CEOs on a mission: reimagining CEO activism, development, and difference podcast

In a compelling conversation with Eric Kwame Adae, host Thomas Felix Creighton delves into the evolving role of CEOs in today’s society.

Adae sheds light on the shifting landscape where CEOs are increasingly expected to be more than just guardians of economic prosperity. Drawing from his research and interviews, Adae reveals a growing trend where CEOs are actively engaging in societal issues, from advocating for gender equality and social justice to addressing environmental concerns. He emphasises the importance of CEOs living by example and aligning their internal practices with their external activism, highlighting the impact on talent attraction and brand reputation. Adae underscores the significance of CEO activism in the eyes of millennials and the broader workforce, signalling a pivotal shift towards a new norm where corporate leaders are expected to be vocal agents of positive change.

Speaker profile

Eric Kwame Adae (ah-die), an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, USA. He was a communications consultant for over 15 years in Ghana. Research areas: Afro-centricity, CEO activism, Corporate Social Responsibility / Sustainability, Corporate Social Advocacy, and Social Justice. He is also the author of the book, CEOs on a Mission: Reimagining CEO Activism, Development, and Difference, part of the Emerald series Communicating Responsible Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, for more information on the book series please visit our website.

In this episode:

  • What is CEO Activism?
  • How did you first come to be interested in this topic?
  • how are CEOs redefining their roles?
  • How does CEO activism impact talent attraction?
  • What societal issues are CEOs increasingly engaging with?
  • Why is aligning internal practices with external activism crucial for CEOs?
  • What insights does Eric Kwame Adae provide on the evolving expectations of corporate leaders?

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CEOs on a mission: reimagining CEO activism, development, and difference 

Thomas Felix Creighton (TFC): Hello, welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. My name is Thomas and my guest today is Eric Kwame Adae, an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, USA. He was a communications consultant for over 15 years in Gana. His research areas include Afrocentricity, co activism, corporate social responsibility and sustainability, corporate social advocacy, and social justice. He is also the author of the book CEOs On a Mission, part of the Emerald series, Communicating Responsible Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. For more information on the book series, please visit our website. 

Eric Kwame Adae, thank you very, very much for joining us today.

Eric Kwame Adae (EKA): It's an absolute pleasure for me to be on this call with you to share some thoughts about my research in CEO activism.

TFC: Fantastic. So, you have your book, can I first ask well, what is it? What is it?

EKA: Wow, traditionally, companies are set up to make money or to achieve some strategic goals; they are not normally concerned about greater good causes, what happens in society, social good, race relations, and climate and environmental issues, for example. But we are seeing a certain marked change where companies are beginning to concern themselves with such things that normally are not directly related to making money. They have missions beyond their strategic goals. My research tells me that there are various corporate agents that may be spearheading such initiatives. Sometimes you see the company itself pursuing such causes. Sometimes we also see shareholders or investors doing this kind of activism. We also have some brands like Coca-Cola and Nike pursuing such greater good causes. And then we also have sometimes employees of the organisation pursuing social good. When we talk about CEO activism, we are talking about situations where the CEO, the leader of the organisation, speaks up publicly, takes up public stances on issues that may not be directly related to the ability of their companies to make money. I can give you some examples. For example, in 2012, it's been reported that Dan Cathy, the CEO of the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A in the US, announced its opposition to same-sex marriage on a radio show. Does the public status, for example, also obtain we have another example of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, taking up a column in The Washington Post and registering his outreach at some religious freedom bills that he thinks will legalise discrimination in society. Also, in 2016, we find that over 100 Fortune 500 CEOs signed an open letter in opposition to proposed legislation in North Carolina that would limit transgender individuals' access to public restrooms and other facilities. And also in 2017, we remember the gentleman called former President Donald Trump of the USA. In 2017, on the eve of President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, about 30 CEOs took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, urging him not to do that, that it's ill-advised that he should stay in the climate, in the climate accord and help belong to the positive voices that will be contributing to the welfare of humanity protecting the climate. Yeah. So when we're talking about CEO activism, that's what we're talking about: instances where CEOs as corporate agents, unique corporate agents, are doing something, speaking up, taking action, and concerning themselves with controversial, normally controversial issues that may have nothing to do with the ability of their companies to make money. And my research also indicates, for example, that sometimes some of these stances actually imperil their organisations. So, you wonder, why do they do that?

