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Upwork CEO Hayden Brown: ‘We have to have crisis response as a muscle in our business’

June 22, 2022, 10:28 AM UTC
Updated June 22, 2022, 7:05 PM UTC

Good morning.

I mentioned yesterday the growing backlash that CEOs are feeling to their efforts to speak out on social issues. Critics on the left attack “unelected plutocrats” for sticking their noses in issues beyond their remit (as an example, check out this critical review of my book Tomorrow’s Capitalist in the Washington Post). And those on the right attack “woke CEOs” for kowtowing to the liberal mob. It’s understandable some CEOs want to return to the safer world of last century, when they could focus on making a profit, and leave society’s problems to someone else.

But in spite of that backlash, I still don’t find many CEOs adhering to the Milton Friedman view—“the social responsibility of business is to make a profit.” I was unable to join Ellen McGirt for our Leadership Next podcast interview with Hayden Brown, CEO of the freelancing platform Upwork, but I found Brown’s comments on the point to be typical:

“The last few years has been so challenging for every business, every executive. The environment is just very divisive…I think what I’ve recognized is that our role as a CEO and as an executive team, as leaders of business, is definitely a lot broader than just stewarding the business in a narrow sense. You know, our team members and our customers are looking to us to speak to our stand on certain issues and be very transparent around that. And our business has to be prepared to respond in times of crisis. 

“We went from the first crisis in my leadership, after I took the helm in 2020, being COVID, to all the different ones that you’ve mentioned. And we’ve learned that we have to have crisis response as a muscle in our business and get faster and better and really every crisis presents an opportunity, in my view, to either build trust and build cultural fabric both internally and with our customers, or to destroy it.”

Upwork has enjoyed a boom during the pandemic and its aftermath, as more people choose the flexibility that comes with control over when and where they work. Says Brown:

“The whole reason our platform exists is this idea that we’ve had since the beginning that great work can be done from anywhere, and that people shouldn’t have to move their home or families, across borders, move to the big city, whatever it may be, to do great work…Clearly, over the last couple of years of the pandemic, many more people have woken up to the fact that great work can be done from anywhere. And I think this is really just the beginning of a tectonic shift that we are starting to see in terms of how people think about work, what it means, and what’s possible in a world where remote work is something that’s much more mainstream.”

By the way, Brown was the guest for our 101st episode of Leadership Next. Last week, in our 100th episode, we went back to three previous guests—Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, and JUST Capital CEO Martin Whittaker—to get their views on how stakeholder capitalism has evolved. You can listen to both episodes on Apple or Spotify.

More news below.

Alan Murray


Gas warning

Europe is already scrambling to find alternatives to Russian natural gas, but the International Energy Agency says it should speed up its diversification efforts, because there’s a decent chance Russia will turn off the taps entirely in the coming winter. IEA head Fatih Birol: “I believe [Russia’s recent supply] cuts are geared towards avoiding Europe filling storage, and increasing Russia’s leverage in the winter months.” Financial Times

Huobi charges

Chen Boliang, a former senior manager at crypto exchange Huobi, is being prosecuted in Hong Kong over allegations that he set up a retail account under his father’s name and gave it a $20 million credit line, before secretly using it to trade against a corporate account that he also controlled. FT

Kellogg splits

Kellogg is splitting into three individual companies, focusing respectively on global snacking, North American cereals, and plant-based foods. CEO Steve Cahillane: “These businesses all have significant stand-alone potential, and an enhanced focus will enable them to better direct their resources toward their distinct strategic priorities.” Fortune

Bayer loss

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Bayer’s attempt to appeal a decision awarding a Californian man—who got cancer after using Bayer’s glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup—$25 million in damages. The Biden administration had urged the court not to hear the appeal. Reuters


Anti-nicotine push

The White House will reportedly try to force the removal of nearly all nicotine from cigarettes, to make them less addictive. It would be the biggest federal move against smoking in a quarter century. Wall Street Journal

Internet gender gap

The pandemic stymied progress in the push to bring millions of women and girls from the poorest countries online. Fortune’s Bernhard Warner: “Independent study after study bears out the urgency of closing the digital divide. Women, for example, increasingly use the mobile internet for educational purposes to enrich themselves and for the benefit of their children. And in an increasingly cashless world, handsets are vital tools to transact and start businesses.” Fortune

Generational attitudes

Employers who don’t “motivate and inspire Gen Z” are in big trouble, according to LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky: “What’s fascinating to look at is the fact that the Great Reshuffle has played out differently among generations…[Gen Z] were the biggest movers during and post pandemic, but were also the most active movers even before the pandemic struck. This generation believes it’s not only okay to move around frequently, but it’s expected, and potentially have a side gig or two along the way.” Fortune

Nobel auction

Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov just auctioned off the Nobel Peace Prize medal he won last year alongside Maria Ressa, raising a record $103.5 million for displaced Ukrainian children—that’s more than 20 times the previous record for a Nobel Prize medal (James Watson’s, for codiscovering DNA’s double-helix structure). Washington Post

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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