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The right steps to taking a stand

Kelly McGinnis

When considering whether to weigh in on an issue, ask yourself: Do we have anything new or different to contribute to the conversation? The answer needs to be yes before you take a stand.

Kelly McGinnis, Levi Strauss & Co.

There was a time when brands bent over backward to avoid controversy and CEOs would keep their opinions to themselves about the world outside the boardroom.

No more. These days, brands taking stands is so common it barely raises an eyebrow. Activist CEOs are speaking out and using the influence of their companies to support issues from climate change to social justice. It’s more than posturing — it’s a reflection of a new corporate character, one acknowledging that the role of business in society is rapidly shifting and consumers increasingly use their purchasing power to reinforce their values.

However, as many brands have learned, stepping into this space without careful thought – or, even worse, solely as a marketing play – is risky business. Consumers are savvy at sniffing out authenticity, or a lack thereof, and the viral nature of the internet makes the impact of ill-considered or off-the-cuff statements difficult to shake.

At Levi Strauss & Co., we’ve been leading with our values for more than a century and a half. Starting with our founder, Levi Strauss, our leaders have a long history of taking bold, public stances on the important causes of their time, and we’re proud that those decisions have put us on the right side of history time and again.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Be courageous

Making the biggest impact often requires taking a stand on the thorniest issues. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and it often involves going against popular opinion. It takes thick skin, and your leadership needs to be aware that standing up may mean courting controversy.

When tackling complex issues such as immigration and gun violence prevention, we make sure to stay committed to choosing the hard right over the easy wrong – even if it means taking a stance that isn’t popular with everyone.

Be authentic and original

Authenticity and originality are core to who we are at Levi’s, and the same should go for anyone looking to step into this arena. It’s not necessary to take a stand on every issue that hits the headlines. Instead, use the values that have been woven into your company as a guide.

When considering whether to weigh in on an issue, ask yourself: Do we have anything new or different to contribute to the conversation? The answer needs to be yes – whether it’s rallying the business community or putting money behind the cause – before you take a stand.

Listen to your employees

Everyone is more credible and persuasive when they’re speaking from experience. Oftentimes, the efforts that make the greatest impact and have the longest staying power are the ones your employees advocate for.

It was our employees who challenged us take a stand on issues such as the international refugee crisis, the AIDS crisis, immigrant rights, and voter registration. These issues are personal for our employees, which makes them personal for us as an organization. That said, not everyone agrees on every issue, and that’s OK. Taking a stand opens up honest conversations around the issues that matter to your employees.

The path to authentic engagement is different for every company. For us, it’s all about a set of core values that define and shape our culture. It’s our commitment to “Profits through Principles” that guides us at Levi Strauss in our everyday decision-making and when thinking about taking a stand.

In this time when “staying out of it” is less and less the right answer, it is our values that guide us and help us make the right choice, no matter how controversial it might be.

Kelly McGinnis is SVP and CCO at Levi Strauss & Co.


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