Article By

Donna Kennedy-Glans
Donna Kennedy-Glans
Donna Kennedy-Glans, LLB, QC, Author of Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022) and Corporate Integrity: A Toolkit for Managing beyond Compliance (Wiley, 2005). Donna has 30+ years of experience in the global energy sector, working on projects in over 35 countries then served as an elected politician and cabinet minister in Canada.
Jim Kerr
James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr is a sought-after consultant, coach, keynote speaker and author with 6 popular business books to his credit. He was named a Global Gurus Top 30 Thought Leader and a Thinkers360 Top 10 Leadership Thinker in 2022. His popular podcast The Indispensable Conversation is known for its provocative business ideas and insights.

As trust and faith in elected officials continues to diminish many are looking to businesses for leadership. Businesses should expect to be called upon to fill the gaps. While most business leaders are comfortable sharing succinct mission, vision and value statements, the authors encourage more expansive story-telling about the corporate vision as a means to preempt conflict. This includes crafting a vision for a company’s culture that accommodates a wide range of people with differing points of views and an expectation that staff respect each other’s differences and look to learn from one another through polite and respectful dialogue.  

Corporate leaders need to anticipate both the growing pressure to take a stand on emerging issues, and the backlash. For some businesses, failure to prepare can become an existential crisis. Based on decades of experience guiding corporate leaders through tricky situations, the authors of this article recommend a deeper understanding of the evolving expectations of business leaders in political space and associated risks, and as well, identify proactive steps that can be taken by private sector organizations.  

Most business leaders carefully sidestep entanglement in divisive issues—especially, any issues exuding the faintest whiff of politics. Yet the private sector is increasingly being dragged into fraught political space and there is pressure on business leaders to pick a side in emerging and polarizing social issues. When corporate leaders choose to take a stand on a sensitive issue—transgender rights or climate change, for example—these positions can raise the ire of political actors holding different points of view.  

There is pressure on business leaders to pick a side in emerging and polarizing social issues

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others, for example, are pushing back against “woke capitalists”, even punishing companies that dare to take a contrary stand. And with the risk of global proxy wars turning into hot wars, the to-and-fro between the private and public sectors is likely to remain mutable.  

Corporate leaders can no longer avoid the politics  

Like it or not, companies play a role in the political process; individual businesses have to be clear about what their role will be and tread carefully. As Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek learned the hard way, corporate statements on sensitive issues like transgender rights can be weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. For those companies that choose to play a role in finding solutions to hot-button issues, explicit and ongoing conversations with like-minded stakeholders and corporate critics are essential to map out when and how and why their company will take a political stand. These are corporate stories that need to be told, preferably as a pre-emptive strategy and not in reaction to crisis.  

Discerning all of the potential landmines within a complex, emotionally-charged terrain is not easy for companies; Coca- -Cola’s reaction to the divisive Black Lives Matter movement is illustrative. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in June 2020, Coca-Cola acknowledged the company’s duty to Black people in America, echoing the corporation’s response nearly thirty years earlier when Rodney King was beaten by police. Coca-Cola positioned itself in the Black Lives Matter debate in a very deliberate way, through collaboration with likeminded advocates.  

But in 2021, the company hit a political wall when activists, customers and a powerful coalition of Black executives pressured Coca-Cola to take a stand in opposing legislation advanced by Republicans in the State of Georgia to restrict voting access. This expectation was a step outside of the company’s comfort zone and their executive team declined to take a partisan position, precipitating calls for boycotts of Coca-Cola’s products. After the legislation was signed into law, the company pledged to “work to advance voting rights and access in Georgia and across the country.” For many, this promise was too little, too late.  

Further, the Walt Disney Company faced a similar quandary. Disney’s initial strategy—to keep out of the spotlight and remain silent during the debate on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill—triggered a barrage of criticism from employees and the LGBTQ+ community. In response, Disney CEO Bob Chapek publicly apologized: “I missed the mark in this case but am an ally you can count on—and I will be an outspoken champion for the protections, visibility, and opportunity you deserve.”  

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, agreed to meet with Chapek but publicly questioned the role of companies in sensitive public policy debates: “And so in Florida, our policies got to be based on the best interest of Florida citizens, not on the musing of woke corporations.” Things got worse when lawmakers in Florida revoked Disney World’s designation as a special tax district, a privilege the company has held for fifty-five years.  

