The Business Leader’s Voice

Which CEOs are talking about racism right now and why

June 24, 2020
Diversity, Leadership


Companies and CEOs wield tremendous influence and some are using their platform to enact social change. 

In his course, Advanced Corporate Strategy, Aaron “Ronnie” Chatterji discusses a trend called CEO activism – when leaders use their voice to speak out about political or social issues. Chatterji has observed a wave of business leaders speaking out about systemic racism and policing, some for the first time.

“Some corporate leaders have really stood out. Particularly Ken Frazier at Merck, talking about his own experience as an African-American executive, and Citi CFO, Mark Mason’s incredibly powerful statement titled, “I can't breathe.”

In a LinkedIn Live series on fairness, justice and race (full video above), Chatterji explains that CEO activism isn't just about speaking out or simply tweeting.

“The big difference I see between CEOs speaking out today, compared with prior efforts, is you don't always see CEOs articulating specific pieces of legislation that they can get behind or support. There's going to be a lot of increased pressure for them to do that.”

Chatterji says differences now compared to when he was writing about this topic in 2016 are CEOs' attitudes towards Black Lives Matter. CEOs are aligning with this cause with more frequency, demonstrating a stark pivot in terms of public opinion.

Chatterji says corporate executives are also talking about systemic racism in a different way. In the past, these issues were talked about in terms of race relations and isolated incidents. Now, CEOs are talking about civic and municipal systems, signaling another dramatic shift in how they're approaching the debate.

“Companies wield a lot of power when it comes to what we call non-market strategy. So now that their CEOs have said all these things and taken these stands on systemic racism, what are they going to do as companies, flexing tremendous influence, to help unwind the system?”

Chatterji explains the real challenge for companies lies in their numerous legislative priorities. Rather than tackling systemic racism head on, he sees firms focusing more on investing in African-American owned businesses and increasing transparency in the areas of diversity and executive leadership.

“CEOs can actually go and lobby politicians and policy makers to make changes. You saw this in the aftermath of the Parkland Shootings, with Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack laying out a detailed gun control plan.”

Chatterji stresses this is a crucial time for corporate executives to connect with communications teams to figure out how they're going to talk about these issues. He used a framework of questions developed from his Advanced Corporate Strategy course for business leaders to consider when making these decisions:

  • Has your organization released a statement?
  • Have you asked your employer to release a statement?
  • How have you thought about crafting your words and language?
  • Have you thought about adding action to what you're saying? Or is it just more expressing an opinion?

Chatterji says CEO activism comes with risks and rewards. For leaders, the cost of speaking out is always that you're going to alienate customers or employees that disagree. Of course, the benefit is that you stand in solidarity with like-minded employees and customers.

“I will be interested to see how CEOs and companies are held accountable," he said. "How long will the movement that we are witnessing last, and how will the pressure increase as our attention turns to other issues in the upcoming months.”

This story may not be republished without permission from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Please contact for additional information.

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