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The last month has shown CEOs who’s really in charge

March 24, 2022, 10:52 AM UTC

Good morning.

The last four weeks have been a powerful lesson in the limits of the chief executive’s power.

Numerous CEOs had to back off initial plans for addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine after coming under intense pressure from employees, customers, and the social media mob. Hackers got involved too, attacking companies they deemed too slow to respond. Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld set himself up as the ultimate arbiter, deciding who had done enough and who hadn’t. Companies that defied his judgement—Renault as a leading example—are still facing consequences.

But who said stakeholder capitalism was easy? The beauty of focusing on financial returns is that results are clean and simple to interpret. Balancing stakeholders is a multi-variate puzzle. Many professional service firms’ first instinct was to protect their people in Russia. After all, they are stakeholders too, aren’t they? Hotels stopped to consider who they were harboring in their rooms in Russia—journalists? diplomats? perhaps even some desperate Ukrainians? Nestlé wrestled with an obligation to feed people—particularly vulnerable babies—but got called out by Ukrainian President Zelensky for moving too slowly. My guess is few decisions made by CEOs on day one of the crisis remain unaltered through today.

And then, half a world away, there were the painful gyrations of Disney CEO Bob Chapek. He made an understandable decision to avoid a pissing match with the governor and legislature of Florida. But it turned out he “didn’t hold the D”—his employees did. They forced him to backtrack and denounce the Florida law restricting school discussions on gender and sexual identity, and they are still pushing him for more.

What are the lessons for CEOs that come out of this March madness? Leadership experts will study that one for years to come, but I’ll offer three:

  • Doing nothing is no longer an option. A decade ago, CEOs faced with controversial social or geopolitical issues—like a war in Ukraine or a fight over LGBTQ rights—would have hidden under their desks until the storm passed. Today, they can’t. The storm finds them.
  • A little humility helps. CEOs who think they have all the answers quickly learn they don’t. Learning to swallow their C-suite ego and consult multiple stakeholders—before, during and after such crises—pays off.
  • You need trust in the bank. Chapek’s problems with employees were on the rise long before Florida blew up. You can’t anticipate every crisis. But you can build relations with stakeholders before the crisis happens, so you have a reserve to fall back on.

I welcome hearing other lessons from CEO Daily readers. Other news below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

alan.murray@fortune.com

TOP NEWS

Moscow Stock Exchange

The Moscow Stock Exchange finally reopened this morning. Unlike what happened when Greece reopened its bourse in 2015, the MOEX Russia Index jumped more than 10% at the open, with fossil fuel companies such as Rosneft and Lukoil enjoying big gains (and Aeroflot not so much). But today's trading came with big restrictions, such as a short-selling ban and a ban on non-Russian investors selling anything. Fortune

Ruble ploy

A must-read from Fortune's Nicholas Gordon here, on how Putin is trying to turn Western countries' sanctions into a weapon against them, by ordering that they must pay for their Russian energy in rubles. That would mean skirting sanctions and propping up the ruble. Fortune

BA.2 spread

The BA.2 version of Omicron appears to be fueling China's worst COVID outbreak since early 2020. Although it's a relatively mild substrain that spreads very easily, China is still trying to maintain a zero-COVID policy. BA.2 is also going wild in Europe, for which the WHO blames the premature lifting of restrictions. COVID czar Anthony Fauci expects BA.2 will cause an uptick in the U.S., but not a full-blown "surge". CNBC

Israeli spyware

Israel reportedly blocked a Ukrainian attempt to acquire the Israeli NSO Group's Pegasus spyware system, because the officials feared it might upset Russia. The incident happened around 2019. Washington Post

AROUND THE WATERCOOLER

RIP globalization

BlackRock boss Larry Fink reckons globalization as we know it is dead: "The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to the globalization we have experienced over the last three decades. We had already seen connectivity between nations, companies and even people strained by two years of the pandemic. It has left many communities and people feeling isolated and looking inward. I believe this has exacerbated the polarization and extremist behavior we are seeing across society today." BlackRock

RIP GIF creator

Two notable passings in the technology world: Stephen E. Wilhite, who invented the GIF (and who insisted on it being pronounced "jif"); and John Roach, who created the Tandy TRS-80 personal microcomputer in 1977, with a whippersnapper called Bill Gates writing much of the software. The Register

CEO search

Fortune's Aman Kidwai on Starbucks' search for a new (permanent) CEO: "Starbucks' CEO search will likely be more challenging than normal for a high-performing company with a well respected brand… Its new CEO will have to contend with a growing unionization drive and a shareholder push to change how it approaches those efforts." Fortune

British living standards

The U.K. is set to see its biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s. Here's the FT's Martin Wolf on how Chancellor Rishi Sunak's latest budget fails to address the problem: "He is leaving most of the hit to living standards unaddressed and the most vulnerable significantly worse off. It is hard to see a good justification for this. Will it at least be good politics? I suspect not." Financial Times

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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