The Silence of the Executives

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This morning, my friend Paula tweeted her co-worker James’ take on how execs and leadership thinkers are broadly staying silent about the protests in 75+ cities across America right now. Funnily enough, James (good dude) uses Michael Hyatt as an example. Years ago, I was very stupidly day drunk on a Thursday and decided to sign up for Hyatt’s newsletter. I have never unsubscribed, and once in a while there is value, but I’ve also been struck by … well, how tone deaf it feels. Lots of these guys, these “thought leaders” on leadership, who should absolutely be using a crisis moment where actual structures are burning to discuss ideas around leadership, are essentially silent.

Same with execs. This morning, Morning Brew (newsletter) did count a few executives who have made statements, including Target (you would hope, as their HQ is Minneapolis), Twitter, NIKE (they have a new campaign), and more. Morning Brew does end the section by saying this, and I’d agree: “Activists say speaking up is a first step. However, meaningful change will require companies to take action, such as by hiring and promoting people of color within their ranks.”

OK, so first off: why is this happening? Why the silence?

This one is relatively easy.

Execs: They tend to focus on brand and compliance. (And money.) They are also busy people and most of them are not on social media, honestly. Because they lack that direct connection with the audience, for them to say something they’d need to either draft a press release, which is likely to get caught in legal and revision hell, or they’d need to release some ad campaign, but if the ad campaign misses the mark or offends a certain set, could sales fall? Could it be a PR hit? Remember that Kylie Jenner Pepsi ad? Oh God. CEOs would be terrified of such a moment. You could also argue, and correctly, that it makes the most sense for a business executive to focus on the business and not get involved in social/political issues.

Leadership thinkers/coaches: My guess here would be that this thing has become insanely political. Just yesterday I was texting my friend about something and he responded “It’s all fake protesters. Bus’ed in. Antifia.” Got it. Everything is left-right in these moments, sadly, even though the pandemic was supposed to “bring us together.” I guess we forgot about all that because something happened between a white authority figure and a black man. Who wants to make a statement and possibly alienate a future client, right? I myself don’t worry about this stuff, but any statement from a “leadership thinker” will probably be saccharine, mention “unity,” and not give any action steps to a true business leader. Then, see above, said business leader will want to focus on 2021 sales plays anyway.

So why does the silence matter?

Well, companies do employ lots of people, and we did come to this whole “millennial mindset” narrative in the last decade that they (millennials) wanted companies who really took a stance and cared. I think that narrative has been proven maybe half-true. Most people want their work to keep paying them; think we saw that during the heavy layoff phase of COVID. I think “being socially woke” is in the “nice to have” category, not the “need to have” category, but everyone is different.

Now, I don’t need every KPI Kevin under the sun making a “thoughts and prayers” style statement about “the turmoil around us.” That would be overkill and boring. But I do think companies should weigh in and say something, even if it’s just a statement on their homepage. I think executives should say something to their HQ/most employees local community. That would be cool.

As for leadership coaches and all that, if you claim to be an “expert” in leadership stuff and management stuff, and dealing with crisis and all that, well, this would be a moment to speak up. I realize any statement in this powderkeg can automatically alienate 50% of people, but what good is supposed expertise if it never gets used?

What about “content” in this period?

I’ve wondered about this for a few months, and written about it. For a long time, it felt like we could only discuss the virus. Now it feels like we can only discuss a mix of the virus, racial tension, police training, and inequality. So if you sell widgets and those widgets don’t address racial tension, what exactly can you talk about? Because constantly talking about your widgets would seem to be a little tone-deaf, right? Indeed. (Some brands are trying to do that, and mostly getting ignored.)

There’s always that “hustler class” that thinks every crisis is an opportunity, which is broadly accurate, but I don’t know if you need to spin off a ghetto Facebook shop and sell masks or anything. Crises are not “content opportunities,” per se. They are, but not in the way people conceptualize them. I would do articles and posts on:

  • Resilience
  • How your employees are coping
  • How your supply chain looks
  • How employees are discussing issues with each other
  • What frameworks HR and Ops have put in place
  • Remote work stuff
  • Social connection stuff
  • Loneliness stuff
  • What podcasts are your employees consuming?
  • What other media?
  • What challenges have you overcome in the past?
  • How do you think racial tension could be solved?

Now, many brands wouldn’t touch any of this with a 783-foot pole, and i understand that totally. Most just have a single line of sight to their widgets and a “Contact Us” button, and that’s how they view “content.” I work for, and have worked for, many people like this. It’s common.

I actually had a discussion last week with my friend Si about this topic: how to do content during a legit crisis. Check it out if you get a few minutes.

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