Leaders and Values

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As I’m sure you have heard, Brendan Eich was forced out as CEO of Mozilla (best known for its Firefox browser) when it became public knowledge that he gave $1,000 six years ago in support of California’s Proposition 8, which made same sex marriage illegal in California.  The initiative has since been overturned.

You can read many articles from both sides of the political spectrum as to whether Mr. Eich should have been forced out.  For this blog, I’ll focus on the selection of him as being CEO when the board knew about the donation.

If you or I were asked what types of political donations we’ve made when applying for a non-CEO job, we would probably first be shocked.  Then, in a way correlated with how much we wanted the job, point out that the topic is really none of the interviewer’s business and asking about it is illegal.  But, is that a fair question of someone applying to be a CEO?

Well, yes and no.  There was no indication that Eich’s personal views were affecting his ability to build value for Mozilla.  No one accused him of bias in the workplace against LGBT employees or volunteers.  There are no harassment charges pending against him.  So, one could argue that this was nothing more than a politically motivated witch-hunt where a group seeks to impose its view of the world on a work place.

However, the CEO’s job is to build the value of a company.  Sometimes, s/he is called upon to do this when corporate policies/advertising offend a certain segment of the population (see both Honey Maid and Chick-fil-A).  Given our current political climate almost any stand that a company takes (or chooses not to take) on a social issue is going to gain or lose some customers.  For the CEO to be authentic to the public and employees, s/he must represent the values of the company when defending these positions.  Where Eich ran into trouble was that he was seen as not representing Mozilla’s values.  Interestingly, the diversity statement includes a portion which discusses how Mozilla would treat situations where a person belonged to an organization that did not support Mozilla’s values.  So much for the value of mission statements.  While it was through a “customer” (users don’t pay for the software) venue where word got out about Eich’s donation, it was the apparent conflict in values, which led to a lack of trust among Mozilla’s employees and volunteers, that sunk him.  You cannot lead if you are leaking followers and it was at this point that he was forced to resign.

Are CEOs likely to sue because they were let go due to political beliefs?  Probably not.  In this case, I believe that Eich loves Mozilla and its mission too much to drag it through the mud (oh, and he’s rich).  Others would likely negotiate a little extra money out the door in exchange for not going to court.  But, how far down the corporate food chain does this go?  VPs and higher?  Managers?  Raise your hand if you want to tell a judge in jury why you were asking a prospective employee about his/her political donations and why that behavior didn’t adhere to your corporate values.

Executive search committees would be wise to take these kinds of contributions and political activities into to consideration when vetting candidates.  Then again, a few more Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon and political donations will be completely private and then only the outspoken will be put to this kind of scrutiny.

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