Why CEOs think speaking out is worth it, despite the risks

When it comes to speaking out on social or political issues, it can be ‘damned if you-damned if you don’t’ if you’re a CEO.

Just ask the chiefs of companies like Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola and Home Depot after they recently got caught in the maelstrom surrounding Georgia’s controversial voting laws.

But ultimately, CEOs have to take a stand; they just have to be deliberate about what they choose to speak up about, a group of corporate chiefs told a Fortune CEO panel on Tuesday.

Under Armour CEO Patrik Frisk said that until recently, if someone had asked him to get more involved in social or political issues, his response would have been, “What are you talking about? I’m here to run a business.” Last fall, though, the company took part in a get-out-the-vote campaign which Frisk said was consistent with Under Armour’s focus on equality, and presages more activism.

While Frisk says one shouldn’t expect Under Armour to start chiming in on every social issue, the company will if doing so was in line with its brand, because customers and employees alike demand it. “It’s becoming the expectation for us, not just internally but also externally,” he said.

And companies have to be brace themselves for being in the middle of hot social debates. “You’ve got a polarized political viewpoint. So if you say something, you know, half of the population is going to be upset with you and you still have to navigate to a future which is still undefined,” Dow CEO Jim Fitterling told the panel.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean companies can afford to stay on the sidelines. Some issues won’t go away by being ignored, Fitterling added. “If you believe a net zero carbon future can’t be profitable, and your company can’t exist in that environment, then that’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

The goal of going beyond words led McKinsey to create a Black Leadership Academy for thousands of its client’s most promising employees of color. “This is to genuinely make a difference in the degree to which the business community has achieved diversified leadership,” said Liz Hilton Segel, a McKinsey managing partner.

Cardinal Health CEO Mike Kaufmann has set up a group of so-called ‘truth tellers’, colleagues of color who can give him a gut read on what social issues to address and how. At the same time, he said, CEOs should be judicious in choosing what to weigh in on. “You can’t comment on all of them because then you’re just kind of white noise,” he said. Still, the perception of indifference can be its own risk. “If you don’t make comments at least some of the time, your employees think you don’t care,” the CEO added.

Ultimately the CEOs agreed that business leaders had little choice but to be more involved in today’s debates on topics linked to their companies if they want to keep the goodwill of society at large. “We only exist as businesses because society allows us to exist,” said Carlos Brito, CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

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