By Stephanie Redlener, Leadership Coach and Managing Director of Talent Strategy, DDG
Recently, Tiffany & Co. became more than a luxury jewelry company. By printing an ad in The New York Times pleading with the president to keep the U.S. in the Paris Climate Agreement, they join a small (but powerful) group of brands that have decided that staying silent in this turbulent time is simply no longer an option.
Before the 2016 election and a 24/7 cycle of politically charged news and opinion, business leaders touted the value of being a “purpose-driven” company, a largely popular idea about leading with well-defined core values like inclusion, equality, diversity and sustainability. They believed this would have a positive impact on everything from recruiting millennials to engaging with consumers online, and maybe even change the world. And while this is important and many businesses have indeed been able to leverage these kinds of values to spread their brand message, attract talent with integrity and help drive a unified culture, it’s time for leaders to up the ante. With individuals of all types taking a stand against injustices through the Women’s March, the March for Science and the Tax Day March, the pressure is greater than ever for business leaders to show courage and strength in the form of a real POV, and take a stand on the issues we’re facing today. Because if they don’t, they risk losing their people.
Leaders have a responsibility to lead, which means communicating their values to their employees to build trust and confidence. Employees want to know that the values of their company are aligned with their own, and that their leaders are brave enough to stand up for them even in highly polarizing times. Employees want, expect, and increasingly demand that their presidents, CEOs and founders take a real action and provide guidance through what have been and will surely continue to be chaotic and emotionally stressful times. They want to be reminded of the type of company they're working for, and that the company they’re working for cares. After all, we can’t just expect people to go about their work like nothing's happening.
The current lack of inspiring political leadership in our society places an obligation on business leaders to become role models through actions rather than just words for their business and their talent. It’s also a rare opportunity for these leaders to realize their full potential and rally and excite their people around authentic, shared causes. People are craving connection and purpose during these unsettling times.
Tiffany & Co. isn’t the only brand that’s willing to prove their courage of late. Patagonia has regularly been standing up to the Trump administration. Their latest move was to take out a full-page ad to defend the U.S.’s national monuments, something that Trump has threatened. Ford spoke out against the travel ban and made its pro-refugee stances known. And tech giants including Apple and Google issued statements opposing the Trump administration’s decision to revoke Obama era protections of transgender students in public schools. All of these companies are making moves that reflect their reliance on diverse workers who need to know that their employers have their best interests in mind. But the examples are too few and far between.
Now that doesn't mean leaders have to take an overtly political stance and risk alienating workers – and consumers - but rather they should double down on their company's mission, values and belief system and show a commitment to that. Instead of coming out for or against the Trump administration, they could make a statement about how they feel about certain policies that support or counteract their companies' fundamental values -- i.e. equality in the workplace, etc. But even beyond making your mission known, live it out in tangible and public ways. This is the only way for employees and consumers to band together to achieve these goals.
These stances will not be uniformly popular (is anything anymore?), but they will prove that these companies believe in something, and their leaders are brave enough to stand up for it. The travel ban was only one of many tests to come. Now is the time for leaders to dig deep, soul search, have hard, productive talks with their staff about where they stand on a wide range of issues, and prepare themselves to stand for what they believe in. Fear leads to inaction, and right now we need courage, authenticity and action.