Jun 10, 2020 - Economy

The stark new reality for American CEOs

Illustration of a weathervane with a briefcase on top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big or small, new or old, every business in America is witnessing a new reality — and a whole new set of unwritten workplace rules and unambiguous expectations.

Why it matters: Any CEO who ignores this bottom-up revolution will suffer public backlash, recruitment and retention challenges, and fits of internal turmoil.

There’s no market for half-assed diversity and inclusion efforts: This was true before the renewed focus on racism but will be an urgent essential for many years to come, thanks to the public response to the George Floyd murder.

  • This means constant conversation and action internally, including quicker, more decisive moves on increasing the number of people of color at work and in leadership, and taking time to truly understand the perspectives and realities of those who look or think or live differently than you.
  • Since 2018, we have increased the percentage of people of color at Axios from 14% to 37%. But we still suffer from too little racial diversity at the executive and editorial leadership level, so we have work to do.

Quit ducking uncomfortable conversations: CEOs are often more cautious and contrived than politicians when it comes to tough staff-wide conversations about race, LGBTQ issues, idealism or topics beyond business performance. You will have no credibility when you slip up or need it if you choose silence over authentic transparency.

  • If they cannot speak authentically to these issues, leaders need to listen and learn authentically. It is amazing how much tension and suspicion gets eased with an honest ear.

Doing good is no longer a niche. It's a necessity: The judgment CEOs feared most in the past was pesky reporters or regulators. The judgment they should fear the most now is idealistic employees on the inside and the social media warriors on the outside.

  • The balance of power has shifted in ways that baffle some business leaders — but make no mistake, staff can force changes overnight.
  • You have no choice but to take stands and do good — and make it very clear internally and externally what matters to you beyond profit. Otherwise, people will be quick to assume negative intent when bad things happen.
  • Leaders need to show and highlight the good their organization does with the same passion as selling a product.

The new employee expectation: Talented people have almost unlimited opportunities in today’s distributed world, so they expect — and can often demand — constant communications, true transparency and the chance to do good while also working.

  • Post-coronavirus, the flexibility to work from wherever will be as ubiquitous as snacks or paid time off at top performing companies.
  • We have found the new generation will work as hard or harder than we did if we provide this clarity of purpose and rolling, unvarnished dialogue.

The bottom line: The virus and renewed focus on racism have greatly accelerated the pace of the bottom-up revolution. The next wave of great leaders will adapt their styles and organizations to harness the passion — the weaker ones will be paralyzed and pummeled by it. 

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