How Can Leaders Navigate The Shift In Business’ Societal Role?

Cheryl Fields Tyler is the CEO of Blue Beyond Consultingbuilding effective organizations where business and people thrive.

It’s clear that today’s employees expect business to be a force for good on many dimensions—including on a personal level, “for us” in our daily work experience, and “for the world,” including our communities and society as a whole. This “for-the-world” mandate requires business leaders to embrace a role that many never expected—from clear public stances on social issues to building capabilities. within organizations for challenging conversations and learning across differences.

Social leadership is now a core business function.

One of the most widely cited resources on this topic is the Edelman Trust Barometer, which earlier this year reported that the social role of business is here to stay. When considering a job, 60% of employees want their CEO to speak out on controversial issues they care about, while a higher percentage expect CEOs to shape the conversation and policy on topics such as jobs and the economy (76%) and wage inequality (73%).

This is especially true for young employees. According to a recent survey, many employees under 45 say that their company should be proactive on the most difficult controversial issues. In a revealing statistic that has implications for the ongoing talent war that continues even in this cooling economy: “Young workers are more than 2.5 times more likely to say that public policies on a company on controversial topics is more important in choosing an employer than their older counterparts. , even among employees over 45 years old, almost 1 in 4 consider it an important factor.”

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Companies are microcosms of the larger society.

My company’s research mirrors these findings and raises the bar higher for business to lead in new ways—internally as well as externally. Today’s workplaces are considered one of the most important sources of community, a true microcosm of our society with the same diversity of views, experiences and other aspects of diversity. I like to call it the “new commons”—one of the only places where we converge on mutual interests and have enough shared values ​​to work together productively.

Our survey of 753 employees revealed that nearly 60% of employees—and nearly 70% of those who identified as coming from younger and/or underrepresented groups—want leaders to use workplace as a forum to learn and make real discussions about social topics. Building the ability at all levels to have conversations that align with your company’s purpose, core values ​​and causes you care about—and characterized by psychological safety and a growth mindset—is essential for creating workplaces where all people can thrive.

How are CEOs navigating this paradigm shift?

It’s clear that people want CEOs and business leaders to stand out, and they trust us to create a shared context of values, information, capabilities and connections. So how do we deploy the moral capital invested in us by employees, investors, key stakeholders and society?

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1. Create a clear framework for addressing social issues.

This includes educating your leadership, employees and board (if you have one) on why and how to invest your moral capital; reaffirm the values ​​you stand for; setting expectations and establishing processes for how social issues are socialized to leadership and communicated internally and externally; and understanding and preparing for potential blowback and security risks.

2. Create a group to respond to social issues.

In this group, core members, such as CHRO, DEI, communications, legal and investor relations leaders, can anticipate and raise potential issues to be addressed. Fellow members, such as subject matter experts within the organization, should be consulted for joint thought and support as needed. The team can make recommendations to the CEO, and they can agree on a course of action.

The CEO may also communicate with the leadership team or board. Business leaders must be informed of any decisions, preferably in advance of the employee and/or external communication, knowing that this is not always possible.

3. Develop criteria for the social response team to evaluate.

Consider questions like the following:

• What are the internal and external expectations for responsiveness?

• Is there anything we need to address to be credible about this social issue?

• Does this issue allow us to take a stand that is consistent with our company’s goals and values?

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• Will remaining silent or neutral destroy our moral capital, negatively impact our company culture or hinder diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts?

• How does implementing this policy require policy changes or impact philanthropic efforts and community relationships?

4. Prioritize internal learning and dialogue.

It’s important to create—and continually reinforce—practices for active listening and continuous learning about the issues that matter to people within your organization. As a leader, you may be afraid to say something offensive—but it’s also important to realize that remaining silent or neutral can be seen as a tacit agreement. At the same time, it is impossible to address every issue. Let your purpose and values ​​guide you.

I understand that these expectations from employees can be difficult to navigate. Many business leaders never expect to be at the center of sensitive, complex or polarizing social topics. And even if employees want your company to stand out, they’re almost certainly not on the same page when it comes to these issues. However, as business leaders, it is important that we understand the trust placed in us—and to rise to the challenge. Being a force for good isn’t just a slogan—it’s a business imperative.


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