Discerning all of the potential landmines within a complex, emotionally-charged terrain is not easy for companies

More recently, Republican state treasurers in the United States are deploying strategies to punish businesses that they believe are unduly focused on environmental issues. The treasurer of West Virginia used a new state law to ban five financial firms (Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and BlackRock) from doing business in West Virginia because the companies were backing away from fossil fuels. It’s impossible to predict where this will all end. And on top of all this domestic tension building between the public and private sectors, there is a war in Ukraine and nervousness about Taiwan that could force corporate leaders to become entangled in global politics. What unfolded in Russia in the early part of 2022 was unprecedented. Hundreds of global businesses voluntarily suspended their operations in that country, in response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the absence of legal sanctions, companies as diverse as McDonalds, BP, Harley-Davidson, Amazon, Baker Botts, Deloitte, Starbucks, and 3M simply walked away. These decisions were not virtue-signaling, public-relations gestures. There were immediate, direct and significant financial, operational and reputation consequences for these businesses.  

Things have changed. Forty years ago, there was not a rush of global businesses exiting from operations in apartheid South Africa. Legal sanctions were debated, but often got caught up in partisan tangles. Conservative political leaders at that time, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, preferred “constructive engagement” to divestment. John Major, Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, then said divestment would “feed white consciences outside South Africa, not black bellies within it.” Global companies faced stern anti-apartheid advocacy, often led by faith leaders using the language of morality, yet for many years, companies that chose to remain invested in South Africa had political cover. General Motors, then the largest employer of Blacks in apartheid South Africa, did not divest until 1986.  

Start by imagining the possibilities. Ask a very basic question: “What can this company become?”

Many corporate leaders we have worked with prefer to not get entangled in anything remotely political for fear of being tainted, co-opted or compromised. Yet it is nearly impossible to run a business today without rubbing up against politics. As companies pulling out of investments in Russia or facing the censure of Republican politicians are learning in real time, there may be times when you have no choice but to take a political stand. Your company does not want to become a lightning rod for powerful critics and it is also very difficult to manage an organization in crisis-response mode. How can your organization navigate this fraught space with greater confidence?  

We have some ideas for you to prepare your organization, preserve your business and provide stability that may be missing.  

Take a proactive step to help your company weather the storm  

Most business leaders are familiar with the design of succinct mission, vision and value statements; while necessary, we are suggesting that these tired and uninspired statements that appear on corporate websites and stream from corporate rafters are not sufficient. You know the ones: “We value diversity and inclusion.”  

Or “We’re dedicated to being stewards of Planet Earth and we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure our operations and investments are managed in ways that reduce negative ecological and environmental impacts.”  

Or: “We are passionate about understanding and responding to customer needs for privacy. Our technology-based solutions operate across key stages of our customers’ work flow. Our products are demonstrably superior to our competitors.”  

These kinds of corporate statements read like motherhood and apple pie—pleasant and easy to digest but not all that distinctive. These statements do not describe the company or what it is like to be part of the organization. They do not serve to distinguish a specific enterprise because they could apply to nearly any company within the industry. And they provide little guidance or insight to internal or external stakeholders trying to figure out what your company’s approach might be to an emerging challenge—including diversity, de-carbonization or privacy— all issues with a wide range of perspectives.  

This is why we advise companies to craft a ’Vision Story’—a more fulsome story with depth to explain not just ‘the what?’ of your organization but ‘the how?’ and ‘the why?’. We encourage the creation of a corporate Vision Story to supplement corporate mission, vision and value statements, a story so compelling and vivid that the average working professional wants to be part of your organization. Here is how to begin.  

Constructing a compelling Vision Story  

Above all else, a Vision Story must be engaging. Corporate employees and other key stakeholders must be able to see themselves in the story. Futuristic in its tone and loose and sinuous in its organization, a Vision Story is written as if the company has already completed the work needed to achieve its vision. Typically, fifteen to twenty pages in length, the story must include a detailed discussion of what a company is to become in order to achieve its long-range goals. It is an aspirational document.  

How do you begin? Start by imagining the possibilities. Ask a very basic question: “What can this company become?” Inevitably, the initial answers will set stretch financial goals, like, “We will be at $100 billion by 2024,” or “We will operate at a 40% margin by 2025.” A strong statement of the financial goals often frames the Vision Story. People want to understand how ambitious a company aims to be and financial measures act as a differentiator among options (for example, a company may be described as “small and growing”; “mid-sized and specialized”; or “large and dominant”).  

But these financial aspirations are just the beginning of the story. In the rest of the Vision Storytelling, describe where the company wants to be in the future in relation to these four elements:  

1. Corporate values (e.g., integrity, diversity and inclusion, social responsibility, carbon reduction, respect for privacy);

2. Corporate strategies (i.e., general tactics for gaining competitive advantage, driving innovation, extending geographic reach);

3. Corporate governance (e.g., frameworks for decision-making, communication, community engagement); and

4. Management structures (e.g., organizational design, operating models and leadership responsibilities).  

Interestingly, Disney has this mission statement on its website: “The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling, reflecting the iconic brands, creative minds and innovative technologies that make ours the world’s premier entertainment company.”  

