3 Tips to Thrive as a CEO in a ‘Woke’ World


The days of CEOs worrying only about the bottom line are long gone. Today, pressure from employees, shareholders and consumers alike is prompting leaders to take social action, whether it’s supporting climate change initiatives, sourcing sustainable materials or even backing a raise in the minimum wage.

According to Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer, global workers trust their employers more than any other societal institution, with 58% of employees looking toward their employer to be a trustworthy source of information when it comes to societal issues. But it also found that this trust must be earned from more than “business as usual” practices.

Mike Altier, creative director for consumer experience at Chicago-based Alight Solutions, says, “What we are hearing from clients is that there is more of an appetite not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.” Alight Solutions is a provider of benefits, payroll and cloud solutions, serving more than 3,250 clients across the globe.

In addition, 71% of those surveyed by Edelman said it is critical for their CEO to respond to challenging times, and 76% agree that they would like CEOs to take the lead on societal change before the government acts.

“I think what is noble about this is that there are some people fighting for corporations to have some type of integrity and character moving forward, even if it’s a longer tail profit strategy,” Altier said. “I think that is a good signal to the industry business world, and the world, that there is an appetite and market for purpose-driven companies are really going to stick around for a large share of consumers who embrace those values.”

Find a cause that fits

Altier asks, “How do we make sure that what our clients’ communications strategies and campaigns are not just another marketing play that can easily be derailed by another part of the organization or experience?”

He says it starts with making sure the program or initiative a company is looking to put out into the world actually aligns with the company’s brand, values and purpose.

Adidas, the athletic apparel company based in Herzogenaurach, Germany, doesn’t just talk about wanting to cut its environmental impact and material waste, but has worked to design 100% recyclable shoes. The shoes, which debuted in 2019, are made entirely from a reusable thermoplastic polyurethane, which can be recycled into another shoe.

Plan for the future

If you want your company to be a leader in innovation and disruption, avoiding a social stance because you don’t want to offend anyone may end up sacrificing your long-term goals.

“There are corporations that say, do we want to be relevant in the future, and future proof our organization and our company to be profitable in the next five years?” Altier says. “Or do we want to hunker down and protect legacy thinking because we’re comfortable in the now?”

Dick’s Sporting Goods, a retail chain based in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, decided to stop selling assault-style weapons in 2018 and then pulled all guns from about 20% of their stores in 2019. The company’s sales rose 3.2% in the second quarter of 2019, beating expectations.

Use data to inform decisions

A CEO’s gut feelings may have helped them get to where they are today, but when it comes to looking to the future, data can be extremely useful to help lead your communication strategy. Whether internal or external, it can help inform your company’s management decisions when it comes to social issues. Using this information can allow your communication to tell a competitive brand story through facts and analytics.

“We go really hard at the qualitative and quantitative analysis of what our audiences are motivated by and expect,” Altier says. “How is what we do or say going to impact consumers’ perception of the brand experience? And then what can we say from a communication strategy perspective that will really ring true?”

“I think that’s where a lot of companies get into a frothy area, relying too much on gut and personal opinions instead of what data and insights tell us,” Altier says.

Michael Tomko

Michael Tomko is a freelance writer and owner of Tomko Productions.

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