CEOs found their voice in a year of upheaval

An unusual thing happened in 2020, a year marked by a global pandemic and domestic protests over how police treat people of color: CEOs found a voice.

Previously known for avoiding sensitive topics, for fear of upsetting customers and investors, many business leaders actually made some waves. The waves they created weren’t tsunamis, and the spectrum topics they chose to wade in on were limited, but their outspokenness nevertheless stood out compared to years past.

“Our people want to know that they work for an organization that’s willing to visibly stand up for our values, and speak out in favor of those societal changes that are near and dear to us,” Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO of Deloitte U.S., the domestic arm of the business consulting giant, said during a discussion on Fortune’s “Leadership Next” podcast.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many CEOs had, for the first time, conversations with their employees about race while promising to do more to make their workforces more diverse. Others chimed in about climate change and the need to protect the environment.

The push by corporate leaders to address social problems has recently been branded “stakeholder capitalism.” Yes, companies still want to make their shareholders happy, but they also want to ensure their workers, local communities, and suppliers aren’t left behind.

The question is whether companies are just paying lip service to the idea of doing good. After all, talk is cheap, while action can be costly.

How will CEOs handle automating their workplaces, which can put employees in the unemployment line? What about standing up to a President, even one who likes to use Twitter to attack anyone who dares to speak out against him?

To be sure, CEOs will pick and choose which problems to solve and which ones to ignore in their push for profits. In general, though, Ucuzoglu said that the overall benefit will be positive.

“We, the business community, have an obligation to help make certain that this prosperity is inclusive, that we’re focused on upskilling, retraining—making certain that all communities participate equitably in a tech-driven future,” he said. “But ultimately, this will lift the opportunities for a broad cross section of society in ways that are incredibly beneficial.”

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