Business leaders have been in the headlines lately. One CEO after another resigned last week from President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. Imagine being in that situation, with shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and government regulators all watching carefully.
What would be the consequences if they stayed? What would happen if they quit? We asked local business and community leaders, many of them chief executives, what decision they would make, and which factors they would weigh.
It wasn’t an easy call. Campbell Soup Co. chief executive Denise Morrison initially opted to stay on the council, but by Wednesday had changed her mind. “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville. I believe the president should have been — and still needs to be — unambiguous on that point,” she said in a statement.
In a company-wide meeting Friday morning in the Camden company’s cafeteria, Morrison teared up as she and Anthony Sanzio, a top Campbell’s communications official, explained the decision-making process and how they weighed the potential for positive access to the White House, concern about regulatory consequences, and public and employee sentiment.
Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia declined to explain why senior vice president and chief diversity officer David L. Cohen resigned from the White House’s Digital Board of Economic Advisors last week.
At one large local company we contacted, the public-relations officer interrupted his boss as the chief executive was beginning to answer, cutting off the response. Later, on background, the publicist explained that there was no way he’d allow his company’s name and CEO to be in the same sentence with a Trump criticism. Why? Retribution.
Look what happened to Kenneth Frazier at Merck, the publicist said. It wasn’t long after Frazier, the first CEO to quit, announced his departure that he and his company, based in New Jersey, found themselves on the receiving end of two blistering tweets:
Following are some of the responses we received from local business and nonprofit leaders — sent after Trump disbanded two business-oriented councils. “Rather than putting pressure on the business people of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!” the President tweeted.
Judith von Seldeneck, chairman, Diversified Search, Philadelphia.
Serving in any advisory capacity in a presidential administration is a true honor — and, frankly, a feather in the cap — for any CEO. People often talk of “getting a seat at the table,” and there are no better tables in the nation than those inside the White House. That said, being an effective leader, especially in politically turbulent times such as these, when the nation is so terribly divided, requires a strong moral compass and the fortitude to follow it. There must be a benchmark — of discourse, civility, honor, and trust — that all CEOs must find and adhere to in order to be effective in their roles. If your moral compass is, shall we say, fluid, people can see that a mile away. And they will see you as an opportunist, and, worse, as feckless and weak.
Given I am a woman who built her own business amid not an insignificant amount of sexism and push-back, I can’t imagine I personally would have ever felt comfortable enough taking an advisory role within this administration. But I will say the people who did, I truly believe, did so because they felt they had a duty to represent their sectors’ interests in discourse on national policy. But what we’ve seen is that sometimes the moral compass points you away from such opportunities. I think leaders who understand the bigger picture—not only the interests of their shareholders and customers, but also of the nation—know that you cannot dismiss the compass’s readings when they tell you that you must do what is morally right rather than what is politically expedient.
Krishna Singh, president and chief executive officer, Holtec International, Marlton.
Every CEO has the obligation to his/her workforce to ensure that the company’s work environment is free of bigotry and prejudice. We all must reassure our people that, regardless of the upheaval in the national body politic, we will stand firm in defending our corporate governance and societal values.
Michael Araten, president and CEO, Smart Brands International K’NEX Brands, Hatfield.
For me, every decision considers three main constituencies: Our consumers/customers; our employees; and our shareholders. My job is to balance what is good for all of those groups. Underlying all of that is our values and what we stand for. At K’NEX, we are focused on inspiring creativity across the globe, and we have as a core value making as much as we can in the USA (which is over 90 percent at this time). Creativity requires inclusiveness and diversity.
So, for me, it’s an easy call. I would have resigned. Standing up to hate, Nazis, the KKK and white supremacy is antithetical to the miracle that is the United States of America.
I will also add that public-company CEOs have multiple ways to make their voices heard and advocate for policies. (The Senate, House and governors are some quick examples). So, there is only upside to them resigning.
Rudy Karsan, founder, Karlani Capital, former Kenexa CEO, Philadelphia.
Having been a public-company CEO, I can really empathize with the difficulty of the decision. I would have resigned for the following reasons:
• There’s a personal moral boundary around hate groups that I just can’t tolerate. This is especially true since I’m a Muslim (with Jewish nieces and grandchildren that are half Hispanic) and there’s a lot of existing baggage with [Trump’s] previous commentary.
• A very large segment of our employees have spoken out about his vitriolic commentary.
Our customers are/were appalled.
We’re not public so we don’t have as much risk in our share price.
Donna L. Torrisi, network executive director, Family Practice & Counseling Network, Philadelphia.
