In 2022: What CEOs Said, and How They Sounded

Another remarkably colorful year in the once gray flannel-suited genre of executive communications.

This generation of corporate CEOs issues more provocative commentary on a broader array of public issues in a year than their predecessors mumbled in a century.

Search the decades of archives of Fortune magazine or Vital Speeches of the Day, and look for corporate titans’ takes on the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam, AIDS, or global warming.

You’ll find a little, but you won’t find much.

After the thanklessness of their rhetorical participation in the helter skelter of 2020 and 2021, many CEOs have vowed to impose more strategic discipline when deciding which issues to comment on. “You don’t want me,” CVS Health CEO Karen S. Lynch told The New York Times last January, “to wax about politics.”

But a review of 2022 issues of the Executive Communication Report, a trade newsletter I write for a couple thousand executive communication professionals three times a week, yields another feast of CEO rhetoric—complete with a couple of food fights.

With the Omicron variant still on the make in January, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon threatened employees : Get vaccinated, or get lost. “If you aren’t going to get vaxxed, you won’t be able to work in that office,” Dimon told Forbes in mid-January. “We’re not going to pay you not to work in the office.”

Cryptocurrency was going great guns early in the year, and longtime doubter Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said “my view is evolving” on the subject, telling CNBC in late January, “I can’t predict the future, but I think it’s a big thing to be able to predict the present, like, ‘What is happening?’ And I look at the crypto, and it is happening … I may be skeptical, but I’m also pragmatic about it. And so guess what? I would certainly want to have an oar in that water.”

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek issued an anguished apology when it was discovered that popular podcaster Joe Rogan had not only hosted discussions with antivaxxers but also said some shitty racist things on some of his shows. “There are no words I can say to adequately convey how deeply sorry I am for the way ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ controversy continues to impact each of you,” Ek told employees in early February before saying he was keeping Rogan on the platform.

For airline CEOs in the spring, reliability was Job One, as American Airlines CEO Robert Isom told pilots, after a spring break season filled with flight delays and cancellations: “People really need to feel like they have control of their itineraries and we give them control by making sure they get to where they want to go on time. I just can’t be any more blunt about it than that.” Then came a summer travel season, also plagued by widespread flight unreliability. “We overdid it,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told the International Business Times at the end of July. Trying to fulfill “the demand that we hadn’t seen in a couple years,” Bastian said, “we pushed and stretched our capabilities and resources too far.”

In February, Chipotle Mexican Grill CEO Brian Niccol said he’d “chuckled” at the idea that inflation was “transitory,” as administration officials had hopefully suggested in 2021. The restaurant chain had raised menu prices twice with a third hike in the works. “I just don’t see inflation, unfortunately, going away anytime soon,” Niccol said. “It sure doesn’t look transitory to me.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, many CEOs spoke about their companies’ plans to withdraw from and stop doing business with Russia. Others talked of helping their Ukrainian employees escape the country and offering humanitarian aid to Ukraine. By mid-March, Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was enthusing to The Washington Post about the productive pressure that had been applied by a “naughty and nice” list that he’d compiled and publicized, showing which companies were and weren’t getting out of Russia: “What these lists do is give courageous CEOs the confidence to keep going, and the wannabe courageous ones the reinforcements to deal with their boards so they come off as responsible business leaders when they can see a stampede of their peers leaving Russia.”

Damned if you don’t, damned if you do—and dumped in the end. Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s troubles began in earnest in early March, when he spent a week ineffectively explaining his initial refusal to speak out against Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” bill, CNN reported. By March 21, Disney employees were planning a “full-day walkout” in protest of Chapek’s handling of the bill. There was an attempted reintroduction of Chapek at Disney’s D23 Expo in September, at which he told The New York Times, “I’m trying to show a little more of who I am. I haven’t had a lot of chances.” Then it was announced in November that Chapek was out, and his predecessor Bob Iger would replace him.

What do employees want, in 2022? Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon told Time in March, “They want leaders who are relatable.” Which is a big change, he said: “If you think about when I was in my 20s, the CEO of a big organization was like up in an ivory tower, untouchable, inaccessible. You really didn’t know a lot about them. You can barely get near them, right? I think about today, with the transparency of the world, with social media, with access, with communication. Leaders are much more visible. And if you’re going to be visible, they don’t want to just see you as a hard-nose decision maker. They want to see who you are as a person. They want to see you authentically. And they’re demanding. They want to understand that they’re working for a company that has a sense of purpose. They want to see that they’re working for someone who’s a human being, that they can relate to. And so I think that’s an evolution.”

This year saw the rise and fall of “effective altruism.” In April Bloomberg quoted FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried on why he would keep only 1% of his earnings every year—about $100,000. It was a new philosophy, of “earning to give.” Said Bankman-Fried then, “You pretty quickly run out of really effective ways to make yourself happier by spending money. I don’t want a yacht.” By December 14, Yahoo Finance quoted the new CEO of FTX, hired after Bankman-Fried’s ouster. Calling his predecessor’s behavior “old-fashioned embezzlement,” John J. Ray III testified to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee, “This is just taking money from your customers and using it for your own purpose. Not sophisticated at all.”

