Nov 16 2023

Should CEOs wade into Politics, Part III (From Tim Porthouse)

I’ve gotten to know a number of Bolster members over the last few years, and one who I have come to appreciate quite a bit is Tim Porthouse. I’m on Tim’s email list, and with his permission, I’m reprinting something he wrote in his newsletter this month on the topic of CEO engagement in politics and current events. As you may know, I’ve written a bunch on this topic lately, with two posts with the same title as this one, Should CEOs wade into Politics (part I here, part II here). Thanks to Tim for having such an articulate framework on this important subject.

Your Leadership Game: “No Comment.”

Should you speak up about news events/ politics?

Most of the time, I say, no!

Startup CEOs feel pressure to speak up on news events: Black Lives Matter, Abortion, LBGTQ+ rights, the conflict in Israel/Palestine, Trump vs. Biden. Many tell me they feel pressured to say something, but are deeply conflicted.

Like you, I am deeply distressed by wars, murder, restrictions on human rights, bias, and hate. But if we feel something, should we say something?

Before you speak up, ask the following questions:

1.      Mission relevance. Is your startup’s success or mission on the line? Are customers or employees directly impacted? Example: It makes sense for Airbnb to advocate when a city tries to ban short-term rentals. It makes sense to advocate for your LBGTQ+ employees when a state tries to restrict their rights.

2.      Moving the needle. Will speaking out change anything? If you “denounce” something or “take a stand,” what really happens? Example: If you have employees in a state banning abortion and you tell them your startup will support them as much as the law allows, this could create great peace of mind for employees. But if your startup does not operate in Ukraine or Russia, then denouncing Russia does little (and Russia does not care!)

3.      ExpertiseDo you have a deep understanding of the situation? It’s usually more complicated than it appears, especially at first. Once you speak out, you have painted yourself into a corner you will be forced to defend.

4.      Precedence and equivalenceIf you issue a statement about today’s news event, will you react to tomorrow’s event? Why not? Where do you draw the line?Someone will be offended that you spoke up about X but not Y.

5.      BacklashAre you ready to spend significant time engaging with those who disagree with you?It can get ugly quickly, and mistakes can be costly. Plus, the American public is tiring of business leaders commenting on the news.

6.      Vicarious liabilityWho are you speaking for? When you say, “Our startup denounces X”?Does the whole company denounce it? You don’t know, and probably not. Does the Leadership Team? They may feel pressured to support you. What you are really saying is, “I denounce X!” OK, great, then say it to your friends and family. Leave your startup to talk about business.

If your answers are “yes,” – then speak out.

If not, I recommend keeping quiet.

In my opinion, our job is to build great companies, not debate current events.

By not speaking out, you can say, “We don’t talk politics here.” You can shut down any two-sided arguments at work and say, “Let’s get back to work,”removing a big distraction. Remember when employees protested because Google was bidding for Pentagon contracts?

I realize that you will be challenged to make a statement, that, “Saying nothing is unacceptable/ complicit.” But whoever challenges you will only be satisfied if you support their view.

If you still want to speak out, I respect your choice. Some of you will be angry with me for writing this, and I accept that. I’m asking you to think carefully before you make a statement.