CEOs Speak Up on the Political Issues of the Day

Dave Ghose
Les Wexner

Les Wexner and Tanisha Robinson don’t seem to have a lot in common. Wexner is a billionaire, a Republican and a reserved octogenarian who’s led his business, L Brands, longer than any other CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Robinson is a liberal, a lesbian and an outspoken millennial who in 2017 was named the head of BrewDog USA, the American arm of the upstart Scottish craft brewery.

The contrasting CEOs, however, do share at least one trait: a willingness to speak out publicly on a controversial political topic. When Donald Trump failed to denounce the white supremacists behind the violent August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, both Wexner and Robinson were disgusted, like many others across the political spectrum. And both refused to let their executive roles prevent them from sharing those feelings. “I personally feel dirty; I’m ashamed,” said Wexner in video-recorded remarks made to about 700 L Brands employees five days after the rally. Robinson was perhaps even more confrontational, delivering a speech titled “We Don’t Want Nazis to Buy Our Beer” at the October 2017 Women in Digital conference in Columbus.

Wexner and Robinson’s reactions highlight the changing political dynamics of business leadership. The two executives are part of a growing group of CEOs who are using their platforms to talk about gay rights, gun control, climate change, immigration and other hot-button issues—a trend that has picked up steam since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. What began with a handful of socially-minded CEOs—such as Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, Apple’s Tim Cook and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff—is now spreading to executive suites all over the country. In Columbus, Wexner and Robinson have been joined by the likes of AEP’s Nick Akins, who’s criticized the Trump administration’s climate change policies; former IBM iX CEO Kelly Mooney and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams founder Jeni Britton Bauer, both of whom attended the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington; and the members of the Columbus Partnership, the Wexner-chaired corporate civic organization, who’ve called for more civility in public life (a statement that might seem inoffensive in a different time but can’t help but be viewed as a rebuke to our twitterer-in-chief today).

Some of the change is generational—a younger group of more outspoken entrepreneurs and executives who connect with their employees and customers through social issues and political stands. Some of it is a reflection of the changing demands of business leadership, as the public and key stakeholders expect a CEO be more than just a corporate shill. And some of it is a response to our increasingly ugly politics. When the leader of the free world calls white supremacists “very fine people,” it’s tougher for a titan of industry to continue to stand on the sidelines.

The new dynamics present both risks and rewards for CEOs. If done right, this newfound outspokenness can strengthen a business’s brand, energize its employees, inspire customer loyalty and maybe even make the world a better place. If done poorly, it can come off as uninformed or patronizing—as Pepsi did with its infamous Kendall Jenner-starring ad that trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. There are also risks if CEOs stay silent, as they may be perceived as out of touch or apathetic, especially by millennials, a demographic much-desired by employers and marketers. Nearly half of all millennials believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society, according to a 2017 study by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research.

Whether they like it or not, CEOs must adjust to these new realities—even someone who’s been leading his company for more than five decades. Wexner’s post-Charlottesville comments were a first; never before had he so publicly criticized a prominent politician. “The question is, ‘What do I do?’ ” Wexner asked in his video-recorded message in the Charlottesville aftermath. His answer: “I’m going to speak out.”

Evolving Leadership

CEOs have always had opinions, of course. And, to be sure, a few in the past have openly shared their political beliefs—Koch Industries’ David and Charles Koch on the right and Ben & Jerry founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield on the left, come to mind. But, for the most part, the traditional rule of thumb has been this: Keep your political beliefs to yourself. After all, a CEO has a fiduciary responsibility to profit-hungry shareholders. Why take a chance of offending customers (and damaging the bottom line) by making divisive political statements? “The risks are increased, there’s no doubt about it, and the reaction of many older executives is simply not to take those risks,” says author and former Ohio State University marketing professor Roger Blackwell, who’s served on dozens of private and public corporate boards over the past four decades.

These days, however, many CEOs are coming to a different conclusion. Weber Shandwick, the global public relations agency that has been studying CEO activism since 2016, documented 425 corporate responses to five controversial Trump statements and actions: the travel ban, the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, barring transgender service members from the military, the Charlottesville comments and the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The roster of CEO activists includes some of the biggest names in business, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Walmart’s Doug McMillon and Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan.

