From war to natural disasters to issues surrounding the rights of historically marginalized groups, every day seems to bring a new crisis. This constant state of upheaval can be exhausting.
I often feel compelled to speak out. But as the CEO of a global technology company, I need to be sensitive to the fact that when I share my private views, some may think I am speaking on behalf of my company. The challenge I face, as does every leader, is deciding if, and when, to elevate my voice to become the voice—not just because I believe it is the right thing, but because my employees and customers expect me to.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
One of my top priorities is nurturing culture. When crises happen, it’s common for people to feel isolated. Sometimes, employees haven’t wanted to talk about issues at work because they’re not sure where we stand as a company. In others, they haven’t wanted to bring their home lives to the “office.” Regardless, looking after our community is essential to its success, so it’s important to try and get this right. Getting thank yous from employees who felt like we’d given words and/or validations to their feelings is a great indication we’ve done right by the company.
NOT ALL CRISES ARE COMPLICATED
There’s a reason we love videos of babies laughing and people helping others, or how we rally in the face of human suffering. At MATRIXX, we may not respond to every global crisis, but we have team members in over 20 countries. It’s important to those individuals that their American CEO knows what’s happening in their parts of the world. With human crises, there is no dissent—just an agreement that it’s important for our team to acknowledge their suffering. Sometimes that will be a social media post or an internal alert to employees about the safety of team members, such as we did following the massive explosion in Beirut in 2020.
THERE IS NO RULE BOOK
I’ve had to accept that whatever crisis-response rule books I thought might have existed do not, in fact, exist. Like so many of my peers, I’ve had to write our company rule book as we go. As new, difficult decisions present themselves, we’ve had to rewrite our process, yet again. The challenge is always the same—how do I lift up the voices of those I represent without alienating members of the community I lead?
THE ERA OF PURPOSE-LED BUSINESS
Most CEOs I speak to struggle with this same challenge of how to best communicate. Increasingly, employees are pressuring their leaders to take a stand on social issues, and they are not the only ones. Customers and investors are demanding companies conform to social and political ideologies or be punished in the marketplace.
The problem is that different constituents have different agendas. Sometimes, responding to the demands of one community risks alienating and angering another. Employees might feel misrepresented and end up growing resentful. In a worst-case scenario, taking a hard line on a political issue could impact employee morale, attrition, and even company sales.
DISAGREEMENT KEEPS ME ON THE RAILS
With political issues especially, I know there will be employees who agree and disagree with my personal views. Coming down hard on one side as CEO risks alienating employees and even customers. This is where it’s important to build a leadership team willing to speak their minds and tolerate dissenting views.
While every leader knows the danger of the echo chamber, navigating these crises has reminded me how valuable respectful disagreement can be. I have built a core team that I rely on to help guide how and when we respond to crises. When we do decide to make a decision, they all have to agree on what we are going to say. That process of disagreement has helped keep us, and me, on the rails of building culture.
SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO TAKE A STAND
In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our team began discussions about making a statement. While we didn’t have team members directly affected by the conflict, we did have a presence in several nearby countries. There was unanimous agreement we should say something—however, there wasn’t immediate agreement on what. The internal debate focused on how firm a stand we should take at the risk of alienating potential business partners, as well as our broader community. In the end, the team agreed that the circumstances meant being too non-committal was the same as saying nothing at all. We chose to take a strong stance, and I remain proud of that.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED A SOFTER APPROACH
Social issues are murkier and demand a more nuanced approach. Whereas the absence of dissension meant the conflict in Ukraine demanded a strong position, the events at the U.S. capitol on January 6 were different. Regardless of how I, or my team, felt about what happened, the country was and remains deeply divided about it. In this case, the team needed to set aside their own views and work together to say something that would bring our community together. We chose a message of unity and respect and I am equally proud of that message.
BE INTENTIONAL, DON’T HESITATE
As CEO, you have to have social issues top of mind. It’s as much a part of your job as meeting your quarterly numbers. To succeed, you have to be intentional. If you’re going to speak up, don’t hesitate. If you’re going to make a statement, make one that has a purpose. If you’re going to choose to stay silent, be clear on why because your inaction risks being as detrimental as action.
One of the best ways to reduce the risks that you’ll make a misstep is to build a team you can trust to help you and stay focused on what matters—building the culture of the company you’re tasked with leading.
Glo Gordon is CEO of MATRIXX Software, a global leader in 5G monetization for the communications industry.