TFC: What is what is driving this? That was the big question coming to me.

EKA: I mean, my research took me into a basic understanding of why an organisational leader would find himself or herself doing this, and I find that there are so many motivations driving this kind of action. For example, generally, we can talk about the desire for social change. We are seeing what some scholars call democratic deficits in society. When we talk about democratic deficit, we are talking about a wide gulf, a disjuncture between what governments promise and what they're able to deliver. Essentially, what we find on the ground is that governments, politicians have a promise but woefully underdeliver. So there's this deficit or huge democratic gap, which becomes unsettling for business leaders. So in a bid to step into the gap and help bridge it, we find CEOs now feeling the need to do something to become activists, holding placards, seeing when public officials, and doing things like that. We also see that there are some companies that are established to achieve certain missions, rather than money. So we see a certain dichotomy between the pursuit of mission or money. Some wonder whether it's apples, whether it's an either-or situation, but we are seeing that there are some CEOs who are motivated. And because they believe that you can achieve both mission and money, that they are not opposed, right. And whenever those CEOs find that there's something happening in society that affects or runs counter to the mission, the purpose, the reason for which the company is set up, they find the need to do something. For example, let me give you an example. The ice cream brand Ben and Jerry's take into their DNA, they say they stand for peace, love, and ice cream. So when they see that anything is happening in society that threatens the peace, that threatens love, there is some hatred, there's some ill will, or there's some discrimination against some section of society, mainly the vulnerable in society, they feel the need to do something. And we've heard organisations like Google and the like, who have invested in building certain social justice issues in society. So when they see that these things are being threatened, it's the status and erosion of the investment they've made in society, they see it as an affront to their social investment. So the CEOs fight the need to now defend their turf, right, to do something. So we have corporate purposes driving this, we have the desire for social change driving this, but we also find that there are some CEOs who do this purely based on their personal convictions and their background characteristics. Some come from a background of adversity. So they have this fellow feeling, this empathy for people, the vulnerable in society. And because of that background, now they see themselves walking the corridors of power, but they are still ensued because of the background with the challenges, the problems, the headaches, the sleeplessness that are there spaces society, and they feel the need to do something. So these are some of the motivations, but we also see that some companies or CEOs engage in activism as calculated business decisions. They do it because it helps them to achieve, not because it helps them to advance welfare in society outside or only will advance the welfare in society, but because it helps them to also achieve their business goals.

TFC: Okay, is this similar in some way related to say, a few years ago? We're talking about the rise of the ethical investor and the ethical consumers? Does this relate?

