Apr 15 2021

Should CEOs wade into Politics?

This question has been on my mind for years. In the wake of Georgia passing its new voting regulations, a many of America’s large company CEOs are taking some kind of vocal stance (Coca Cola) or even action (Major League Baseball) on the matter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CEOs to “stay the hell out of politics” and proceeded to walk that comment back a little bit the following day. The debate isn’t new, but it’s getting uglier, like so much of public discourse in America.

Former American Express CEO Harvey Golub wrote an op-ed earlier this week in The Wall Street Journal entitled Politics is Risky Business for CEOs (behind a paywall), the subhead of which sums up what my point of view has always been on this topic historically — “It’s imprudent to weigh in on issues that don’t directly affect the company.” His argument has a few main points:

  • CEOs may have opinions, but when they speak, they speak for and represent their companies, and unless they’re speaking about an issue that effects their organization, they should have Board approval before opening their mouths
  • Whatever CEOs say about something political will by definition upset many of their employees and customers in this polarized environment (I agree with this point a lot of the time and wrote about it in the second edition of Startup CEO)
  • There’s a slippery slope – comment on one thing, you have to comment on all things, and everything descends from there

So if you’re with Harvey Golub on this point, you draw the boundaries around what “directly affects” the company — things like employment law, the regulatory regime in your industry, corporate tax rates, and the like.

The Economist weighed in on this today with an article entitled CEO activism in America is risky business (also behind a paywall, sorry) that has a similar perspective with some of the same concerns – it’s unclear who is speaking when a CEO delivers a political message, messages can backfire or alienate stakeholders, and it’s unclear that investors care.

The other side of the debate is probably best represented by Paul Polman, longtime Unilever CEO, who put climate change, inequality, and other ESG-oriented topics at the center of his corporate agenda and did so both because he believed they were morally right AND that they would make for good business. Unilever’s business results under Polman’s leadership were transformational, growing his stock price almost 300% in 10 years and outpaced their peers, all as a “slow growth” CPG company. Paul’s thinking on the subject is going to be well documented in his forthcoming book, Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, which he is co-authoring with my good friend Andrew Winston and which will come out later this year.

While I still believe that on a number of issues in current events, CEOs face a lose-lose proposition by wading into politics, I’m increasingly moving towards the Paul Polman side of the debate…but not in an absolute way. As I’ve been wrestling with this topic, at first, I thought the definition of what to weigh in on had to come down to a definition of what is morally right. And that felt like I was back in a lose-lose loop since many social wedge issues have people on both sides of them claiming to be morally right — so a CEO weighing in on that kind of issue would be doomed to alienate a big percentage of stakeholders no matter what point of view he or she espouses.

But I’m not sure Paul and Andrew are absolutists, and that’s the aha for me. I believe their point is that CEOs need to weigh in on the things that directly affect their companies AND ALSO weigh in on the things that indirectly affect their companies.

So if you eliminate morality from the framework, where do you draw the line between things that have indirect effects on companies and which ones do not? If I back up my scope just a little bit, I quickly get to a place where I have a different and broader definition of what matters to the functioning of my industry, or to the functioning of commerce in general without necessarily getting into social wedge issues. For want of another framework on this, I landed on the one written up by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, which I summarized in this post a bunch of years ago — that America has lost its way a bit in the last 20-40 years because we have strayed from the five-point formula that has made us competitive for the bulk of our history:

  • Providing excellent public education for more and more Americans
  • Building and continually modernizing our infrastructure
  • Keeping America’s doors to immigration open
  • Government support for basic research and development
  • Implementation of necessary regulations on private economic activity

So those are some good things to keep in mind as indirectly impacting commercial interests and American competitiveness in an increasingly global world, and therefore are appropriate for CEOs to weigh in on. And yes, I realize immigration is a little more controversial than the other topics on the list, but even most of the anti-immigration people I know in business are still pro legal immigration, and even in favor of expanding it in some ways.

And that brings us back to Georgia and the different points of view about whether or not CEOs should weigh in on specific pieces of legislation like that. Do voting rights directly impact a company’s business? Not most companies. But what about indirect impact? I believe that having a high functioning democracy that values truth, trust, and as widespread legal voter participation as possible is central to the success of businesses in America, and that at the moment, we are dangerously close to not having a high functioning democracy with those values.

I have not, as Mitch McConnell said, “read the whole damn bill,” but it doesn’t take a con law scholar to note that some pieces of it which I have read — no giving food or water to people in voting lines, reduced voting hours, and giving the state legislature the unilateral ability to fire or supersede the secretary of state and local election officials if they don’t like an election’s results — aren’t measures designed to improve the health and functioning of our democracy. They are measures designed to change the rules of the game and make it harder to vote and harder for incumbents to lose. That is especially true when proponents of this bill and similar ones in other states keep nakedly exposing the truth when they say that Republicans will lose more elections if it’s easier for more people to vote, instead of thinking about what policies they should adopt in order to win a majority of all votes.

And for that reason, because of that bill, I am moving my position on the general topic of whether or not CEOs should wade into politics from the “direct impact” argument to the “indirect impact” one — and including in that list of indirect impacts improving the strength of our democracy by, among other things, making it as easy as possible for as many Americans to vote as possible and making the administration of elections as free as possible from politicians, without compromising on the principle of minimizing or eliminating actual fraud in elections, which by all accounts is incredibly rare anyway.