Why activist CEOs will have to become skilled debaters


The public role of the CEO is changing. Companies, acknowledging the fast-changing expectations of employees, consumers, investors, strategic partners and regulators are thinking carefully about how their business models can solve some of society’s most significant challenges. This is the agenda that recently led Gillette to take a very public position on toxic masculinity and Iceland on the environment, for example.

This isn’t a fad or a passing trend. Greater transparency has shed a bigger light on the connection between the private sector and the social problems that communities across the world grapple with. The Millennial and Generation Z cohort will soon account for over 60% of the world’s 7.7 billion people. More than preceding generations, the decision of who they invest in, work for and buy from is heavily influenced by the reputation of a company for being purpose-driven and having a positive social impact.

What are the implications of all of this for those who lead companies? More CEOs will, willingly or otherwise, inevitably become involved in the big social and environmental debates that dominate public discourse such as climate change, identity politics and mental health. Whether or not society believes that a company is genuinely committed to having a clear social purpose will, in large part, depend on how company leaders communicate to their internal and external audiences. Specifically, the ability of a CEO to speak with conviction, to persuade and to rebut has a major impact on reputation in the social purpose age.

The power of speaking and debating

History is littered with examples of where compelling speeches have been a catalyst for social change — the powerful oratory of Wilberforce to lead the successful campaign against the slave trade for instance. The great speeches of Emily Pankhurst shifted the conversation about women’s suffrage. More recently, Oprah’s address at the Golden Globes injected the gender equality movement with excitement and energy. To quote Barack Obama during the 2008 Presidential election “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.”

Many educational institutions across the world recognise this power. Across the globe, tens of thousands of students take part in an activity that is designed to help develop and refine those very skills - competitive debating.

Competitive debating is governed by a set of rules that gives all participants an equal opportunity to persuade the audience that their side of a “motion” is correct. Two teams are given the same amount of time to put forward their case in a series of alternating speeches. One side is the proposition, the other the opposition. Crucially, you don't choose your side of the argument. This feature of the activity forces speakers to step into the shoes of a hypothetical person who may support a particular position on an issue. The job of the debater is to sell their case to an audience as persuasively as they can. The companies that will successfully use their social purpose to drive their commercial goals will be led by CEOs who are strong debaters.

The skills of a seasoned debater

Competitive debating develops many critical skills, a number of which are of importance for a CEO looking to position their company in this space.

First, there’s persuasiveness. A corporate leader who understands their audience and can deliver an argument compellingly can stand out in a loud and noisy environment.

Second, there’s empathy. As previously mentioned, competitive debaters are given a side to argue for, and as such, they may find themselves developing a case for a side that they in actuality disagree with. This is a remarkable way of encouraging debaters to take a step back and put themselves in the shoes of a variety of stakeholders who are driven by different motivations. The act of trying to develop the best possible case for a side that might be diametrically opposed to your philosophy helps you to develop a sense of empathy. A corporate leader who can understand where different stakeholders are coming from will be in a stronger position to build trust with them.

Third, rebuttal - the art of listening attentively and then providing an effective response to someone who holds an opposing view to you. This is one of the more challenging aspects of being a successful debater. It requires superb listening skills and then requires a speaker to select and then deploy the most effective response – all in real time.

Why this matters for social purpose specifically?

These set of skills are vital for anyone who interacts with people regularly but these skills are a must have for leaders today for three key reasons.

Authenticity is one of those reasons. One of the biggest barriers to companies successfully building a reputation for playing a positive social role is that audiences do not believe them. After speaking to wide range of people in our networks about recent instances of corporate activism, such Nike’s support for Colin Kaepernick or P&G’s recent push on toxic masculinity, it is clear that a reasonable number of people doubt the motives and commitment of companies who profess to want to play a role in shaping the world for good. Corporate leaders who can speak publicly about climate change, gender inequality, racism, financial inclusion, LGBT rights or any other social challenge in a way that moves people to care and to act are more likely to clear that authenticity hurdle. Having a leader who can tell a powerful story about their company’s social purpose is an incredible asset.

The effect on employees is another key reason why this matters for CEOs. Communicating a company’s social purpose can have a profound impact on motivating and retaining employees. This is especially true as millennials become a more important demographic in companies. A leader who can inspire people through the power of oratory can be the difference between a culture that sees a social purpose initiative as an uninspiring tick box exercise or the driving force of a company’s success. Employees should be one of the main advocates of a company’s social purpose campaign to the outside world. They are, to borrow an analogy from politics, the activists and the foot soldiers for the company. A CEO who speaks with conviction can rally employees.

Finally, the social issues that companies are involving themselves in are incredibly complicated. There are two sides to the debate about the use of palm oil. There are potential unintended consequences of a dramatic transition away from plastics. Closing the education gap between children from low-income families and their wealthier peers will require coordinated system-wide policy change. The complexity of these issues will usually mean that there will be articulate and influential voices offering counterarguments. Furthermore, if a company truly did wish to take a stand on these issues authentically, then its leaders must get involved in these debates – at town halls, panels, press conferences, media interviews and other public engagement opportunities.

Taking a stand on a social issue may also have implications for a company’s commercial strategy. In the aftermath of the Parkland School Massacre in 2018, Dick’s Sporting Goods restricted the sale of guns across its stores. The business has estimated that the policy change cost the company about $150 million, equivalent to 1.7% of its annual revenue. Inevitably, there will be some pushback as companies try to align behaviour to their stated purpose.

Taken together, this means that the leaders of purpose-driven companies will often have to defend their arguments and rebut the arguments of others publicly in a persuasive but empathetic way.

How to develop these skills

Almost all corporate leaders can become effective speakers. However, like getting into shape at the gym, doing so requires an investment of time. Rather than sporadic sessions to practice these skills, leaders must set aside time regularly to work on their speaking, framing and rebuttal. This is an investment that will pay dividends, given the very significant reputational benefits that can accrue from having a world-class debater as a CEO.

A very experienced business leader once told me that businesses are now increasingly expected to act more like social movements and political parties. There is some truth in that view. What is certainly true is that as more companies use social purpose to drive their company’s goals, their leaders must be agile, thoughtful and compelling speakers as they debate the big social challenges that are inextricably connected to their core business.

Lewis Iwu is the CEO and Co-founder of Purpose Union and the author of Words that Win: a guide to winning the debates that matter