Survey: US Millennials Expect CEOs to Play Activist Role

Survey: US Millennials Expect CEOs to Play Activist Role

As public figures, CEOs and other top executives of major companies wield influence beyond the realm of business: Their public statements are carried in the press, politicians answer their phone calls, and their views on social, political, and global affairs carry uncommon weight. In the past year, we’ve seen CEOs of large US companies take public stances and put pressure on political leaders regarding a number of controversial issues, including most notably immigration and transgender rights.

Not long ago, CEO activism was generally seen as a liability, a way of alienating customers and employees who don’t share the chief executive’s political views. However, a new report from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research finds that attitudes toward politically engaged CEO are changing, thanks to millennials feeling increasingly positive about CEO activism. Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor delves into the report’s illuminating findings:

Millennials are the one group that sees this trend in a significantly positive way. In the survey, 56 percent of millennials said CEOs and other business leaders need to engage on hotly debated current issues more today than in the past, compared with just 36 percent of Gen Xers and 35 percent of baby boomers. Forty-seven percent of millennials said CEOs have a responsibility to speak up on social issues that are important to society, compared with just 28 percent of Americans in older generations. And millennials were the only generation in the survey in which the percentage of those who said they view CEOs more favorably for taking public positions actually expanded since last year, rather than declined.

Combine those numbers with the neutral responses — young survey takers who said they weren’t sure, don’t know or that it doesn’t make a difference to them whether the CEO takes an activist stance — and the edge clearly seems to be with taking the bet and wading in.

Furthermore, the Weber Shandwick survey found that millennials are increasingly forming loyalties to companies, both as consumers and as employees, based on the CEO’s level of political engagement: 44 percent of millennials said their loyalty to their employer would increase if they knew their CEO’s views on the issues, more than twice the percentage of members of older generations who said so. It is unclear, however, to what extent this effect depends on whether the CEO takes a position with which the employee agrees or disagrees.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive’s Dale Buss highlights another new survey from the consulting firm BSG, which found that 90 percent of US consumers consider it important for CEOs to take stances on social and political issues like economic growth, healthcare, equal pay, infrastructure, and the minimum wage, with 53 percent saying it is “highly important.” This survey also suggests that the risk of taking a position with which consumers disagree is smaller than many leaders might think, finding that only 2 percent of Americans would become less loyal customers on that basis.

Buss solicits some advice from Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky and Joel Benenson, CEO of BSG, on what CEOs should consider when they feel compelled to take a public stance on an issue:

  1. Be selective. CEOs must have a reason for speaking out on something particular, and it must be authentic, Benenson says. “Is it something intrinsically important to you, your business, your employee, your customers and your community?” he asks. “If the answer is yes, you’ve answered why” to speak out. Chiefs should “mainly speak out on issues that align with company values,” Polansky says.
  2. Know your audience. Benenson notes that most companies know their audience, but only as consumers: “It is essential to also know them as political beings, in terms of their social values. You need to know how strongly they feel about the issues you would speak out on and to what degree they could potentially separate from you.”
  3. Reckon with differences. Millennials are the largest U.S. generation now, and they tend to be more progressive and more attuned to social action than older generations. … But people who lead companies with large, diverse workforces—both demographically and attitudinally—and those whose customers are older than 35—should be wary of offending those constituencies with outspoken opinions or stridency.

Another important consideration to keep in mind is that employees, in particular, will seek to hold an organization accountable not only for what its CEO says, but also for what it does. Companies that take positions on the issues, particularly progressive positions, are increasingly feeling pressure from employees to back up their words with internal policies that reflect those positions. Particularly in a tight talent market in which employees have a particularly high level of influence, leaders need to make sure that their organizations’ culture and people practices align with the focus of their activism, or risk disillusioning their socially conscious employees.