As a proud LGBT executive at one of the world’s leading purpose consultancies, I’m taking the occasion of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary to call on corporate leaders to up their personal branding game by infusing it with the purpose more typically reserved for their brands. This Pride month, punctuated by the commemoration of the June 28, 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village that sparked the gay liberation movement, is the perfect time for me to inject more personal purpose into my professional life. When is yours?
Increasingly, this demand for brand purpose has trickled down to a desire for CEO activism. With business and social justice in the era of Trump reinvigorating the anti-gun, climate change and women’s movements among others, people are demanding more from their leaders, C-suiters included.
The New York Times in 2018 published a call-to-action article outlining how CEO activism is the new normal. The story cited a just-released report illustrating that over a third of the more than 1,000 Americans polled are bullish about the phenomenon. Nearly half of the respondents believe CEO activism can influence government policy, and 46 percent shared they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who advocates for causes that concern them.
No longer trying to steer clear of politically or socially controversial issues, today’s business leaders across the spectrum are embracing the power that comes with taking a personal, purposeful stand. Traditionally conservative DOW Chemical now has an openly gay CEO in Jim Fitterling, the first large industrial company with that distinction. Not only does Dow have a completely LGBT-friendly workplace, but Fitterling himself donned rainbow gear and threw out a rainbow baseball for the first pitch in minor league baseball’s Pride Night at Dow Diamond. We all need to be wearing our personal rainbows on our sleeves.
While many workplaces have embraced LGBT rights and made progress in such areas as offering benefits to partners of same-sex marriages, there is still much to be done. Because despite recent advances, workplace issues are still the top concern among callers to Lambda Legal’s Help Desk, according to the NGO whose mission is full LGBT equality. The Supreme Court will next term rule on whether federal employment discrimination laws protect gay, lesbian and transgender employees—a ruling that will have a profound effect on the country’s workplaces, and, by extension, all of us. When it comes to business, we need more positive change from the top. Executives are recognizing that CEO visibility is no longer about celebrity but all about credibility, reputation, authenticity, trust and yes, even the bottom line. Personally aligning with a cause not only has a significant and positive impact on an executive’s company, but on the world at large. As the face of a company, people are demanding more from CEOs. And there’s so much more we can give them.
There are plenty of positive examples. Delta CEO Ed Bastion, whose company ran a one-time Election Day ad urging Americans to focus on “our values of respect, integrity and inclusion” and not the punditry, noise and tweets that have divided the country, has said he had no intention of being an activist CEO, just the best airline CEO possible. “But it requires you to speak on occasion,” he recognized. “And that’s a new role that you see…many of our corporate leaders starting to confront in today’s society. Our customers demand to know where we are on topics.”
We need to start telling—and showing—them. CEO of Levi Strauss Chris Burgh contends it is a “moral obligation” for CEOs to use their weight and influence to impact society for the better, and Apple’s Tim Cook believes every leader’s purpose should be to serve humanity.
This month I may primarily be a Pride activist. But I am more than that. A firm believer in the power of the SDGs to make the world a better place, I urge purposeful leaders to use the UN’s 17 global goals as a guide for better serving humanity, whether their focus is on equality, health, hunger, poverty, climate change or justice. But we must look beyond our own comfort zone and embrace the issues important to our colleagues and clients and encourage them to do the same. We must become the holistic leaders our world needs.
As a gay British Indian executive living in the US, I’m a minority in both the general population and around my profession’s boardroom tables. I’m fortunate to work for a company that embraces its employees in all our diverse glory. But I also have a role and responsibility in the wider struggle. This month, I will be making more than my usual effort to infuse personal purpose into my professional life.
It would serve us all well to remember that personal purpose belongs in the workplace, too.
By Ravi Sunnak, EVP Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Porter Novelli