What changed? Blackwell points to the “ubiquity and immediacy of social media,” which has both pushed social issues more to the forefront and put pressure on business executives to reject their traditional reluctance to speak publicly on such matters. Now, executives are supposed to engage with the public in a digital free-for-all that values blunt, immediate reactions and has little regard for careful vetting. “Social media doesn’t have the same criteria for putting words down that you saw in the past,” Blackwell says. “In other words, it’s pretty easy to push the send button.”

This phenomenon, Blackwell adds, is also affected by the rise of a younger generation of CEOs, digital natives who aren’t shy about sharing their beliefs on social media or elsewhere. Social media forces people to “facedown some of the realities of our current society—and they’re really unfortunate realities,” Robinson says. CEOs now feel an almost moral imperative to correct society’s wrongs. As Bank of America’s Moynihan told the Wall Street Journal in 2016, “Our jobs as CEOs now includes driving what we think is right.”

“I do think the figurehead role is growing, as are the expectations on the CEO,” says Tim Judge, executive director of the Fisher Leadership Initiative at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “I think we expect them to walk a pretty fine line.”

Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer says “the marginalization of both political parties and the movement away from the center” is affecting CEOs, who tend to cluster in the moderate wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties. “Business leaders build companies based on tolerance of workforces,” Fischer says. “And they build companies on the power of diversity of opinion and the power of diversity of customers and so on. In a strange way, business is dependent on finding the ways for customers, clients, employees to get along and to leverage the power of the whole, yet the political spectrum thrives on the division of the very same.”

In other words, business leaders can’t take the approach of a Donald Trump, a Bernie Sanders or any other political firebrand or they’ll risk chasing customers away. And with more political figures espousing extreme views, CEOs are also finding their moderate positions marginalized. “Therefore, business leaders are leading in these tumultuous times in a different way,” Fischer says.

A Tale of Three Executives

Les Wexner’s distaste for Trump reached a tipping point with Charlottesville. At first, Trump was slow to condemn the rally in which white supremacists marched through the streets displaying Nazi symbols and chanting “hail Trump” and “blood and soil,” an English translation of a Nazi slogan. Then Trump appeared sympathetic to the white supremacists behind the rally when he spoke at a press conference a few days afterward, declaring there were “some very fine people on both sides” and that counter protesters deserved equal blame for the violence that injured 19 and left a counter protestor dead.

These comments were hard to take for Wexner, who’s Jewish and the son of a Russian immigrant. He spent a couple of sleepless nights at his home wrestling with what to do in response. On one hand, he felt a personal obligation to speak out, says a friend. On the other, he wondered if it was inappropriate for a CEO to take such a public stand. Eventually, his thinking was clarified when he walked into his library, where he displays a quote from the English philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

“I like to think that I’m a good man,” Wexner said in his video-recorded remarks, which were posted on the website Vimeo and accessible to the public. “I like to think that I work with good men and women. And the things that we do—whether it’s Pelotonia, how we behave, the culture of the company—it’s really good.” And though he felt uncomfortable as a business leader with public political statements, Burke’s quote helped him to get over his uneasiness.

During a regularly scheduled quarterly briefing in an L Brands corporate cafeteria, Wexner shared his thoughts on Charlottesville with a mosaic of employees. Columbus has become a much more diverse place over the past three decades—with growing populations of Latinos, Somalis, Eritreans and Bhutanese Nepalis—and the L Brands workforce reflects that change.

“It’s just common decency,” Wexner told the group. “This is just unacceptable behavior.” And Wexner promised to put his words into action. “I would tell you that I have also taken a pledge when it comes to political leaders and political parties,” said Wexner, who declined to be interviewed for this story. “I’m not going to support anybody unless they send me a note and tell me they’re going to behave civilly and do the right thing. I’ve just had it.”

For Tanisha Robinson, Charlottesville didn’t spark the same kind of internal debate. Unlike Wexner, outspoken public comments have long been a part of her identity, first as the founder and CEO of the Columbus startup Print Syndicate and now as the head of BrewDog USA, which is headquartered in Canal Winchester.

