Mood of the Boardroom: The importance of speaking out

Spark CEO Simon Moutter. Photo / Nick Reed
Spark CEO Simon Moutter. Photo / Nick Reed

Speaking out on important issues that face the nation has been a defining characteristic of the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom CEOs Survey.

The survey is now in its 15th year and CEOs are once again willing to speak out on important issues so the Herald can publish a snapshot of the "mood" at the senior levels of New Zealand business.

This year, we asked chief executives what best reflected their own philosophy: Whether as a CEO it was best to focus on issues that directly affected the bottom line and to "avoid controversial public issues"? Or, whether it was important to take a stand on some important public and political issues?

A clear majority -- 63 per cent -- opted for the latter option. Many CEOs were emphatic in their belief that business figures must take stances on matters of political importance.

Spark NZ managing director Simon Moutter says change will always be controversial. Forceful leadership from the business community is often necessary.

"If CEOs won't stand up on matters of importance to the country, that just leaves politicians to do all of it," says Moutter. "That can't be the right outcome." And Moutter has certainly walked the talk, notably taking a strong stance this year against tax dodging by multi-nationals.

Social media is one of the channels making it easier for business leaders to take those stances. Moutter took to Twitter describing Google's behaviour as "despicable".

That tweet sparked other articles, including one by Moutter himself, in which he challenged Facebook, Google, and Apple to "pay their fair share".

After the tech giants failed to respond to that challenge, Moutter took to Twitter again: "your silence is deafening!" he told them.

One transport sector chief executive agreed that it was important to take a stand on some issues, but warns: "always remain conscious of undermining important relationships in a small country".

Ex-patriate businessman Stephen Jennings, ANZ's David Hisco and Mainfreight founder Bruce Plested have also memorably challenged the status quo in 2016.

But others citing the potential for their comments to be misconstrued in a more populist media environment are reluctant to poke their heads up over the parapet. In this environment said an energy boss it was "best to focus on such public issues and matters of national interest where they are relevant/adjacent to your organisation."

If CEOs won't stand up on matters of importance to the country, that just leaves politicians to do all of it.

A leading banker shares those frustrations: "The problem with doing that is New Zealand has a media and chattering class that loves taking potshots at anyone who takes a stand on an issue."

Only one third of respondents to the Mood of the Boardroom survey reflected the philosophy that it was best to focus on the bottom line and avoid controversial political issues.

Mainfreight group managing director Don Braid emphasised that his first priority is to focus on growth and profitability. The responsibility to speak up on public issues only comes into play "where we have an opinion or some expertise".

"Commenting for the sake of it is not part of our DNA," cautions Braid.

- NZ Herald

What are your thoughts? Tweet us @nzherald using the hashtag: #Boardroom2016

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