In today’s politically charged environment, it isn’t uncommon for companies to want to stay out of politics. “We need to remain neutral,” is a common refrain – especially from smaller companies. And why not? Political rhetoric, divisiveness and partisanship is now an epidemic in this country. And, for so many leaders it makes sense that they would want to avoid the topic entirely.
In order to stay neutral, or to avoid the third rail the topic has become, some companies have tried, and failed, to discourage political discussions within their organization altogether. When Basecamp recently tried to ban workplace conversations about politics completely, a third of their employees resigned in protest. When Fortune surveyed Fortune 500 CEOs on whether or not they have a responsibility to speak out on important social and political issues, or if they thought CEOs have gotten too involved in commenting on social and political issues and need to pull back, the answer was split evenly down the middle: 50% said to keep it up; 50% said to pull back. Engaging politically has become a wedge issue.
However, employees feel differently. Not only are employees becoming more interested in politics (perhaps as a result of the country becoming more polarized) but they also expect their employer to take a stance on current societal or cultural issues. A recent survey conducted by Gartner found that three-quarters of employees expect their employer to take a stance on current societal or cultural issues, even if those issues have nothing to do with their employer. Moreover, 68% would consider quitting their current job and working with an organization with a stronger viewpoint on the social issues that matter most to them.
For tech leaders especially, it has never been more important to be politically aware. This can be challenging, especially for smaller companies that never contemplated becoming politically active. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic PLC and now a senior fellow at Harvard Business School said, “If you look at the typical CEO’s preparation, there’s nothing in their background that prepares them for these types of activities.” And why should there be? Just five or six years ago, not only was staying neutral acceptable, it was expected.
But times have changed. Not only are tech CEOs now expected to engage on social issues, but it is increasingly more important for them to also engage on political issues too. While large tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google have all been hauled in front of Congress recently, smaller tech firms are not immune from politics. President Biden’s upcoming Infrastructure package pours billions of dollars into AI research, high speed Internet access and cybersecurity. Just recently, the White House launched AI.gov, a site dedicated to a new National Artificial Intelligence Initiative. Tech leaders from both large and small companies should play a key role in informing and persuading Congress to fund these much-needed initiatives.
The biggest question then is, how to start? While engaging politically can take many different forms, there are a few things that most CEOs should be doing, regardless:
First, understand the political landscape that surrounds you. Who is your State Representative, State Senator, Governor? Which party controls the state legislature? When does the state legislature meet? Who represents you in Congress – both in the House and the Senate? These are questions that every CEO should know the answer to, regardless of how frequently they want to engage politically.
Second, understand how the relevant topics to your industry are being framed politically, and come up with your own POV. Are you a cybersecurity provider? You should have a thought-out POV on reporting requirement regulations, and ways the private sector and public sector can work together to combat cyber threats. While none of this means you have to speak out publicly, it’s important to have a well-prepared POV on these issues.
Lastly, keep in mind that inaction is a form of action. No POV can still be inferred as a POV both externally and internally. Not taking a public position on a topic that is relevant to your industry can still affect your day-to-day business as well as your company’s reputation.
Now more than ever, it is important for tech leaders to not shy away from politics. Instead, take the time to learn how to navigate the political process, strategically plan out your communications strategy, and engage. Whether it be actively meeting with members of Congress to inform them on why funding AI or high-speed Internet is needed, or penning an op-ed voicing your POV, companies and their leaders should not shy away from the big issues and the tough conversations.