EKA: Yeah, it relates to that very much. So you're trying to be ethical, but when you dig deeper, you see that that ethical standpoint may well be just a veneer. It is very performative. And the major reason why you will find that they are doing some of these things may be to be able to achieve their business goals. For example, my interview, my research in Ghana, on one particular CEO, who says, "Wow, I'm an activist because, you know, Eric, we are a financial institution. And because of my economic activism that I do, questioning the political or the economic policies of the government of Ghana, that has positioned me and my company as good stewards of economic resources. And because of that public image, we are able to pick up funds from the various funding sources in the country at about 2% lower than our competitors. That means that our cost of sales is lower, and if we are able to now un-lend, we have a wider spread." That's a clear reason why people do activism, but I sought out to do research within the African context. And I found that there are some unique Afro-centric motivations driving this CEO activism in the country of Ghana. One motivation I found was the philosophy or worldview, some core characters, characters is a very interesting worldview, is the idea that, "Wow, you have to be your brother's keeper as we learn in the Bible." For example, if you're a powerful person in society, it doesn't mean that you should be divorced and be cruel, and only be focused on making money, that your good your value in society depends how much on how helpful you are to others, how merciful you are, your loving kindness, empathy towards other people in society. So we find that these issues of a God of faith-derived call on CEOs to be better people, to be better human beings, and to belong to the positive voice in society also drives them to be activists. And then there's this unique Afro-centric philosophy we call Ubuntu. Very interesting. This is Zulu time Bucha says Zulu philosophy. That simply means that I am because you are, or I am because of others. Essentially, what we are trying to say is that if you are powerful, you are rich, you are famous, you are a chief, or traditionally that you have politician society, your value is not judged so much by how well you do for yourself. Your value for society is not based on how much money you have in your account. It's not based on the size of your bank account. It's not based on the engine capacity of your car, it's not big, or how monstrous your car is, how huge it is, or what kind of mansion or Villa you live in, by your values, society is measured mainly according to your social impact. How many people are you able to lift up? So the idea of rising by lifting others up? That is the Bucha philosophy. And I find that this idea is a strong motivation for CEOs in Ghana, to become activists. I also learned that another strong motivation is the notion of free capitalism, which we must try to dissociate or divorce from neoliberal capitalism. When we talk about neoliberal capitalism, it's all about dog eat dog, making money being competitive and being the winner being the baddest. But when we talk about Africa, this is the idea that Africa really needs the private sector businesses to step in, and contribute meaningfully by being inclusive by promoting inclusive capitalism, and helping to develop the society. So that way, if you are a company, your role is not just to make money for yourself, your role is also supposed to be to contribute and help develop by partnering with various individuals by various organisations, with the government, with other organisations with the international community and development partners. It's an idea that was a management philosophy that was introduced by a gentleman called Tony Elumelu, who is a Nigerian businessman and owns a group of companies including United Bank for Africa, UBA group, right, and he advocated for this, and I find that this is a very strong motivation also for CEO activism. And then finally, a unique motivation I found is some notions of postmodernism. Within management philosophy, in a way, we can talk about two main types of ideologies, right? Some lean towards what to call modernism, which is the dominant paradigm, where it's the corporate interests that should hold sway at all times. Everything that is done should a nail to the benefit of the corporation, but we are friendly, that wow, there are some postmodern values, where the organisational system is seen as power play. And people can use the resources that they have within the organisation, their position, for great effect for the advancement of society, even if it means working sometimes against the corporate interests. You see that that runs counter to the modernist perspective and we find that there are CEOs who are doing this and sometimes they stand against the interests of the organisation, they sacrifice their corporate advantages in order to promote or provide the great things that will be to the greater good. So these are some of the motivations that are fine. 

TFC: I'm very interested if you can give me some examples of CEOs you've seen in Africa, who are, who are doing this. 

EKA: Wow, there are so many CEOs in Africa we can talk about. I mean, politely, I refer to Tony Elumelu. Already, he has been advocating and calling on the private sector businesses to step into the gap and try to develop the society through his notion of Africa capitalism. So he has been an advocate for Africa totalism, where he's talking about a different ideology for companies to become more positive and contribute more meaningfully to the society. That is one. There is this group that they call Executive Women Network. This is a group of women CEOs. You know, Ghana, generally in Africa, is a very patriarchal society. But a few women have broken the proverbial glass ceiling and they have risen to the commanding heights of corporations, and they are running. Some are leading banks like Barclays, some are running start chat, some are running many other powerful media organisations, and the like. And they've come together to form this Executive Women Network. And they are advocating for increased gender diversity within corporations. We find within corporations, especially when it comes to top management and the boardrooms, women are poorly represented. So these women have been advocating and fighting to improve gender diversity in management of corporations in Ghana and on the boards. That's another group that we can talk about. In 2019, Ghana is an imagined democracy with this current fourth democratic experiment. We are the fourth democracy in a constitutional rule in Ghana, and in 2019, there was an interesting situation where a business leader called Juliet Yaa Asantewaa Asante became very unsettled and went on a protest march. Because what has happened, whenever there is an election in the country, it turns bloody, it becomes like a no winner takes all thing. It becomes like a do or die affair. She realised that this was very explosive that those political vigilantes would perpetrate violence during elections, the boos goons and mature men who go about intimidating people causing fear and panic. That's not good enough. So she went on a demonstration, one-woman demonstration, carrying placards and challenging the politicians, calling on the President to ban and prescribe such things. And it led to positive results. That's another example. So Thomas, I'll give you one more example. There's this gentleman who runs a TV station called City TV in Ghana. He also runs the FM station called City FM, and the city online that his name is somewhere atop Mensa. What he did was that in 2019, he realised that as a people in Ghana, although we produce rice, which is one of the staple crops in the country, Ghanians tend to favor foreign imported rice, rice imported from outside from Thailand, from Bangladesh, from China, from Singapore. And they've acquired a taste for foreign rice. And that makes us as a country that is poor as developing, we spend a little foreign exchange resources, we have to import more and more of those produce, right to neglect of our own local varieties. So he went on on a rampage, I'll say on social and was advocating for all Ghanians in the lead-up to the Christmas festivities, which is when we consume a lot of rice, calling of Ghanians to patronise locally grown rice. That has nothing to do with his business of running a TV station and register online an online platform. But that was what he did. It was a very effective campaign. And that encouraged and emboldened many local rice brands to come up more. And then what he posted this after, will break your heart. He said that wow. And now all the companies that had contracts advertising contract to advertise their foreign important rice on his TV or radio stations, cancel those contracts, there is a big deal. He doesn't care. Because Ghana wins, because he knows he has achieved his goal of promoting locally grown rice. That's some examples of CEO activists that you can talk of. There are so many more. But let's live.

