One could argue that this is perhaps one of the most politically charged environments in the history of the United States. Over the past two decades, corporate activism has seemed to be growing exponentially; the difference between actions a company is willing or expected to take even within the last five years has changed significantly.
This is partially due to increased calls for transparency within the corporate world. Stakeholders are taking a greater interest in who the companies they support do business with and why, and have used social media as a platform to voice these concerns. Politics in the office has always been a difficult area to navigate for leaders, and that has only proven to be all the more true in recent years. Whether your investors have backed you, your customers who support your business, or your employees who bring the company’s mission to life, the likelihood of everybody sharing similar views is slim to none, as is the likelihood of satisfying everybody by taking a position.
“When Michael Jordan was asked in the ’80s or early ’90s, ‘why don’t you engage in politics?’ His response was: ‘Republicans buy sneakers too,’ said Blatt. “It was a brilliant encapsulation of what I think the traditional view of corporate leaders was about politics: they can have personal politics, but the company’s mission is apolitical. And if theirs or anyone else’s politics bleed into the company, it inhibits their ability to fulfill their mission. There was no upside. But companies are increasingly finding it difficult to hue to the “Jordan Doctrine”.”
Greg Blatt has witnessed firsthand the rise of politics in the office, having held senior leadership positions across various industries. He was general counsel for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, helping to publicize the company before becoming general counsel for the American holding company InterActivCorp (IAC). Known for its early investments in some of the biggest internet companies of the 21st century, such as Expedia, Ticketmaster, Hotels.com, and the Home Shopping Network, Blatt went on to become CEO for IAC, as well as a number of other businesses under its umbrella including Match.com, Match Group, and Tinder.
“Taking political positions for a large corporation is inherently fraught. A corporation may have many of a person’s legal rights, but it’s not a person. A corporation is a legal entity that involves many individuals. Even on an executive team, there may be different political beliefs. And then you have all the other stakeholders – consumers, employees, directors, investors. The idea that a unified view of all these people constitutes the “view” of the corporation is unrealistic. So, in essence, establishing the political opinion of a corporation becomes a business decision. There isn’t any way around it. And that’s where things get messy.”
Blatt believes that if you confidentially polled executives in the United States, 99 percent of them would say they wish they could keep their companies out of politics. However, unlike the “Jordan Doctrine” days, the world has changed significantly. There is no compartmentalization of politics today. Everything is political, especially generationally for tech companies where Generation Z and Millenials are a larger part of the workforce. There is an overall unwillingness to accept an apolitical approach to doing business, such that staying out of politics in and of itself becomes a political position subject to scrutiny and criticism.
“Like anything, once you get out of a world of bright line rules, which is ‘we don’t get involved in politics,’ everything becomes messy,” said Blatt. “You don’t want to be involved in everything, but you can’t be involved in nothing. Being involved in politics becomes a distraction, but not being involved in politics becomes a distraction. Again, now you’re facing a business decision. What do you get involved in, and what don’t you get involved in? What’s the company’s position? Making that determination isn’t what for-profit companies are built for.”
It’s a catch-22 that every modern CEO is trapped in. To appease stakeholders, you must become involved in politics, but by becoming involved in politics you inevitably alienate some section of your stakeholders. From a purely economic sense, you’d always rather not engage, but our society no longer provides that as an option. So what is a CEO to do?
According to Blatt, because total avoidance is no longer an option, the next best course of action is to approach the question rigorously, with analytics and discipline. In his view, a common mistake that companies are making in the current environment is holding the quality of political discourse to lower standards than its business discourse.
Information is promulgated for political ends on both sides of the spectrum by the media. They encapsulate things into very small sound bites that then rile up their followers, often negating the facts in the process. If somebody went to a company leader wanting to develop a product and in response to a request for data backing up the development said “I saw it on CNN” or “I saw it on Fox” they would be laughed out of the room. And yet many companies seem to make political decisions based on far less rigorous analysis than they apply to their other business decisions.
“If it’s going to be part of your business, you should treat it like part of your business and make sure that there’s an informed discussion,” said Blatt. “When I ran one of my businesses, we had a culture committee that met every week. There were representatives from different groups from the company who were elected to it. And we’d meet and we’d talk about whatever anyone wanted to talk about. If someone had a political issue, we’d discuss it.
If people didn’t have the facts, which was sometimes the case, we’d get them. Shouting slogans and doing boycotts and walkouts may make for good activism, but it doesn’t really make for good decision making. After a while, people started realizing that a lot of these issues were more complex than they had previously believed. The positions the company ought to take were less clear. But we’d try to arrive somewhere that made sense together. I’m not saying we nailed it. Because there is going to be disagreement among stakeholders. And this was already a different time, so it wasn’t as intense as it is now.
But I do think something like that is a model for trying to manage the many competing interests a company faces when contemplating political speech of some kind, protecting yourself in a way where you can satisfy the needs of your company while being sufficiently informed and specific about the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing. It makes for better corporate decision making. Not to mention that perhaps you land a small blow for improving the quality of political discourse in the country.”
One of the most common lessons in running a successful business is to be proactive rather than reactive. Times are different than they were when Michael Jordan made the decision to remain apolitical, and to ignore that is to fail to prepare your organization for the inevitable. Businesses today need to build a modality through which management, the employee base and the board can all have a regular method of dialogue that is ongoing to avoid reactionary situations. It is no longer a question of whether to engage in politics or not, but whether you have an effective plan to navigate the murky waters when compelled to engage.
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