Increasingly, executives are displaying visionary leadership on issues related to social justice. The National Basketball Association printed the words “Black Lives Matter” on the court in its Orlando, Florida, “bubble” in 2020, for example, and businesses such as Netflix have committed to making significant financial investments in Black communities.
On March 25, 2021, Georgia’s Republican-led legislature passed a new voting law that opponents believed would disenfranchise Black voters. Among other changes, the new law places new restrictions on absentee ballots and ballot drop boxes; gives the state legislature more control over elections; and makes it a misdemeanor to offer food and water to people waiting to vote.
Two prominent Black executives, former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, believed the business world should speak out against the Georgia law and similarly restrictive voting legislation being considered in other states, the New York Times reports. To them, the issue was moral, not political: “The right to vote is fundamental to America,” Chenault told the Wall Street Journal. “It is not a partisan issue.” Through the coalition building that followed, Chenault and Frazier illustrated why negotiation is important in leadership.
An Initial Statement
Chenault and Frazier began their campaign by emailing and texting with other Black executives to discuss the possibility of speaking out together. “We thought if we spoke up, it might lead to a situation where others felt the responsibility to speak up,” Frazier told the Times.
Frazier had already shown visionary leadership in the public sphere. Following President Donald Trump’s equivocal response to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Frazier was the first chief executive to publicly resign from Trump’s business advisory councils. Others followed; the advisory groups disbanded.
Seventy-two Black executives—including TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson Jr. and Ariel Investments co-CEOs Mellody Hobson and John Rogers Jr.—signed a “Memo to Corporate America” that ran as a full-page ad in the Times on March 31. “When it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to vote, there can be no middle ground,” the memo read. “We call upon our colleagues in Corporate America to join us in taking a non-partisan stand for equality and democracy.”
Broadening the Coalition
After the memo was published, business leaders nationwide reached out to Chenault and Frazier to offer their support. The two met with three other Black executives—Lazard investment banking chairman William M. Lewis Jr., Darden Restaurants former CEO Clarence Otis Jr., and former Infor CEO Charles Phillips—to discuss what to do next, the Times reports. Together, they drafted a broader statement condemning voting restrictions and circulated it to prominent executives of various races and ethnicities.
On April 7, Frazier and Chenault pitched the statement to the Business Roundtable, an influential corporate lobbying group comprising leading U.S. executives. The next day, a member of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s staff discussed the Georgia law with the business group. Business Roundtable members then met privately to discuss the issue on April 9. PayPal CEO Dan Schulman reportedly pressed members to sign the statement, according to the Times.
On a Zoom meeting with more than 100 executives the next day, April 10, Chenault and Frazier read the statement and asked those in attendance to sign on. Many agreed, though some, including Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, said they would sign as individuals rather than adding their company’s name.
Some leaders asked for the removal of a sentence that would commit them to opposing “any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.” Insisting the sentence was crucial, Chenault and Frazier declined, the Times reports.
On April 14, the statement ran as an ad in the Times and the Washington Post. Signed by hundreds of business leaders and companies, including Amazon, Google, and Netflix, it criticized any legislation that would make voting more difficult for Americans.
The statement was meant to be a nonpartisan affirmation of voting rights. But some prominent Republican politicians—including Trump and McConnell—and business leaders criticized corporate leaders for getting involved in politics. Several companies, including Coca-Cola, Delta, and JPMorgan Chase, made statements supporting voting rights but declined to sign the group letter.
But, through strategic leadership, Chenault and Frazier had met their goal. They did so by first building a narrow coalition of people they believed would be most sympathetic to their cause. Next, they demonstrated effective leadership by building a broader coalition that was able to generate national, and even global, attention to their concerns.
What examples of visionary leadership through negotiation have you witnessed lately?