Some CEO statements didn’t age well. For instance, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced in April that Elon Musk “has decided not to join our board,” MarketWatch reported. Though Agrawal added, “I believe this is for the best,” he also said, “Elon is our biggest shareholder and we will remain open to his input.” 

Remote work continued to be a bugbear to many CEOs. Or as JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon calls it, “Management by Hollywood Squares.”

It was around May that inflation complaints turned into recession rhetoric, starting with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sending an employee memo in late May urging budget austerity, CNBC reported. Saying he’d spent several days with investors, Khosrowshahi wrote, “It’s clear that the market is experiencing a seismic shift and we need to react accordingly. … The least efficient marketing and incentive spend will be pulled back. We will treat hiring as a privilege and be deliberate about when and where we add headcount. We will be even more hardcore about costs across the board.”

On the Dodd decision—and later the Roe v. Wade reversal, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s articulate activism was the exception that proved the rule. The nut of Stoppelman’s argument, in a column in Fast Company in May: “Companies who have for years claimed that diversity and inclusion is a priority must recognize that restricting women’s rights to decide when to have children will severely impact their well-being and limit their access to equitable opportunities for success in the workplace. When roughly 50% of the U.S. population faces greater barriers not only to participating in the workforce and advancing to leadership positions, but simply to exercise their right to self-determination, it undermines any corporate commitment to gender equity. Remaining silent on the issue of reproductive rights flies in the face of any public pledges professing a desire to create more diverse and inclusive companies. … We need more business leaders to use their platform and influence to help ensure that reproductive rights are codified into law, and that the wave of abortion bans and restrictive policies across the country are not allowed to stand.”

CEOs continued to wrestle publicly with activism in general; Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian expressed the dilemma pretty well in an interview with Fortune“It doesn’t come without a lot of risks and a lot of vulnerabilities. It’s not something we’re accustomed to dealing with. It’s something we’d rather not deal with. Rather not because, well, it’s a controversy. But we’ve all grown up wanting everybody to love us. We’re about selling airplane tickets. We’re not about trying to be a legislator or a politician or trying to be a social advocate. But there come times when what you see happening and the divisiveness in society is impacting your own people, and your people are feeling and carrying the weight of that.” And as Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan put it in the wake of the Roe reversal: “With all things like this, we look at what our team needs from us. I could have a personal point of view, but that’s not what we do.” Or as JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said, “I am not woke. All we’re saying is when we wake up in the morning, what we give a shit about is serving customers, earning their respect, earning their repeat business.”

The summer saw dueling predictions about the severity of a possible recession, the splashiest being Dimon’s expectation of an “economic hurricane.” He told attendees at a financial conference in June, “Right now, it’s kind of sunny, things are doing fine. Everyone thinks the Fed can handle this. That hurricane is right out there down the road, coming our way. We just don’t know if it’s a minor one or Superstorm Sandy or Andrew or something like that, and you better brace yourself.” By October, Dimon was telling Fortune, “It’s not about predictions—it’s about probabilities and the range of possible outcomes. Right now, I think there’s about a 5% chance of a soft landing. I think there’s maybe about a 30% chance of a mild recession, and maybe a 30% chance of a harder recession—think a possibility of 6% unemployment. And then I think there’s another 30% chance of something else—maybe stagflation or something we don’t expect.” Meanwhile, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan consistently downplayed the chances of major recession, in December taking on Dimon’s dire prediction directly, telling CBS’s Face the Nation, “Hurricane season is now closed.”

CEOs spoke about stakeholder capitalism less frequently than in the years immediately after The Business Roundtable redefined The Purpose of a Corporation in 2019, and Fortune Media CEO Alan Murray lamented over the summer that even the BRT isn’t talking about it much. “There are lots of potential reasons,” Murray writes. “The Biden administration’s reluctance to acknowledge the necessary role of fossil fuels in an energy transition certainly angered many CEOs. The SEC’s relatively hard-line approach to climate disclosure also raised hackles. Eagerness to avoid the crossfire of partisan warfare certainly plays a role. And the BRT’s traditional objection to any increase in its members’ tax burden …” Murray concluded: “Let’s hope this change at the BRT doesn’t reflect a broader retreat by U.S.-based businesses from their impressive and laudable efforts to step up action on climate in the last few years.”

ESG, we hardly knew ye. Fortune Media CEO Murray spent a lot of time exploring backlash to the ESG movement by influential investors who see it as more wasteful than meaningful. One CEO Murray found who still stood strong on ESG was Verizon’s Hans Vestberg, who said his company would not pull back on ESG in the face of economic headwinds. “No,” Vestberg said. “It’s absolutely crucial that corporations like ours are reporting on things that are not only financial. Because ultimately, we are extremely important for society and we have platforms that stretch out into all corners of our communities. We just need to find a model where we can make progress, rather than doing a revolution and losing sight of the improvements already being made.”

