Business and Markets

Look Past the Headlines for Proof of Progress

June 5, 2024  • Judy Samuelson

Here’s my pledge: no more scanning headlines for the “news.” When it comes to what business leaders are thinking and how they are acting in response to politics and sentiment in the public square (or the cafeteria)—the headlines are a poor barometer. To understand this moment, you need to get into the weeds—the progress being made on systemic problems, the commitments being honored, and the degree to which this ‘anti-woke’ moment is neither something to be proud of, nor holding us back.

Here’s what I like about this moment: I find it clarifying. It calls for executives to consider which of the myriad issues they could engage on actually matter the most—i.e., are critical to their business—whether it’s access to natural resources, tech and talent, or key relationships that require stewardship, partnership and long-term investment.

What’s needed now is to turn down the noise from the clickbait headlines and shenanigans in the public markets and tune into the company’s most important allies in the long game: their own employees and key customers.

Take this headline in the WSJ: “Corporate America Is Sitting Out the Trump-Biden Rematch.” It’s the title of a great piece by veteran business writer Chip Cutter and workplace reporter Ray Smith. If you read the article, a picture emerges that has very little resemblance to the headline. Cutter and Smith report on the many ways that executives are contending with the heat of the political discord, and how it is affecting and testing leadership.

A subtitle [“Business leaders felt in 2020 that they couldn’t afford to stay silent on social and political issues. In 2024, many hope to take a quieter approach.”] comes a lot closer to the examples the writers explore about how business leaders are weighing how to show up or when to speak out in a complicated time.

The reader may find some tactics to be more effective or laudable than others, but that’s the point. There is no one approach that works for all and we expect business executives to take soundings and fashion a response that lines up with the business model, purpose, culture and values.

The plentiful headlines about billionaires lining up to support Trump and his call for lower taxes, both before and after his conviction, earned a strong response from Jeff Sonnenfeld for Time magazine about the more complex and nuanced conversations in board rooms and dining rooms of executives across America.

Once again, the headline in Time that introduces Jeff’s piece is click-worthy (“The Coming MAGA Assault on Capitalism”) but the article itself is full of reasons the business community is cautious about a repeat on a Trump presidency. Sonnenfeld believes the anti-business narrative may be working for both the far right with the far left, but insists the uber-wealthy Trump donors commanding headlines represent only “a small segment of the business community” and where they send their checks.

The heat will only rise from here. .

What matters now? There’s a lot at risk. Should business execs think carefully before they speak? Absolutely. I believe businesses with a long-term orientation will focus on future-oriented needs, from building a skilled workforce to sustainable access to precious resources. To prioritize what matters will require deep investment and engage partners in order to conserve critical resources and develop important capabilities.

And employees matter most. By investing in the workforce, leaders secure insight into product quality, consumer sentiment, risks in the supply chain, and how to better share the wealth.

Are these things “woke”? Maybe. At least they demonstrate that the enterprise, and its leaders, are actually awake to both the opportunity and risks in this operating environment.

And for anyone who needs a refresh on why stewardship of “externalities” and human resources and social needs will continue to matter, this excellent piece from Richard Edelman is required reading.

Let’s turn down the heat—and move past the headlines into the nuance of what is required to sustain competitive advantage and stay focused. There is a lot to do, and little time in which to do it.