“I disagree with my company’s stand. What do I do?”

Since I interact with a lot of senior corporate leaders during my workshops on personal branding (via social media), one of the questions that get asked very, very often is this: “What if I have an opinion that is at crossroads with my organization’s stand/point of view?”.

We are in mighty turbulent, deeply divisive times and there’s no escaping that basic fact. If the US is split right in the middle with issues like gun control and Roe Vs. Wade, India perennially splits into assorted groups over so many opinions on so many issues – politics, religion, and sports, among others.

So, imagine if your organization had launched an ad campaign that landed in some controversy, and the organization decides to give in to the criticism by withdrawing the ad. This is easy to imagine anyway…

Remember the Surf Excel 2019 Holi ad?

Or the Tanishq Ekatvam ad from 2020?

Now imagine you do not agree with the company’s decision to withdraw the ad because you do not feel the decision is appropriate/correct. If you are one of the many employees of the organization, your opinion may not matter all that much. But, if you are a leader, your views may be seen as the organization’s view too.

This was a real issue faced by Jennifer Sey who was a senior leader at Levi’s USA and was tipped to become the next CEO. And yet, she took to social media all through the COVID pandemic with her views on masks (she questioned the efficacy of masks publicly), vaccines (she questioned the efficacy of vaccines, and coined the word ‘vaccists’ to denote vaccinated people refusing to associate with unvaccinated people), and more. But these went against Levis’s public position- the company was pro-mask, for employees and for customers walking into their stores; and pro-vaccines.

Long story short: Sey eventually quit Levi’s.

Here’s a really detailed piece on this episode, from Bloomberg.

A related example is from Netflix. The ‘culture guidelines‘ at the company were recently amended to include this:

As employees we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values. Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.

In Sey’s example, her personal brand was that of an outspoken individual. But her personal brand is intricately tied to her identity as a senior leader at Levi’s. So, anything she says can—and will—be presumed to be the company’s position too, even if it is not so.

The issue gets particularly tricky and amplified if we think of news organizations. Most news organizations (in print, TV, or online) have an editorial point of view, but they also allow conflicting views that do not toe the editorial position. So the pressure to not air conflicting views is more from powers outside of the organization – companies that advertise and don’t like critical editorial coverage that contradicts the advertising narrative or political parties that do not like critical opinions may pressurize the editor/publisher to get the errant journalists to tone it down and not make their stand explicit. But that is a very different issue compared to conflicting opinions between a company’s position vs. a leader’s. Companies, unlike media/news organizations, need not have a publicly announced position on any topic unless there is a business imperative.

In the case of Sey and Levi’s, the company has held public positions on many controversial topics before! Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Bloomberg story:

Source: Bloomberg

Things are far less likely to be this open and explicit with Indian companies where the default position is to toe the Government line with rare exceptions like Rahul/Rajiv Bajaj.

So, how does one deal with this kind of situation that seems very real and impending to any leader in any organization these days?

For ease of understanding, think of the topic across 3 levels.

Level 1: How crucial is your position on the issue? Is it something that defines who you are as an individual?

Before we reach sharing your point of view in public, back up a step. Sharing it is secondary. The first question should be the importance of your position.

Is it something foundational to you as an individual? For example, imagine your company wants to make a foray into manufacturing cigarettes and you are strictly against that. Or, your organization wants to partner with another company in a country with which India has military/civilizational rivalry (just an example) and you are against that.

Can you continue working in a place like that by subsuming your perspective?

This is what happened in the case of Levi’s and Sey. Sey eventually chose her personal brand over her corporate identity. It’s not a crime to disagree with an organization even if you are a leader, after all. This happens often in areas that we do not notice: for instance a senior leader in an alcohol brand could be a teetotaler, or a senior leader in a cigarette manufacturing brand could be a health-freak non-smoker. How they reconcile the contradiction within themselves is their own personal problem and decision.

As I explained in my post yesterday, we are not defined only by our income-earning capability (called ‘work’). That can remain only a role we play, for the purpose of gainful employment.

Level 2: How important is your need to air your point of view (that is divergent from your organization’s stand)?

This goes back to the basics I advocate when it comes to personal branding. Your social media activity and presence should not be anything and everything. It should be a carefully curated set of opinions on a chosen set of topics. This needs to be defined clearly in the beginning. Social media, as a venting channel for anything that comes to your mind, is at least a decade-old practice when things were far more innocent and benign. Now, we need to take charge of the kind of perception we’d like to be seen around/with.

So, the first consideration is to see if the topic in question (where you disagree with your organization’s publicly vocal stance) is one of the topics you have defined for your own personal branding. For instance, if ‘speaking truth to power’ is a topic you have defined for yourself too broadly without setting clear contours on the areas in which you would like to speak truth to power, then you may have a conflict on your hand.

For instance, if you have consistently spoken out about the topic in question, and your organization now takes a stand against it, you’d naturally be asked about your stand too precisely because there is a visible conflict between the two.

In the case of Sey and Levi’s, she had an option to state her stand clearly once that she disagrees with the company’s stand on say, masks or vaccines, and not pursue that contradictory stand relentlessly after that clarification. That means she has internally reconciled that she’d work to her best extent even if she disagrees with the company’s position on a topic. It may help if such a topic is not critical to the organization and only has social ramifications (as against product or service-related ramifications; for example, a leader vehemently against cigarettes and the company she works for choosing to venture into that segment).

Level 3: Who are the audiences you want to convey your divergent point of view to?

This level is something most people completely ignore because they don’t even think along these lines.

The personal branding effort is not meant for the whole world. It is meant for specific audiences.

The way I explain it, I use 3 layers in the form of concentric circles.

At the center is you.

The circles closer to you are where you use social networking and direct connection, while you use social media the further you move away from the circle.

The immediate next circle is your immediate family and friends. You communicate often with them, and the flow of information is high and personal.

The 2nd circle is your work colleagues, partners, vendors, and peers. You communicate less often in this circle compared to the first circle and the flow of information is mostly professional and less personal.

The 3rd/outer circle consists of the world – strangers, media/journalists/corporate peers that you don’t know/have not met, and so on. You do not communicate with this set at all consciously except via social media.

Your personal brand efforts are primarily built in the 3rd/outer circle and parts of the 2nd circle (extended peers set).

Let me present that in another format – half of layer 2, and layer 3 is the ‘personal branding’ audience:

So, if you have a divergent point of view from your organization’s publicly held view on a given topic, you may choose to air it only within the first circle – the people closest to you. This is particularly valid if you have not defined it as part of your personal brand tenets, as explained in Level 1.

This also goes back to the ‘100 windows’ I referred to in my post yesterday. The people in Layer 1 and half of Layer 2 know you a lot better than the other layers. In a way, they are inside the house with 100 windows so it may be imperative for you to communicate your divergent stand, and continue to coexist peacefully and cordially with them.

Then, you need to decide if the Layer 3 audiences need to know your divergent point of view. Now, you go back to Level 1 above!

Cover pic source: Bloomberg, issue dated May 2, 2022.

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