Political polarization and technological disruption are changing the role of executives, both in the office and in society.
With society more divided than at any time in recent memory, it is increasingly falling to executives to foster unity. C-suite members have often seen themselves as leaders of society. Now employees, investors and the public, particularly millennials, are expecting them to step up to the plate. This new, much broader executive role is one of both peacemaker and trailblazer. As Kenneth C. Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co. said, “Business leaders have an opportunity to help bridge some of these chasms in understanding in our society.”
At this year’s DealBook Conference, held in New York on November 1, some of the country’s top executives gathered to discuss current topics and trends “through the lens of long-term leadership.” A prevalent theme was expressed earlier in BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink’s annual letter, in which he called upon CEOs to “understand the societal impact of your business.” Referring to how investors are starting to evaluate companies based partly on environmental, social and corporate governance metrics, Fink predicted that “the demand for E.S.G. is going to transform all investing.”
Expectations of corporate responsibility are especially high in the technology sector, due to the size and unprecedented social impact of big technology companies. Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said that the way he spends his day has changed, as he devotes much more time thinking about how “technology impacts society at scale.” He said part of his job description had turned into “technologist-policy-maker-diplomat.”
The widening net of corporate responsibility, and by default the purview of top executives particularly in the technology sector, covers issues ranging from the ethical implications of A.I. and working with the military to the use of technology to increase workplace diversity, as well as moderation of social discourse. Commenting on negative online behavior, Evan Spiegel, CEO of social media site Snap, pointed out that “we’re in this weird moment in time where this behavior’s been enabled technically, and the regulatory framework actually hasn’t caught up to that reality.”
With Washington unable or unwilling to keep up, some companies are addressing the issues themselves, developing guidelines, and incorporating them into corporate governance. The potential social impact is undetermined. As DealBook founder and editor and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin points out: “Companies are not all going to be virtuous, and many decisions business leaders will make are hardly black and white, but the idea that executives are starting to consider their impact is at least the beginning of progress.”