TFC: That is fascinating. And I'm wondering, having lived in China, where people don't normally debate politicians, but they will debate CEOs, CEOs have a much higher profile in China than they do in the West, in my experience. Do you find there's a difference between how CEOs are looked at in West Africa compared to say the USA?

EKA: Well, how you are looked at as a CEO within the African context, I think depends on what you advocate, how you posture yourself relative to issues that matter to people. Is your activism regarded as progressive activism? Or is it just neutral because you sit on the fence? Or can your activism be deemed regressive because you also speak out in ways that drive the clock of progress backwards? So if your activism is more positive, which means that you are living according to the Ubuntu values, where you are doing things to help others rather than to hurt other people, then people will hold you in high regard, support you, and defend you. But if your actions are seen to be either neutral, meaning you are sitting on the fence, or are seen as rather supporting the negative voices in society, then people will come at you.

TFC: Yeah, because presumably, if people strongly disagree with the CEO, they will not buy. 

EKA: Yes, there's a strong effect. Actually, my research, interestingly, found that there's a strong correlation between the kind of actions that a CEO takes and some business outcomes, right. And in fact, I found a certain hierarchy of effects, which creates the impression of an inverted pyramid, where when you see your activism, it can produce positive outcomes for the society, for example, deepening democracy, protecting the environment, fighting for the rights of women, children, and girls in society, improving gender diversity in boardrooms and in management. Yeah, those are positive outcomes, right, empowering the youth. But then, I also found below this wider societal outcomes, which generally are positive, I also found that there may be a mixed bag of outcomes for the CEO's company and the CEO's person itself, right. So it's a mixed bag, for example. So CEO activism can be associated with what good outcomes for the company, where people It positively influences purchase decisions, people's intention to buy your product or services, if you are a good CEO, that is doing activism that promotes the general welfare of people in society, people tend to favor your brand, prefer your company, and the product offerings, and they buy more of what you have to offer. But when you don't do activism, or when you speak to issues that harm other people, then people can take up concern against you. All right. Another benefit of activism to the company is obviously when you speak to greater good issues, for example, the media covers those issues, they cover what you're saying. So there's some media profiling, there's some publicity value that you can you can end you place your organisation in a good light. For example, one CEO that I spoke to said that while they hardly spent any money on advertising because he has positioned himself as a CEO activist, and is always punching holes in economic policies of the government of Ghana. And whenever he speaks on those controversial issues, the media pick instance up the interview, he's always on the TV stations talking about it, and he's always introduced as a CEO of blah, blah, blah, company and all that. So, his activism has some promotional value. But then there are some negative consequences for companies as well. The government can come very hard on you. Yeah, a big part of that is the, you know, the unleash, they are what are called their Rottweilers or the various Food and Drug Administration, the various supervisory and regulatory bodies can be can be unleashed on you where they are always breathing down your back your neck, asking for this. Ask to come to this audit and that audit to the extent that you not, we will not have the time, the mind space to even focus on your core business. 

