Advancing Executive Development December 27, 2019

The Modern CEO’s Approach to Values

By Coco Brown Founder and CEO

Last week, a group of 10 CEOs and I gathered at an intimate restaurant in Palo Alto to discuss values. Specifically, the topic of the evening was the Intersection of Values and Business: when your personal values, your team’s values, and your company’s values collide. This was the third in a quarterly CEO dinner series hosted by forward-thinking CEOs within the Athena ecosystem.

We explored when (and if) you must draw a line, how to assess decisions along the way, and how to face conflicts when there is no clear alignment across all stakeholders. We discussed how values affect other decisions, such as hiring, to the possibility of taking an activist stance on legislation.

The CEOs who attend these dinners represent a range of industries and stages, from mid- to late-stage private companies to notable public companies. We keep the names of attendees confidential to ensure we all show up with our authentic selves, openly discuss sensitive topics, and explore a range of perspectives. Read on for the key themes and takeaways from the evening. 

A new expectation for today’s CEO

Why did we focus on values? This was a deeper dive into an earlier CEO dinner topic, where we discussed purpose and profit. That dinner ended on an exciting cliffhanger: just when should a CEO take a stand, and how far should they go to protect their employees? 

We can say that a leader’s focus should be pure business, but research shows there’s a rising expectation for CEOs to have an opinion, to openly share, and to step in when the government fails to do so. This approach may even be good for business. For example, job seekers are 20% more likely to want to work for a company where the CEO has a clear stance on an issue—even if it’s completely unrelated to the business. And research shows people are now turning to their employers to “do the right thing” in the face of declining trust in government organizations.

Authentic silence.

When faced with differences in values and uncertainty of what your key stakeholders will feel, answering by not answering at all is a common default. We may feel our silence speaks for us, or that our business is not our place to express a point of view or take a stand. Some of us carried this discussion further after dinner, contemplating the eventual resolution that “silence is not leadership.” While we should not always speak up, we should be ready to—particularly on matters directly related to our business or our stakeholders.

We have more power than we realize. 

But it’s also important to remember that we can choose our battles. What fights do we want to pick within any given year? It’s an evolving balance between the no-brainers, the “let’s revisit next year”, and the “let’s just not go there.” CEOs have to answer to just about everyone. Choosing and prioritizing our positions is key to ensuring we can push hard enough to win the ones that matter to us most, and that we don’t dilute the power of our messages by having too many. 

We’re also the creators, the leaders, the visionaries, and the guides, which means…

Authenticity is key.

Research shows that it’s not necessarily the side you fall on, but the fact that you have an opinion at all that matters. Authenticity and transparency lead to trust. Trust leads to happy employees. It offers a safe environment to debate the news of the day, polarizing issues, and even more mundane topics such as office art.

Interestingly, “left leaning” authenticity seems to have more power with ALL of your stakeholders than the more “independent” or “right leaning” views. It would seem, according to Fast Company, that those leaders with views considered more in the “social right” win the trust of their employees who disagree with them, while those with more “hot button” views only win the trust of those who agree with them. 

As Fast Company writes, “On an issue such as gun control, for example, people are much more likely to want to work for a company when the CEO stands up for greater gun control, regardless of whether the job seekers themselves support that stance. We see the same effect for other issues such as same-sex marriage and immigration. Employees want their CEOs to take the more liberal, humanistic stand—whatever their own position might be.”

Fight the fight that makes sense for your brand.

Of course, you can fight any fight. But boiling the ocean won’t do you any good. It seems obvious to choose either the most socially acceptable values, such as recycling and the environment, or to stick to an agenda that seems congruent with your business. These are the topics less likely to cause a stir, and more likely to win big points.

Speaking of points…

Having a cause will earn CEOs quite a few. Our conversation led a few people at the table to reconsider how their efforts to make a change outside of their organization may be beneficial for those within their stakeholder audiences to hear. If you are doing something great for the world as a CEO outside your business, maybe you should tell your stakeholders about it. They are likely to support you. 

We’re all trying to do the right thing.

Most importantly of all, those of us at the table approached the topic of values with heart, thought, and conviction. It’s not a “my way or the highway” scenario. It’s about creating safe environments where teams can thrive and appreciate a wide range of perspectives. It’s about respect. It’s about workplace cultures where people feel safe showing up as they are.

If you’re a CEO and you’re interested in hosting a dinner with me or joining for the next one, please send me a private message. We’re always interested in expanding our wonderful network and the perspectives shared around the table.