Robinson views her business as a “lever for impact.” That impact can come from the way she treats her employees (good wages, high-quality healthcare, maternity and paternity leave). But it also can come from the platform that her business provides to express unfiltered opinions about sexism, racism, gay marriage and income inequality. Even though her opinions might seem controversial on the surface—and they often are garnished with F-bombs, as is her style—Robinson insists her ideas are actually tame and common sense. Or at least they should be viewed that way. “Some people characterize gay marriage as a political issue,” says Robinson, whose spouse is Michelle Heritage, the executive director of the Community Shelter Board. “I don’t see that as a political issue. That was something that directly impacted me and a lot of people I know.”

Take her Charlottesville-inspired speech, for instance. She was surprised that some people balked at its title, “We Don’t Want Nazis to Buy Our Beer.” A friend even asked Robinson if her bosses, BrewDog founders James Watt and Martin Dickie, approved it. Robinson says she didn’t ask them—and saw no need to. “I’m like, ‘No, this is America. We should all hate the Nazis,’ ” Robinson recalls.

Robinson hit on a similar theme during her speech. “A lot of people talk about, ‘Oh, we don’t want our business to get involved in politics,’ ” she said. “ ‘We don’t want to endorse or not endorse a party or a candidate. We don’t want to alienate half the population.’ But at this point in the world, my perspective is we are beyond a political space on some of these issues. Is white supremacy, racism, misogyny a political issue? Is inequality or poverty or lack of education in our public schools a political issue that your company or you personally don’t want to get involved in? To me, those are not political issues. Those are social issues and much, much deeper.”

Like Robinson, Jeni Britton Bauer has tried to build her company around deeply held values such as inclusion and dignity. “I’ve been friends with Jeni for more than 20 years, and she has always been a voracious reader and thinker going back to the early days when she and I and her husband, Charly, would solve many of the world’s problems over red wine and beer,” says John Lowe, the Jeni Splendid Ice Creams CEO, who oversees business operations while the company namesake handles the visioning and ice-cream making. “She’s always been interested in and opinionated about the issues of our day.”

The 2016 election, however, seems to have turned her into a more public activist. She’s become more open with her views on social media and in media interviews, attended the Women’s March on Washington and used her scoop shops to help raise money for She Should Run, a nonprofit that supports female political candidates. “As an American, a woman, a human, a mother, a friend, a leader, yes, the election affected me deeply, and I use my platform to connect with and organize others who feel the same way,” she says in an email interview.

Why is she willing to speak out? “I think that is what being a citizen of the United States is about,” she says. She also seems to question whether it’s such a dramatic break from the past, pointing to such outspoken, long-established business leaders as fellow ice cream makers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Netflix’s Reed Hastings. “Not to mention that every female-led/founded business I follow makes their voice heard, uses their platform for good, and that’s why I support them,” she says. “Our community of customers is the same. There are hundreds, thousands, of female business leaders across America using their voices to speak out, organize and inspire. I am not alone.”

In the last year, Britton Bauer attracted the most attention for comments she made unrelated to Trump. In February, she called out her company’s shipping partner FedEx for its ties to the NRA, threatening to drop the company if it continued to support the gun-rights organization and take her business elsewhere. “You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Britton Bauer said in a video posted on her Instagram account. “I’m talking about the NRA. I’m talking about stricter gun control. The majority of Americans want it, and the NRA is supporting stuff that we don’t get behind.” She added, “UPS is out there, man.”

The protest came about two weeks after 17 students and staff members were killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. In the wake of that tragedy, Britton Bauer says she and others at her company received emails and direct messages urging them to step away from FedEx. “Every day, my company decides which companies we want to work with and which ones we don’t,” she says. “There are a lot of factors that go into those decisions, including, and importantly, whether our values line up.”

The protest resulted in a barrage of angry emails and phone calls from across the country. The incident also made headlines around the country and even the world. “I didn’t think anyone would pick it up, so, no, it did not play out how I imagined,” Britton Bauer says. Her threat to switch vendors was a bit off target, too. Turns out that UPS wasn’t really a morally better option: It also has ties to the NRA, Jeni’s officials discovered. After speaking with both companies, Jeni’s executives decided to stick with FedEx.

In hindsight, would Britton Bauer handle the NRA/FedEx protest differently? “I will always be open about my beliefs [with] my Instagram community, and it’s likely that, somewhere along the way, it will rub someone the wrong way again. It’s part of being who I am.”

Dave Ghose is the editor.