Two tech CEOs (both white men, FWIW) very publicly took stands on political speech connected to their companies, stands which were about as opposite as they could be. And it speaks to the decisions we all must make about whether to be an Activist Leader and what kind of Activist Leader to be.
First came Brian Armstrong, CEO of cryptocurrency company Coinbase (where, full disclosure, I keep about $100 worth of Bitcoin. In June he “decided to speak up.” And for him, speaking up meant answering a question no one asked and declaring that as a company Coinbase would not be commenting on any social or political issues and only focusing on their crypto-mission. He said it should go without saying that racism=bad and so on, but nope, Coinbase’s mission should be sufficient to get excited about for employees, and there would be no internal political or activism issues discussion allowed or encouraged. And further, if anyone didn’t feel comfortable with it, he would give them a severance package to leave. Because being uncomfortable with a company that has no interest in serving its employees as humans or supporting its broader community is being not excited enough about that company. (Reportedly 5% of staff took him up on it, even in the midst of all this economic uncertainty…which may sound small to some, but sounds big to me).
Tech for Campaigns CEO Jessica Alter (who, full disclosure, I’ve met multiple times) highlighted perhaps the most infuriating thing about Armstrong’s position:
“Stating out loud that you think economic freedom and social justice can be conveniently disconnected is the epitome of why SV has a bad reputation” ~ Jessica Alter (@jalter)
It’s arrogant to think that creating, advancing or facilitating a technology innovation, in this case crypto-currency, is a sufficient contribution to the greater good. Yes, technology can indeed be used by good actors to do good things or protect themselves from bad things, but in 2020 we cannot be satisfied to remain willfully ignorant of how every technology before has also been used for bad purposes by bad actors, and therefore it is the people behind the technologies…how they develop them, how they distribute them, how they monetize them, and ultimately how they use them…that determines whether their “mission” is for good or evil.
Of course, there are many that disagree. And also of course they tend to be those who will monetarily benefit the most from this stance-of-no-stance.
Contrast the Coinbase approach to that of Expensify CEO David Barrett who wrote this letter to his entire customer base, urging a vote for Joe Biden for President to save our democracy.
Gutsy move? Most would say so. Potentially alienating to at least some number of Expensify’s 110 employees and reported eight million users? Probably, and he’s taking some heat for it. Taking a stand, explaining it in detail, and standing behind it. Definitely.
The fact is that any move you make, any business decision, will make some stakeholders happy, and others not. Obviously, some moves are riskier than others, but you literally cannot make everybody happy all the time.
The fact is also that more and more people…from every stakeholder group, from employees to consumers…expect CEOs and companies to be clear about their values, not just their product or service value. Edelman’s annual Trust Survey last year dealt at length with this topic, and I think it’s safe to assume as today’s GenZ (reputed to be the most activated and activist generation since the late 60s) becomes a more and more dominating market force, the expectations will do anything but subside.
The thing to realize is that you make a statement with everything you do or don’t do, say or don’t say. Back in my 20s, during the AIDS crisis, there was a famous slogan: Silence = Death.
That may not apply in every instance today, but certainly, if not death, one of these slogans might apply: Silence = Complicity. Silence = Tacit Approval. Silence = De-Prioritization. Silence = Ignorance. Silence = Apathy. Silence = Cowardice.
Maybe you believe your organization’s mission really does contribute to the greater good and is all that’s required of you and your company…I’d recommend making a better case for that than Armstrong did.
Maybe you believe it is better to galvanize and inspire the share of the market who will admire and take action based on your stances than to worry about the disapproval of those who will disagree with you (the loudest of whom may have no actual skin in the game).
Maybe doing both is actually the best strategy of all. I think that’s what an Activist Leader would do.