Superhero or mere mortal: Should chief executives risk being human?

As published in Atlanta Business Chronicle Leadership Trust on June 22, 2021.

Anyone who runs a company is acutely aware of the heightened expectations for businesses’ role in society — daily headlines call for heroic navigation of the complexities of life and business. Employees and consumers demand near perfection in the messages delivered by their CEOs. But does the current climate require chief executives to be infallible, or could the answer lie in simply demonstrating more humanity?

This conversation isn’t existential; it’s bottom-line crucial.

I run an initiative called goBeyondProfit, which recently released a report exploring this topic, capturing the opinions and reflections of Georgia senior business executives as well as employed adults. The comparative analysis provides some surprises and a great deal of clarity.

Businesses are being judged more closely on how they care for people inside the office as well as out in the world around them. The uncertainty of success leaves leaders clamoring for a road map that somehow increases loyalty and wards off pitfalls.

Importantly, senior executives express a genuine willingness to contribute their business resources and acumen to solve societal ills. An astonishing 96% of executives plan to maintain or increase their generous activities. According to the report, 84% of senior executives feel the increased expectations, and name purpose/values (60%) and love/empathy (20%) as the reason they are embracing the elevated demands on their role. They simply do not want to break their business in the process.

The research reinforces the business value in leaning into these thoughtful intentions. A striking 83% of those surveyed consider business generosity important, and a significant number (67%) expect more from the businesses in their lives. Sixty percent of survey participants consider a company’s generosity when deciding where to work. Seventy-seven percent said they factor in generosity when deciding where to buy, and 61% will pay more for brands they deem generous. Most of these bottom-line influences have seen a statistically significant rise year over year.

The data highlights serious employee and consumer action beyond mere consideration. The vast majority of consumers (73%) have already switched brands, shared their opinion or changed their purchasing behavior based on what they saw and heard from a company. And leaders should consider the implications of the fact that 41% of employees surveyed claim they left a company, pursued a new opportunity — or perhaps more detrimental — stayed but became a disgruntled employee. Unmistakably, this elevated willingness to act directly impacts a company’s financial future.

The data makes a powerful argument for demonstrating humanity because, let’s not forget, chief executives are actually human. A trusted adviser and former Fortune 100 CEO shared with me that most chief executives aren’t obvious superhero material. They have spent their years focused on the numbers: cost-benefit analysis, operations and shareholder optimization. The pandemic accelerated the demand for leaders to demonstrate empathy, transparency and vulnerability — soft skills historically undervalued because they aren’t the sort of things required for quarterly filings.

When I talk with those filling the top seat in their company, I hear more than ever just how mortal they feel: exhausted, exposed yet optimistic and cautious in this charged, emotional landscape. Thoughtful leaders admit the weight of responsibility — people rely on them for their fundamental well-being and financial security.

What is a practical road map that helps executives accept the challenge before them? The checklist I advise prioritizes deeply human leadership attributes and a values-based corporate compass:

  • Name and embody company values. Focus on defining and demonstrating core company values with consistency. Ensure all senior leaders and company operations reinforce those values. Claim and communicate a purpose beyond profit that encapsulates your values and energizes all your stakeholders.
  • Choose if and when to speak up based on company values. Lean on company values as guardrails for what to say and do — and when to stay silent. Align public statements (and lack thereof) with the highest needs of employees and the business.
  • Communicate with empathy often. Communicate frequently, especially with employees. Infuse empathy for all stakeholders into decision-making and resulting communications. Acknowledge the strains, letting them know you care and what you plan to do about it. When it comes to hard conversations, be seen as an active listener and empathetically explain why decisions are in the best interest of the company.
  • Put words into action. Let people know you have plans in place that prioritize employee wellness and healthy communities. Then be sure to show them with concrete actions. For instance, prioritize your plans to make the workplace more equitable and inclusive, reduce or mitigate your environmental impact, and maintain your charitable investments. Don’t forget that today’s community needs represent tomorrow’s business crisis.

The past year required heroic effort for many Georgia businesses to stay afloat. But data on employee sentiment and stakeholder activism make attempts to avoid the ever-rising expectations for more generosity ill-advised and possibly catastrophic. The risks are clear and the rewards are attainable. The answers lie somewhere in the practice of being genuinely, empathetically human.