A series of layoffs began in late summer, with this colorful quote from SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, who told Fortune in August, “When we were turning out big profits, I became somewhat delirious, and looking back at myself now, I am quite embarrassed and remorseful.”

In 2022, it was still lonely at the top. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on The Joe Rogan Experience and spoke about the rough start to his average day, Fortune reports. “It’s almost like every day you wake up and you’re punched in the stomach,” he said. “You wake up in the morning, look at my phone, get like a million messages. It’s usually not good. People reserve the good stuff to tell me in person.” 

As the layoffs continued, connoisseurs of their announcements appreciated the conclusion of Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel’s letter to employees, reported by Bloomberg: “We will miss the many kind, smart, and creative team members who have contributed to Snap’s growth and I am deeply sorry that these changes are necessary to ensure the long term success of our business. The friendship and camaraderie we all share as a team make these changes particularly painful, and we will make every effort to treat our departing team members with the respect and gratitude that they deserve.”

Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard explained why he gave the $3 billion company away in September to a nonprofit and trust dedicated to combatting climate change. “Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” Chouinard told The New York Times. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet.”

The metaverse seemed to lose currrency in 2022, with Apple CEO Tim Cook one of several tech bosses expressing skepticism over the concept. “I always think it’s important that people understand what something is,” Cook said, according to The Verge. “And I’m really not sure the average person can tell you what the metaverse is.” 

To be a CEO …? “When I think about the last 18 months … I like to say I’m jealous of me,” newish TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett said at the Fortune Powerful Women Summit in October. “And I’m jealous of me, because I get to surround myself with incredible people. I’m jealous of me, because over the last 18 months, I got to get really clear on who we are and what we’re here to do. We exist to secure retirement for millions of Americans. And when you think about the problem, that still has to be solved, that 40% of Americans will run out of money in retirement, especially when you think about the economy, which I know we’ll get to, I’m jealous of me because I get to be at the table, I get to make impact. And when I think about the headwinds, I feel like challenge accepted, because if not me, then who? And the opportunity to drive this company forward on a transformational agenda, the opportunity to make positive impact, just aligns with who I am.”

… or not to be a CEO? An anonymous CEO was quoted by Forbes columnist John Blakely in October. “John,” he said, “I’m surrounded by circumstances I can’t control and stakeholders who vilify my position. Yet I am still held accountable for delivering a three-year plan that nobody believes in … And what’s more, my daily expenses are subject to a ‘Freedom of Information’ request, and my children hold me personally culpable for global challenges ranging from climate change to racial tensions and world hunger. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need to be worshipped, but neither am I comfortable being cast out as a social pariah.”

While many energy company CEOs toed some version of their traditional line about participating in a pragmatic transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods went the other way, The Wall Street Journal reported. Woods told fellow CEOs in December that he doesn’t expect the demand for oil and gas to peak for several decades, and since Exxon Mobil doesn’t have a competitive advantage in renewables, it’s focusing solely on producing fossil fuels. “If the world needs oil and gas, which it does, who best to produce it,” Woods said. “Our view is, as long as oil and gas is going to be needed … we want to be the ones best positioned to provide that.”

Also in December, Meta HR chief Lori Goler basically told employees to knock off the politics talk—and promised the company would do the same, Fortune reported. “As [CEO] Mark [Zuckerberg] mentioned recently, we need to make a number of cultural shifts to help us deliver against our priorities,” Goler wrote. “We’re doing this to ensure that internal discussions remain respectful, productive, and allow us to focus. This comes with the trade-off that we’ll no longer allow for every type of expression at work, but we think this is the right thing to do for the long-term health of our internal community.” Effective immediately and applying to “everyone at Meta,” the new engagement rules demand internal discussions adhere to three “core principles,” according to Fortune: “focus on the mission, work with respect, and protect company information.” Goler listed conversation topics “that can no longer be discussed at work based on what we’ve seen to be very disruptive in the past”; Fortunelists them as “health matters such as vaccine efficacy and abortion, legal matters such as pending legislation, political matters such as elections or political movements, and weapon ownership and rights.” A Meta spokesperson told Fortune in a statement: “We deeply value expression, open discussion, and a company culture built on respect and inclusivity. We’ve updated our employee expectations to provide direction around what is appropriate for our people in the workplace, so that we can reduce distractions while maintaining an environment that is respectful and inclusive and where people can do their best work.” 

As part of the announcement, HR chief Goler also promised that the change will apply to how the company weighs in on external issues, too. “We are often asked to sign on to advocacy letters on topics that are important, but not directly connected to our work,” Goler wrote. “This can distract us from focusing on issues that are not central to our mission. So going forward, as a company we will only make public statements on issues that are core to our business, meaning they are required in order to provide our service.”

And of course Elon Musk got the last word in 2022, declaring his intention to resign as Twitter CEO as soon as he finds “someone foolish enough to take the job—a sentiment that more than one other chief executive, in this disorienting era in corporate leadership communication, must quietly share.

What will next year hold, in the increasingly wild world of corporate leadership communication? Find out as soon as we do, by subscribing to the free Executive Communication Report.

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