However, it doesn’t have a story that explains where it’s heading, who works there, what they do, who they do it for and what matters most when their people are delivering products and services to its varied customer-base. This is a glaring flaw in its strategic thinking, in our opinion. After all, according to Disney, its strength is “unparalleled storytelling.”  

Considering that a well-crafted Vision Story can help to pre-empt conflict, whether generated from within (from leadership and staff) or from without (customers, special interest groups, politicians, etc.), because it can articulate the values on which the business is built. For example, Disney’s vision story might include a passage like this:  

“Our culture accommodates a wide range of people with differing points of views. While we don’t expect our staff to embrace any one set of ideas, we do expect our staff to respect each other’s differences and look to learn from each other through polite and respectful dialogue. We don’t want to ostracize, or otherwise punish those who don’t think like us. Rather, we strive to create a work environment that encourages each person to bring their best selves to work each day in service of our customers.”  

A Vision Story is only as good as the level of commitment manifested by an organization’s stakeholders

In other words, Disney is making it clear that it does not tell its people what to think. Instead, it is committed to allowing the space for uncomfortable conversations and if necessary, providing the training needed to teach its people how to share different points of view, respectfully. Had Disney put a Vision Story in place, it could have easily pointed to it when it was coming under attack for being “too woke” for Florida’s Governor.  

‘Walking the talk’ is essential  

Indeed, a Vision Story is only as good as the level of commitment manifested by an organization’s stakeholders, as it is these stakeholders that will be held accountable for any behaviours, actions and, dare we say, crimes that stain an organization in the view of the general public. Sure, there may be times when the company does decide it needs to take a stand on a political or polarized issue (carbon reduction targets, for example), but, will only do so after careful consideration of its impact on its employees and key stakeholders.  

Get ahead of conflict by daring to talk about these questions pre-emptively

By way of illustration, Disney’s could easily include a discussion of its corporate culture, which aims to create a “big tent” that accommodates and respects divergent tastes and differing points of view. Clearly, this would signal that Disney recognizes that its employees, customers, suppliers and other members of its ecosystem have different perspectives on sensitive social questions including abortion, transgender rights, and climate change. While the company does not necessarily choose to take a stand on any of these social issues, its Vision Story suggests that it is committed to creating a safe space within the company for respectful dialogue among internal and external stakeholders on these questions.  

One last point, your organization’s Vision Story should also anticipate the possibility that your company’s perspective on a controversial or polarized social issue may attract unwanted attention from critics (for example, champions of anti-woke or woke capitalism; climate change deniers or crusaders). It is easier to envision how your organization will collaborate with like-minded and fair-minded stakeholders to build alliances and shared messages (much as Coca-Cola did with the Black Lives Matter campaign), but how will your organization respond when you face a barrage of criticism from influential political actors, special interest groups or consumers?  

Many organizations do not fare well in these kinds of situations and it is tempting to capitulate under pressure. A fully formed Vision Story equips you to anticipate this possibility and creates the space to find a path forward in a time of crisis.  

Businesses that take care in developing strong Vision Stories are more successful in managing crises than ones that fail to do so

Of course, your organization will need allies to sustain your point of view and withstand opposition but you will also require a deliberate corporate strategy.  

Final thoughts  

Indeed, the crafting of a Vision Story is reflective work. It is important to get your team in a relaxed frame of mind. Drafting these stories, or even excerpts, rarely works well in a crisis.  

Encourage your team to sit back, close their eyes, and clear their minds of the clutter that can sometime consume us as we go about our work day. It is all about imagining the company’s shared future, together.  

It is worth the effort. Businesses that take care in developing strong Vision Stories—stories that clearly articulate where the organization will be in the future and how it will get there— are in our experience more successful in managing crises than ones that fail to do so. After all, how do you know you have arrived if you don’t know where you want to be!  

Corporate leaders should expect unrelenting pressure for their company to take a position on controversial issues. Employees, customers, investors, suppliers and host communities where your company operates are likely to have strongly held opinions on the company’s position and best strategy. Get ahead of conflict by daring to talk about these questions pre-emptively, through the crafting of a corporate Vision Story.

Pro-forma statements—on values, mission and corporate vision—are essential but they are not sufficient. Companies need to dig deeper to imagine how they prefer that their organization handles emerging controversies, and expectations about their corporate role in finding solutions to these problems. In the heat of a crisis, there is often little time or emotional capacity for the kinds of conversations required to identify effective approaches. In the past, the public may not have expected the private sector to assume such a direct role in solving pressing social, environmental and governance challenges. Individual companies will have to decide what role they can play to help fill the void, and provide some stability in very uncertain times.  

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