I heard Ken Frazier, former CEO of Merck, speak today at the Arthur Page Society. He was our client during the Penn State crisis, and again at Merck. He made a profound comment about the role of business in society. “Business is the last place where people cannot associate just with others like them. You need to get along with colleagues of all backgrounds.” It is Frazier’s belief that we live in places with those of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. We consume media, which is consistent with our beliefs, reinforcing our convictions about issues of the day. Our social activities from church to golf are with a self-selected group. Business becomes life’s wild card, the salad in which each person has his or her place on the team. In a salad, every ingredient is distinct and additive to the overall taste.
I asked Deb Elam, former Corporate Officer at GE, now a board member for Daniel J. Edelman Holdings, our parent company, for her thoughts on making the salad concept work at Edelman and beyond.
- Freedom of Expression—Younger staffers want to discuss everything, including politics and religion. This is in sharp contrast to Boomers who would politely talk about "safe topics", sports or movies as a means of connection. “The workplace is an extension of everything else in life for Gen Z. Let the conversation happen and enable discussion with top management,” Elam said.
- No More Melting Pot—People should not have to assimilate to be successful, they should be able to be themselves. My wife Claudia tells me that 70 percent of Hispanics believe they cannot be their true selves at work, needing to fit in to succeed. That must change, so that you bring your best, authentic self to work.
- Meritocracy—This is a great concept “when it is actually real,” Elam said. “Access and equity must come into play.” She used an example of three children asking for candy. “The easy thing is to give them the same red lollipop (equality). But the smart thing might be to give one of the kids with special dietary restrictions a different one because it has the right ingredients and is what is most appropriate (equity).”
- Global Transfers—This needs to be done judiciously, Elam observed. “If you are betting on the person for the long run, go for it,” she said.
- Town Square—“When the murder of George Floyd happened two years ago, many white employees expressed genuine empathy and a desire to truly understand the lived experiences of black colleagues with whom they worked alongside every day. Companies can enable an outlet for these uncomfortable and in many cases unfamiliar conversations.”
I have a few points of my own. Business is now the most trusted institution in the world which means that business is expected to lead on sustainability, DE&I, reskilling, and geopolitics. The only way this works is for businesspeople to be out in the world, not just in the office. I feel this especially about the Chief Communications Officer, who is to be the conscience of the company but must be broadly informed to do the job. That requires service on nonprofit boards, community engagement, connectivity to societal influencers and a more public face than other executives. It also means that companies must recognize their responsibility to their headquarters market on education, public safety, and public health.
No more keeping our heads down hoping that the issues will pass; it is our time to wade straight in and fix it.
Richard Edelman is CEO.