How to Mix Business and Politics (If You Must)

Sep 8, 2020

I’ve never really understood the fashion industry. I get the concept (though no one has ever described me as fashionable), but fashion trends seem fickle, making the business too unpredictable.

Industries like technology, engineering, medicine and even most services evolve and improve as a result of advances in science and know-how. But fashion is somewhat erratic and capricious, making the risks of being in the business more difficult to manage. Those at the top of the fashion game may set the tone, but not even they are always right.

“There’s no accounting for taste” is an old cliché that seems especially true for companies in the fashion business — I suspect their accountants would agree.

No industry is exempt from changing dynamics, of course, and a risky new fashion has arisen to confront us all: the injection of politics into business. Talk about distasteful.

Politics has an insatiable appetite to take up all the oxygen in the room. Any room. Just when we could use a more businesslike approach in the political realm (earn your way, serve people, solve problems, focus on customers rather than competitors) we’re seeing politics increasingly muscle its way into business.

Unfortunately, the two don’t mix well, putting the onus on corporate leaders to minimize the risks of the potentially explosive concoction. Sooner or later, someone from within (or outside of) your organization is going to cross your threshold insisting that your company say or do something about this or that issue.

When that happens, I’d recommend five considerations for how to best navigate what to do next.

1. Consider the source

From whom or where is the inquiry, information or insistence that the company take action ultimately coming? Businesspeople regularly and intuitively do detective work when it comes to rumors about competitors, trends in customer feedback and even calls from salespeople offering the latest and greatest idea they say we can’t live without.

You can’t find an advertising salesperson, for example, who doesn’t have statistics to prove their medium is the best. They’re not being dishonest, but they are cherry-picking. It’s on us to question not only where the information is coming from but the legitimacy (and motivation) of the source.

2. Consider the context

If one of your people made a consequential strategic recommendation to reorient your company in response to a competitor’s anticipated move or a promising but unproven new technology, you’d have plenty of hard questions for them. Similarly, you’d never consider embarking on an expensive research initiative without first having a thorough understanding of its methodology, margin of error, risks and limitations.

But interest groups and the media regularly use statistics that can easily be misleading or quotes taken out of context to prove the righteousness of their causes — often unknowingly but sometimes intentionally. Accepting any claim at face value is a risk you must not take.

Political issues tend to be win-lose, and while nobody ever intends to be on the losing side, somebody always is.

3. Consider the relevance

Focus is difficult enough to maintain in the normal course of business; no company can be all things to all people. Nor can it solve all the problems in the world. Those who advocate political action might label your unwillingness to get on board as cowardice or a copout because to them everything is political. But not everything is political. Hobbies aren’t political. Friendships aren’t political. Serving customers isn’t political.

Sure, if your business has been shut down due to a public health emergency or is in the pathway of a protest, politics has been thrust upon you. But if an issue doesn’t directly affect your operations, think twice before you devote your reputation and resources to it. The best way to accomplish nothing is to take on everything, and if you don’t stick to your knitting, you’ll never knit anything. That’s your call to make, not any special interest group’s.

4. Consider the consequences

This consideration may be most neglected in our increasingly high-stakes political culture. It is indeed quite fashionable these days for CEOs to be proudly quoted in the press about “doing the right thing.” But when you get involved in an issue about which public opinion is split 50/50, 35/65 or even 65/35, your “right thing” is the “wrong thing” to a whole lot of other people. Playing with fire using your company’s stakeholders as kindling is a dangerous game.

True leaders recognize that controversial issues are controversial for a reason, multiple interests are always intertwined, and conceding to one group might require compromising another. Knowing whether you’re doing more harm than good requires — and deserves — a complex, levelheaded analysis.

5. Consider that you may be missing something

Humility is one of those things in life that always seems to be in short supply, and as rare as it is in business it’s even more rare in politics. From Jacobins to Confederates, history is littered with examples of those who were convinced of their cause, only to be proven wrong with time.

We can easily become so certain of the righteousness of our opinions that we make decisions we’ll regret down the road. Especially if we neglect the above four considerations. Self-righteousness is as dangerous as it is blinding.

None of this is to suggest that your company should never speak up, stand up or get involved. But good intentions don’t justify bad strategy, and fear of or intimidation by others are illegitimate motivators. It’s tough enough to lead a diverse team through the rough and tumble of a market economy in which win-win outcomes are often the norm. Political issues tend to be win-lose, and while nobody ever intends to be on the losing side, somebody always is.

It’s one thing to take a personal risk of being one of the first to don a leisure suit because the fashionistas say the style is coming back (let’s hope not — ever). But before you put your shareholders, employees, customers, communities and even our culture at risk, wisely consider the costs.

By Steve McKee