I’ve always thought that the reason the Andy Griffith Show is one of the few 60-year-old sitcoms still watchable in reruns is that everyone feels like Sheriff Andy Taylor in life: trying to be amiable, trying to keep the peace, trying to find commonsense solutions for emotionally charged problems, trying to maintain order despite the malcontents, misfits and nitwits who make up our colleagues, our neighbors and our family.
I think leaders are especially given to feeling this way.
And that is how a lot of corporate leaders seem to be feeling these days. And a lot of leaders aren’t accepting it as philosophically as old Ange. Instead, they’re essentially telling everyone to shut up, and if they don’t like it they don’t have to live in Mayberry anymore.
Two items from the last week or so in the Executive Communication Report, which my company publishes:
We reported here a week ago that Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong offered a severance package to any employee unhappy with the company’s new policy of not engaging on political issues. So far 60 employees have taken Armstrong up on his offer to leave, representing 5% of Coinbase’s workforce, Armstrong said yesterday—with more conversations ongoing. “For those of you who have decided to move on, I want to thank you for your contributions to Coinbase and we wish you the very best,” Armstrong wrote in a follow-up blog post yesterday.
The CEO of the Portland software maker New Relic is the latest to tell employees that their criticism isn’t welcome, according to a story in yesterday’s Oregonian. In response to employees who have been critical of his donations to a Christian school that excludes gay students and his wife’s contribution to President Trump’s reelection campaign, CEO Lew Cirne has essentially banned their criticism on internal channels. Admonishing employees to work harder and accusing them of focusing on internal conflict rather than on New Relic customers, Cirne insisted employees sign a new code of conduct for online behavior, one of whose stipulations bans “revisiting a discussion that has already been addressed.” To employees who wished to continue to debate the company’s public response to Black Lives Matter or other social justice issues, Cirne said in a June memo they were free to leave the company. “This matter is off the table for further discussion,” he said.
Well geez, Andy!
But the truth is, you know where these guys are coming from. You feel them if you’re trying to raise family. And you feel them if you’ve ever been in charge of anything.
It is terribly demanding to run a large company, balancing the need to please customers with keeping costs down, paying employees well enough to keep the best ones and satisfying investors with a reasonable return. CEOs trade their lives for those asinine paychecks. They work about 18/7. I know lots of speechwriters who work with CEOs; the veterans don’t even complain about the 3:00 a.m. emails, and I’ve never heard one express the slightest interest in taking the boss’s place.
And suddenly, as a CEO now: You’re finding that all these cross-interested groups are turning to your little old company to also fix the environment, solve systemic racism and arbitrate every other social skirmish in a political donnybrook in the middle of an economy-crushing pandemic? They’re making naive demands in inflammatory language at the most inopportune moment in your organization’s history. Somehow they expect you to turn your automobile company or insurance company or bank into a Hall of Social Justice.
I know exactly how you must feel.
Some of these CEOs haven’t noticed that the entire context of the world their companies are operating in has changed.
Before Donald Trump spoke openly about grasping women by their vaginas and got elected anyway (partly on the strength of male brainstem hatred of his woman opponent), most women basically gave powerful fellas the benefit of the doubt most of the time.
Before President Trump found a thousand ways to affirm the forbidden racial resentments of millions of Americans, Black people expressed their rage in a mutter, and most Black employees didn’t express it at work at all. Didja read in Sunday’s New York Times about “Black LinkedIn”?
Before President Trump confirmed the suspicions of stadiums full of working class people that everyone with a college degree in New York or L.A. or Chicago laughs at them whenever they’re not lying to them, a corporate HR rep didn’t lie awake the night before a visit the Joliet refinery. like she was visiting Joliet prison.
And perhaps most fundamentally, before President Trump spent half a decade blowing the bridges over our nation’s stubborn divisions, people didn’t care much what CEOs thought about social issues, didn’t think they needed companies to solve social problems.
Now these CEOs are running these companies in the context of an unravelling society and they think they ought to be able to run them in the same orderly, strategically focused, on-brand fashion that they did before. We may forgive them for not noticing. As I said, they have been working awfully hard.
Most CEOs actually, albeit anonymously, do seem to understand the consequences of a leaderless, disunited society. A Yale School of Management poll last month found that most CEOs strongly disapprove of Trump’s job performance. “CEOs are not in the business of divisiveness,” said Jeffrey Sonnefeld, Yale’s senior associate dean for leadership studies. “Their jobs are easier if they don’t have a divided nation, workforce and customers.”
It might be more accurate to say their jobs are possible if they don’t have a divided nation, workforce and customers.
None of us understands how much those divisions will be eased by simply removing Trump from office, and most of us are pretty pessimistic about a V-shaped recovery of the social stability that kept a lid on things. And of course many of us aren’t looking for a return to those days, any more than we want to go back to the good old days before unions demanded the eight-hour day and put an end to child labor.
But I predict this management backlash against employee activism will be contained to companies that don’t require wide social permission to operate. And even at those organizations, these CEOs’ temper tantrums will be short-lived. “The episode where Andy lost his cool.” Let’s make a note to check back on Coinbase and New Relic in a couple years.
Most companies and their CEOs? For the foreseeable future, they are going to have to figure out how to be examples of the change their employees, customers and investors want to see in society—or at least, islands of sanity and stability and empathy that their stakeholders need in order to call it a society at all.
And they’re going to have to find a way to steer their companies through a pandemic and a recession in the meantime.
And for CEOs who don’t like it? We want to thank you for your contributions, and we wish you the very best.