CEOs and the modern era of social representation.

“If they want to run for politics, well, you know, resign from their position, stick their hand up at the next election, but don’t jam your politically correct views down our throats.”

So said the Hon. Peter Dutton MP a few weeks back in response to a letter penned by CEOs of some of the country’s largest companies which urged legislation on same-sex marriage. He continued with, “it is unacceptable that people have used… shareholder’s money, to try to throw their weight around in these debates.” He was referring to Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas.

In words intended for Andy Penn, he said Telstra would be “better off cleaning up call centre operations” and “once all that’s done…concentrate on these other fringe issues.”

It’s a lot to digest. Especially that ‘fringe’ bit. And once you have, deal with the turbulence it creates in the bowels.

So, rather than analyse the semantics and sub text in the thesis it deserves (if you find one, we’d love to read it), let’s focus on the question of representation: should CEOs have a voice on social issues and, if so, who do they represent?

But, first of all, who does Peter Dutton represent? The minister was elected by the good people of the Dickson electorate north of Brisbane. 44.56% of the electors voted for the LNP: that’s 44,880 people. It’s not clear how many of them support legislation of same sex marriage although all recent polling indicates around 60% of Australians support it (less for Coalition voters than Labor voters).

Per available (credible) data, Telstra employs 36,000 people and has 16 million customers. Employees consistently report that the values of a business factor highly in their decision to work there. Customers vote with their wallets every day: after price, reputation plays a key role in decision making. And then there is identity. Telstra is an iconic Australian brand. Most, if not all, Australians expect its behaviour to reflect the values of the nation – including that celebrated, ‘fair go for all’.

Shareholders? They want steady or increasing returns which means high performing employees, more customers and, increasingly, positive social impact.

Why is Peter Dutton so threatened?

It could be his personal views on the issue but that would be, well, unrepresentative. Or it could be that he knows what we all know: the political system we have inherited is not working in a world that moves too fast and welcomes diverse views transparently debated online all day, every day. The infatuation with polling is understandable – it is all we have (politicians and voters) to get a sense of sentiment in the timeframes required.

I have purposefully used the words ‘modern era’ and not ‘new era’ in the title of this article. In the early and mid nineteenth century, companies drew their workers from local communities and sold goods back to them. They played a key role in the education, healthcare and community cohesion of local societies; they profited from the sales that grew with expanding populations.

In 2017, the jobs are often offshore. However, it is the ability of people to mobilise digitally around issues and then express themselves at scale through interactions – transactions, boycotts, etc – that has seen a return to company representation on social issues. CEOs need to have a position on issues that matter to their employees, customers and the communities in which they operate. In fact, it is often more uncomfortable and incongruous when they don’t have a position.

Australian CEOs have done the numbers and they are working out how the brands they lead can mobilise people for social and business benefit.

We’re here to help.

Talk to us about shared value strategy and social mobilisation campaigns.