High Noon in the C-Suite

We’ve become accustomed to saying that today’s business world needs a new breed of CEO who is more collaborative, authentic and transformative but there is a new behavioural requirement on the block. Enter the “activist CEO”. 

According to a new study by the global communications and engagement firm Weber Shandwick, almost a half of millennials (47 per cent) believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society, which far outpaces the sentiments of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite also found that an even higher proportion (56 per cent) reckon that business leaders have a greater responsibility to speak out now than in the past. What’s more, the attitude is also affecting buying decisions: half of Millennials (51 per cent) say they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with.

Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, points out that the dramatically different climate in the US has meant that business and policy have intersected “more deeply than ever before”. “When dozens of CEOs spoke up about the new administration’s decisions regarding issues like climate change and travel to the US from select countries, for example, social media ignited, protests erupted and media attention exploded,” he says.

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He adds that navigating how to communicate a company’s point of view in this environment is becoming increasingly complex and important. “Future generations will only pay closer attention to how companies communicate around their values when it comes to deciding where to work or who to purchase from.”

Similarly, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it potentially impacts attraction and retention as well. More than two fifths of Millennials (44 per cent) say they would be more loyal to their organisation if their own CEO took a position on a hotly debated current issue. This compares to less than a fifth (18 per cent) of Boomers and Gen Xers saying they would be more loyal if their own CEO spoke out.

The survey makes for fascinating reading and Weber Shandwick puts forward a 10-point guide to CEO activism which warns leaders not to ignore the “slippery generational slope” as Millennials moving into the next generation leadership positions do not want their CEOs to be bystanders. They should also be beware of the price of silence as “Millennials are watching”. It recommends leaders develop a thick skin and anticipate criticism as well as making sure the organisation practices what it preaches.

Ultimately, what Millennials are telling us aligns with many of the messages surrounding authentic leadership and living by the values you espouse. It is another form of accountability but one that comes direct from the generation of highly influential and valuable future consumers and employees. Keeping schtum, it seems, is no longer an option for today’s leaders.

 

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