, you’re ready for your Activist CEO’s next move.
This is a post I started in December of last year, then wandered away from for client work. There are a lot of these abandoned ideas that flounder in my drafts folder over the course of a year, and part of my December ritual is to clean them out if I deem them no longer relevant. I think this one is more relevant now than it was then, though the reason has changed. So, what did I intend to talk about? The way other people’s carelessness impacts you, and the way your own apathy compounds the error.
Since my most recent post was about leaving Facebook and already mentioned the privacy violations and user information abuses inherent in its code, let’s start with that network as our example. On Facebook, it doesn’t matter what your personal settings are for privacy. If you interact with people and brands on Facebook anywhere, in any way, your interaction is visible outside your trusted (or, in some cases, semi-trusted) network. As a user I find this infuriating, as the site design itself encourages invasive behavior and an erosion of the understanding of individual boundaries. Brands, however, love this, obviously. What is fine for you as an individual (e.g. clicking like or commenting on a stranger’s post – shown to you because a vague work acquaintance or maybe your cousin “liked” it, friending someone’s unstable family member – whom you have never met – because you think being connected tangentially on Facebook gives you permission to do so, sharing a post when it’s clearly set to “friends only” and not meant to be shared) is a violation for someone else. We wouldn’t behave that way in person, putting people’s privacy at risk (well, except photographers, but that’s a different rant), but people freely do so online. Stowe Boyd saw this challenge coming years ago when he talked about publicy vs privacy.
This post originally appeared on Facebook two weeks ago, reposting here since I am deprecating Facebook.
I go on and on about needing to be ready for the world without work. Thinking about what we’ll do to find value in ourselves when we don’t have to “be” our jobs, what we’ll do to put value back in the world around us.
The responses I get indicate that people cling to the idea that this is far away.
Last month a company delivered a semi truck full of beer — in a driverless, fully automated big rig. In 48 of the 50 states, trucking is still currently listed as the best job you can get with no degree. Driverless trucks don’t fall asleep behind the wheel or have to take drugs to stay awake to pull multiple shifts.
This week Aeon Magazine had a piece focused on my favorite topic: the world after work. Helping businesses and individuals who are struggling to cope with the change to the world beyond work is the focus of my ongoing studies, in fact, and something I incorporate into change management strategy when helping clients. I realized while reading how little I talk about this passion, so expect more from me on this.
Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to read this article by James Livingston, a professor at Rutgers. It is a great thought exercise in the ways work holds us back, and the need to find other ways to define our value and occupy our time.
“When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work — education, healthcare, service — becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper — socially beneficial labour — becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.”
Speaking personally for a moment on what I believe is a related topic, I think this tense election season was a very real result of refusing to deal with this question in a realistic, non-emotional way. It’s hard to hear politicians around the world clinging to nationalistic ideas as some pacifier for the disenfranchised, underemployed, poverty stricken public when technology has already made it impossible to “bring back the jobs.”
Mark Schaefer wrote a post advising a “liquid” content strategy, with content posted only on various rented, third party platforms and not on a site that you own. This is diametrically opposed to the hub and spoke (or “spine”) strategy I support. In the hub and spoke model, your content lives in your hub (usually a website or blog) and is shared elsewhere (third-party spokes). Imagine your entire content team spinning their wheels — and your budget — in a constant search for “woo” to accommodate this pseudo strategy. It’s not sustainable.
This concept might work quite well for companies like Groupon, but B2B companies or companies that need to convey complex ideas will find little success scrambling after the next shiny object that has captured the public’s attention. Rather than frantically posting original content on third-party platforms first, like so many corporate lemmings, consider the fickle audiences the platforms are attempting to capture and realize that to do so is to support the quest of the platform for relevance and business longevity in the face of mutable tribes – not necessarily to support your company’s best interest.
What did you run from today? As my puppy ran from a loud noise three stories below, I teased him for being ridiculous (my pit bull is a lover, not a fighter). It dawned on me immediately that none of us are immune to these ridiculous moments.
In my work through the years, I’ve often expected executives and business leaders to be fearless. With decades of experience and vast stores of knowledge, telling the story of your work — whatever that work is — should be effortless. Instead, those few that are fearless are met with legal teams, media teams, branding specialists, multiple editors, and accountants. By the time the intrepid few have run that gauntlet, they are often completely turned off by the effort it takes to tell their business story. Their strife echoes through a canyon of cubicles, creating an environment where the the more timid among them get the clear message that one carefully produced pre-approved message for all is “good for you”, going down like medicine.
What would happen if you chose the bold statement, the action words? Would the sky fall from your declarative sentence? I don’t mean adding a layer of buzzwords to your headlines, or linkbaiting. I mean digging deep, and releasing the barbaric yawp of your full experience. I’m not talking about a late night taxi confession, a regrettable drunk dial to your less guarded inner self. Instead, simply saying what you mean, revealing what your decisions cost you and what your successes gifted you. I mean helping those who are trying to find your work understand how they can connect with you beyond your price sheet.
Try an exercise with me. For one week, pay attention to every word you don’t say. If you want to write it down, even better. But for one week be mindful of when you are silent. Also be mindful of when you self-edit — be it on social media or in the boardroom. What did you lose in your silence; what opportunity was missed? When you self-edited, was your point softened to the point where it caused meetings to end without action, or a project to extend another week in indecision, destined to die in committee?
As you begin to see the toll self-censorship creates in your everyday life, take a look at your brand storytelling. Does it seem rote and disconnected? That means you are allowing fear to take the lead, instead of clear conviction and knowledge. I propose that what makes you afraid is exactly what should be said. Am I advocating for disclosure of corporate secrets, or mishandling of client trust? Of course not. I am advocating for clarity, purpose, brevity and as much truth as you can tell in your corporate communications. That’s the “secret” that makes people who read your words come back for more.