Last week, I provided some filters for CEOs who are trying to understand whether they should be speaking out about the death of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of police.
This Washington Post article voiced a similar perspective:
“Only by shutting up for a second will we learn when we should shut up.”
The risk of getting it wrong is high. CEOs should be focused more on what they should do, not say. But some, particularly those CEOs with personal profile or are leading well-known brands, are (rightly) expected to take a stand. But which one are you? Consider: were you waiting for the Instagram post from the company that you bought your dog harness from acknowledging their white privilege? Are you more loyal to your online yoga instructor now that you know they are working to be more inclusive?
One clue to determining whether you need to speak out: your stakeholders tell you so. Ignore them at your peril. It would be easy to dismiss what happened with CrossFit CEO as an extreme case of someone with poor instincts and questionable values. But the pattern that lead to his “retirement” last night provides lessons to all CEOs in bright lights.
You don’t need understand the sport to understand how this all went to hell in a heartbeat. CrossFit is a fitness company that hosts branded competitions with professional athletes. (A documentary about the 2017 world championships is on Netflix.) It earns affiliate fees for use of the CrossFit brand from gyms around the world. And it has (or had) licensing and sponsorship partnerships.
On June 3, Alyssa Royse from affiliate Rocket CrossFit wrote to CrossFit HQ, expressing her disappointment that CrossFit leadership, among their many failures, had not spoken out on Black Lives Matter, nor COVID-19, which has shut down gyms and competitions around the world.
“Let’s be clear, your silence IS taking a stand. You are standing, in silence on the side of history that Brady and I cannot stand on. Even taking a small step to the right side of history is better than haphazardly napping on the wrong side of history.”Alyssa Royse, Rocket CrossFit
Glassman did not take kindly to Royse’s letter.
His response, two days later, starts with “I sincerely believe the quarantine has adversely impacted your mental health,” and ends with “I am ashamed of you.”
I encourage you to read all of Royse’s letter, as well as Glassman’s response. She has a PR background and clearly articulates the case for CrossFit leadership to speak out from her vantage point as a business partner.
When Glassman received Royse’s letter, he was already in a bizarre weeklong Twitter fight about sugar and “modern science”, and well, testosterone from an outsider’s perspective, when he waded into a discussion about whether “Racism is a public health issue.”
Almost a day later, he replied into the same thread again.
His comments were not particularly coherent. It’s clear from previous tweets that he’s angry with how the COVID-19 pandemic has been dealt with. Many viewed the evocation of George Floyd’s name as racist. Regardless of what he meant, the fury was immediate. In less than 48 hours, here was the carnage:
- Lost affiliate income from Rocket and others who are following Royse’s lead
- Lost 10-year exclusive licensing deal with Reebok
- Criticism from top CrossFit athletes (who, just like in football or hockey or any other major sport, ARE the brand) questioning their future with the sport, including past champion Tia-Clair Toomey.
By Sunday night, the company was into damage control. On the CrossFit Twitter page, not Glassman’s, he apologized. Sort of.
Of course that was not going to be enough, and by yesterday, Glassman was out, and the new CEO was in damage control mode.
That, CEOs, is how to lose your job – from the company you founded and own, no less – in two tweets and four days. The scene was set, however, in the months preceding his poor choices, by not showing the leadership his stakeholders had expected. COVID-19 had ravaged his sport and the businesses of his stakeholders and, from Royse’s perspective, he’s been absent and lost “moral authority.” Would he have had to step down if he’d spoken out about Black Lives Matter when prompted? We can’t know for sure. But by the time he’d sent those two tweets, he’d already lost the backing of his most passionate supporters who might have come to his rescue (or at least stood by him) had he respected their relationship.
I’m sharing this story not just for schadenfreude. Although you may feel this wreckage is too extreme to be relevant to you, it demonstrates some important principles really well:
- When your stakeholders tell you they want to hear from you, listen. Yes, you must weigh the interests of all your stakeholders. But to dismiss them is to break their trust.
- Assume that every communication you send, everything you say as CEO is into a megaphone and will be public. Many CEOs have been posting their internal employee notes to their LinkedIn accounts or company blogs at important times, short circuiting any leak.
- You are the CEO 24 hours a day. Sorry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re tweeting from a private account or a corporate account. The nonsensical or offensive thing you tweet on a Saturday evening after a couple of drinks and an argument with your kid will do the same damage as at saying it in a press release 9 am on a Tuesday.
- CEO reputation, for good and bad, is a core part of corporate reputation, and have a dollar value that you can either build or destroy in lockstep.
- Your behaviour, and that of the company, for better or worse, reflect on your employees, customers, clients, and partners. Employees (particularly those in their 20s and 30s) see their job as part of their personal brand. If you behave badly, expect them to cut ties. Corporate partners are the same. Reebok wasn’t going to be collateral damage in this mess.
- If you’re going to blow up your company by voicing a tone deaf opinion, at least write it well.