TFC: I'm thinking of an example in China, well known a well known CEO who said the right things was much loved. And then he criticised the government, and suddenly he had a tax audit. That did not go very well for him. 

EKA: Yeah, yeah. And, also, some if you are a CEO, people can now shun your company. There are people who feel to do business with you because of your activist stance. Right? And because they say that they that touch pitch, get their hands thing, so they don't want to touch you, right in order to be associated with you. But it can also come with negative repercussions. If you are a co-activist, I find that some have been threatened. Some have been bullied online, some have lost their jobs, especially if you don't own the company that you run. Yeah. Yep. So you can be fired. And some have been arrested and detained. Some have gone jogging and people want to run them over with cars. Some have had their tires slashed at car parks, their brakes tampered with, it can be a very dangerous thing to do.

TFC: Yeah. And I'm curious, we're talking about companies representing themselves externally. If they're saying these things to the public, are they doing these things inside the company? 

EKA: Ah, so. So one topic that I find also important is what I can describe as activism by living by example. Yes. So what some of the CEOs kept telling me is that you cannot be doing something externally while doing the adverse within your company. You cannot be championing gender freedom, women's rights, social protection, while being oppressive towards your own employees. So you have to practice what you preach internally. Because people are going to see, and they're going to see whether your actions are just hypocritical, whether they're just a cover-up, whether they're just a veneer for you to achieve profit, derive profit, or whether you really mean it. And one way one acid test for that is for them to see how you run your company, how you treat your employees, you promoting di within the organisation, if you are busily carrying placards and issuing statements, fighting laws that discriminate against transgender, LGBTQ, and other people in society, what are the policies within your company? Are they in tune with what you're doing externally? Or do they run counter to it?

TFC: Absolutely. And it's an interesting move that companies seem to need to be more and more open, which isn't always what they want. 

EKA: Yeah, well, whether it's not a choice of whether you want to be open or not, people will always shine the spotlight, especially in this modern era of social media. Where communication has been, I'll say democratised, people can form brand calls, and come together various brand groups, Consumer Action Groups, and they will shine the light, and they will expose airing entities in the society, including companies. So we may get away for a short while. But I think it's it's in your own long-term, sustainable interests for you, as an organisation for you, as a CEO to really mean what you do, and be very honest, have a higher purpose of protecting and be a positive role in society.

TFC: I'm curious from what you're saying, Do you think this has really changed what a CEO is like what what we need from a CEO?

EKA: I think it's changed because even the CEOs themselves that I interviewed keep saying that they are seeing a certain evolution of the traditional role of a CEO that takes them beyond just safeguarding the economic prosperity of their companies, that if you I see your job description does not only include running your business efficiently, but also being a good voice in society, that people expect CEOs to actually speak on issues because if something has gone wrong in society, something bad is happening in society, and you are not able to leverage your wealth, your celebrity status in society, you are a star if you I see you, right. You are not a mere mortal. You are a person of substance of some means. People expect you to leverage that to fight for the welfare of all people that if you don't speak and you decide to remain in your own silo. US Then as supporting the wrong things in society. When people vote with their pounds, they vote with their dollars and vote with their fitness for or against your brand and your company.

TFC: So, CEOs have no choice but to be activists they must. 

EKA: Yes, it's expected. Actually, there's research that supposes that millennials, especially the more youthful population, they expect CEOs to speak on such matters and when they are looking for places to work, their research is very vocal in shouting, screaming that when you are activists, especially when you take on issues that matter to core stakeholders of your organisation, it has a direct effect in determining your ability to attract top talent. So for example, millennials and other youthful populations, before deciding where to go or whether to stay in the employment of a company, it is determined by the kind of actions that the company takes, and the actions of the CEO, the actions of the investors or shareholders and the like. I can't wait for this to become more routinised, more normalised, and to be expected as a normal thing for companies and their leaders to be doing.

TFC: Thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about the Emerald book series Communicating Responsible Diversity, Equity and Inclusion which includes CEOs on a Mission, please visit our website. For more information about Eric and for a transcript of today's episode, please see our show notes on our website. I would like to thank Daniel red for his help for today's episode. And also Alex Jungus. From this is distorted. You've been listening to the Emerald podcast series