Taking a Stand Has Become a Necessity

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The much-debated Disney versus DeSantis blow-up – the one in which one of America’s most beloved brands came into the crosshairs of Florida Governor and 2024 GOP Presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis over the Florida measure that critics have dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law – has brought into bas-relief an undercurrent that has been brewing for some time: the politicization of Big Business. And for retail brands that stand on the frontlines between consumers and Corporate America, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Wake-Up Calls

To be clear, the Disney dustup is not an outlier; increasingly, above-the-fold political issues – ranging from gun control to transgender bathrooms to abortion – are making their way into the C-suites and corporate boardrooms of companies that, in the course of their regular business, would normally have very little to do with these polarizing political issues. And sticking one’s head in the sand is no longer an option.

A brief, cursory overview of the core curricula at some of America’s top business schools indicates that they have yet to recognize the staying power and importance of politics as a new and potent dynamic in the business world.

On one hand – and this is particularly true for retailers who often hire younger employees to man their brick-and-mortar points of sale, the entry-level employee base of America’s corporations is increasingly politically progressive in their social outlook. According to a recent sweeping Pew Research survey, the cohort that is comprised mainly of younger millennials and Gen Z workers not only tends to be more socially liberal on issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (‘DEI’), but is much more highly attuned to effectuating change on a range of other divisive issues such as addressing climate change, lobbying for universal healthcare, and calling for police reform. They are a generation of workers that demands that the corporations they work for are aligned with their own value sets.

Call to Arms

On the other hand, there are the CEOs who are contending with an increasingly volatile political environment in which social issues have become weaponized. Governors like Florida’s DeSantis to Texas Governor Greg Abbot have decided that it’s good politics to corral companies into taking stands on issues on which they would otherwise prefer to stay mum. The good old days in which large corporations’ dalliance with politics was limited to paying lip service to low taxes and deregulation has given way to an environment in which they are now increasingly powerful vectors of political discourse in this country. Not surprisingly, the requisite skill sets to deal with this new dynamic in the business landscape are largely absent in C-Suites. CEOs are educated to run businesses, not walk the tightrope of fractious public discourse. And guess what? MBA programs are also behind the eight ball, although they should have seen this coming.

Slow Burn

The flames burning between the GOP and Big Business have been simmering for at least a decade. Readers may recall the tête-à-tête a few years back between Salesforce and then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence over legislation that many deemed anti-gay. With nearly 3,000 employees in the state, Benioff threatened to sanction Indiana if the measure became law. “CEOs are very much the advocates of their customers and employees, as well as of the environment and local communities,” Benioff said after eventually forcing Pence to revise the proposal. “The most successful CEOs today are advocates for their stakeholders, not just their shareholders.”

It was a bold move by Benioff with enormous stakes, and in the end, it paid off. Pence backed down, and his employees –his most important stakeholders – saw a company that was willing to go to bat for LGBT rights. In leading the effort, Benioff enlisted other major corporations with vested interests in Indiana – from Apple to NASCAR – to rally behind his opposition to the proposed legislation.

Higher Education

Benioff didn’t learn how to deal with an issue like this in an MBA program – he never went beyond a bachelor’s degree in his studies. But now that these types of situations are becoming more regular occurrences, one would think that MBA programs – especially the so-called top programs that churn out each successive generation of America’s corporate leaders – would have taken on this important skillset at the crossroads of deft corporate strategy and political acuity and turned it into an academic discipline.

A brief, cursory overview of the core curricula at some of America’s top business schools indicates that they have yet to recognize the staying power and importance of politics as a new and potent dynamic in the business world:

  • Harvard’s MBA program often considered the most prestigious program in the world, apparently, has exactly zero courses dedicated to preparing future leaders for a business environment in which governing authorities may press companies to stay silent or take action at odds with the will of the majority of its stakeholders.
  • Stanford’s MBA program allows interested students to dabble in coursework in politics outside the core curriculum, but it’s unclear if these courses address head-on the dynamic that is playing out in boardrooms across the country.
  • The MBA program at my alma mater, Georgetown University – often considered the premier school in the country for all things political – has not one course (including electives) that appears to even address this suite of issues related to political navigation and corporate stewardship.

There is no telling how much time will pass until MBA programs wake up to this new dynamic assailing Big Business and begin developing appropriate curricula. What this coursework might look like is anyone’s guess, but there will be no shortage of case studies to cull lessons from. The Disney versus DeSantis imbroglio was a mere preview of a much more frequent collision course between corporate giants and culture-war politicians looking to score points. And it may not come just from elected officials. The Supreme Court’s upcoming possible reversal of Roe v. Wade, the seminal case that established a woman’s right to choose, will force many companies into uncomfortable territory as their stakeholders will certainly demand they take a stance on the ruling. Many of America’s most powerful tech companies — Tesla, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, to name just a few — are already ahead of the game, providing additional benefits to employees who live in states where abortion laws are already being clawed back.

For MBA candidates, looking at all this tumult from the sidelines, the business world they will soon be joining suddenly looks a lot more unpredictable – especially because their schools aren’t providing them with the tools required to navigate a new business landscape lined with minefields.

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