I have great respect for those who resigned from the committee as the actions of the President do not support their values re the civil rights and humanity of African American people.
What would I do? It depends. In the case of someone like Trump whose values and behaviors I deplore, it would be very difficult for me to work in any capacity of service to his administration. The one exception would be if I felt I was in a position of power to influence policy in a manner that served my values and served humanity.
Anthony M. Piccone, president, 7th Level Mortgage LLC
Upon reflection, I would have stayed on the council.
Obviously, there are various factors CEOs have to consider, their shareholders, their customers, and their responsibility to be good citizens as a company. I don’t subscribe to the theory that CEOs are tepid about making such public displays if it serves a purpose for them. I do think they erred in their decision for several reasons. A person or corporation can certainly object to an action or opinion without throwing a hissy fit and walking out the door to the detriment of the greater reason they were there.
What impact will they have on the larger issue of employment and manufacturing in this country if they are on the outside looking in with no seat at the table to shape the policy moving forward? They won that fight but lost the large battle, so who is served now without them and without the council? The country as a whole lost on both sides. These CEOs have a large voice and could have dissented from the administration with a larger bullhorn and stayed on the council to help the very people they stuck up for in the first place. Very childish reaction in my opinion.
Bill Cumby Jr., president, W.S. Cumby Inc., Springfield, Delaware County.
I can’t possibly think of any circumstances where I’d be involved with anyone so thoroughly devoid of a moral compass, and certainly salute the CEOs and others who took a public stand against this travesty. That being said, I do hope that some of the good people in the Cabinet and the White House will stay. We clearly need sane people in positions of leadership and influence. There is just too much at stake.
Joyce Russell, dean, Villanova University School of Business, Villanova.
I think it is important that leaders take a moral stand in addition to their business stand. If CEOs are not willing to do this, then who will? CEOs have to remember that others watch their behaviors very closely and they are often role models for others. They can never forget this. By doing nothing, we as CEOs are condoning bad behaviors when we see them.
CEOs should listen to the advice of their constituents (board, senior leaders, employees) when making such a decision, should not act rashly, and should make sure to have whatever facts are needed. But once all of this is collected in a timely manner, we need to act promptly.
In this situation, I would have also resigned from the council. While there are benefits to being on the “inside” in order to help make change, sometimes pulling oneself out sends a powerful message about what you believe is right. It sends a powerful message to your own employees and customers about what you value, and in this case, your beliefs in diversity and inclusion and the message of community, peace and love, and not hate, bigotry, and supremacy of some over others.
Bob McDevitt, president, Unite Here Local 54, Atlantic City.
For the life of me, I’ll never understand why Trump continues to focus on divisive issues while the infrastructure legislation sits idle! He clearly hasn’t been listening to his “council.”
Wil Reynolds, founder, Seer Interactive, Philadelphia.
I wouldn’t have even been a part of the council, to be honest. In my industry and with the population I hire, I think people want to be proud of their leaders.
Even the way Trump ran his campaign was disgusting. Most of these CEOs, if they ever talked about grabbing people by their privates, would have been expelled from their job. Publicly ripping a competitor based on how they look? Fired. Remember “Look at that Face?” Seriously? If I said about one of my competitors, “Look at her face” or “She was bleeding out of her whatever,” who would overlook that and want to work with me?
I think the Charlottesville issue gave [the CEOs] cover, I know where their loyalties truly lie. It finally got so hot they couldn’t take it anymore. But they were more than willing to put up with overlooking these exact same behaviors he showed during the campaign.
Rajeev Singh, chief executive, Accolade, Plymouth Meeting
Company culture and values must be reflected in the products and services we all deliver and in the greater role the company holds in the community. These values represent the heart and soul of the business and should be the North Star that guides our business decisions. In the past, CEOs had a responsibility to their shareholders, employees, customers, and partners, and today our “community” lives on this list as well. Living our values every day and extending those into the community creates a straightforward framework where we can all stand together against discrimination, hate and intolerance in our communities and beyond.
We support those CEOs who decided that the administration’s response to Charlottesville didn’t align with their core values. The White House response certainly did not pass our test of aligning with our corporate values, meeting the responsibilities and promises we’ve made to our constituents, and creating positive impact on our shared communities. And frankly, it’s an easy test to pass.
Vikram Dewan, president, Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia
A CEO must reflect the culture and essence of their organization at all times, and especially when taking a public and visible stance. Our valued guests at the Philadelphia Zoo come from every neighborhood around the region (and throughout the world), so decisions made by anyone on our staff must reflect our commitment to inclusivity and welcoming everyone.