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Why the Modern CEO Must Weigh in About Social Movements

Ten years ago, if you asked a CEO to comment on race riots in Charlottesville or a piece of legislation that prevented transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice in public spaces, you could count on a forceful “no-comment.”

But CEOs of today have to operate differently, said three leading current or former CEOs said at the Fortune Global Forum in Toronto on Tuesday.

“Now, CEOs have a bigger responsibility to have an opinion about what’s going on,” said Ursula Burns, the former Chairman and CEO of Xerox and current Chairman and CEO of VEON. “One of the things that’s true about leadership in the past that the job was contained to facts and figures and specifics about your business and your job. It used to be a pride point not to have a point of view, to remove yourself from that debate.”

But the rapid rate of technological change and a changing global workforce means chief executives need to weigh in. “The world is asking us, our employees are asking us, and governments require that we have a point of view,” Burns continued. “And, we have good points of view, we are smart people, we have been all over the world.”

Andrew Liveris, the former Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical says if the business of business is getting a license to operate in companies around the world, it now means being an always-on CEO. With the speed of communication and the “judges [and] jury of the court of public opinion,” he explained, CEOs are now pressed to respond in the moment on issues that they might have taken a longer time to study.

Consider the broader social movements that impact the entire value chain of the business, Liveris said, citing populism, elitism, and increasing inequality.

“People like us, the so-called ‘fat cats of society’ are seen as bad people,” Liveris said. “We represent the company, so we have to take on a personality that says, ‘we care about you, we care about all these constituencies.’”

Chief executives are looked at as accessible public figures now. “I think the mechanisms by which people can comment on what you’re doing [as CEO] is a really fundamental change in my opinion,” said Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm. “Being a CEO today is more like running for office 20 years, except the mechanisms are very democratized.”