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This company botched its Black Lives Matter message. Can the CEO get a do-over?

“Run into the fire,” says Maynard Webb. He adds: Acknowledge, apologize, and move forward.

This company botched its Black Lives Matter message. Can the CEO get a do-over?
[Photo: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash]
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Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. We are a socially aware company, but I am not sure that we handled [the calls for racial justice following the killing of] George Floyd as well as we should have. First, I waited too long. Second, when I did say something, it didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Should I apologize?

—A CEO

Dear CEO,

This is a very difficult time. We are going through a global health crisis, which was affecting everyone differently and profoundly, and we are also bearing witness to a human rights crisis, which has been ongoing for centuries. Now after the most recent tragedies and injustices, institutional racism has again come into broad light. This time feels different, and it is my hope that this will lead to meaningful and systemic change.

As a country, we have all waited too long. We all carry the weight of that mistake. And I am seeing many people expressing that they are feeling guilty. Many are questioning everything from silences of the past to how to best advocate for justice and change now. I think the right attitude here is to acknowledge the regrets of the past—and then we need to take it further and determine what we will do going forward to ensure we all make meaningful and lasting progress. One thing is for certain: We can all always do better.

If you said something that hurt someone you certainly can—and should—apologize. And even if it was misinterpreted, it also makes sense to go back and try to make amends. It is most important to acknowledge the other person and let them know that they were heard.

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If you do or say something that is badly perceived, you can:

  1. Have a conversation with the person who had the negative perception.
  2. Listen to their point of view first (I am always a fan of Stephen Covey’s habit to “seek first to understand, then be understood.”)
  3. If what was heard and perceived was not what was intended, apologize and then communicate in a manner that ensures the intended message is heard.  Sometimes, just an apology is enough along with a commitment to do better the next time.

Problems don’t get better with age. If there are issues of any kind that are surfacing, it’s best to meet them head on and openly and transparently. It used to be that you had quarterly communication meetings with employees. Today, it’s much more frequent. That means we don’t always have the time to make everything packaged and perfect. But we need to do the right thing as immediately as possible. Run into the fire. Acknowledge, apologize, and move forward.