Hey CEOs, now isn’t the time to stick your head in the sand

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp recently published a blog, and as a fellow CEO in tech, I’m compelled to respond. The issues referenced in Jason’s Changes at Basecamp are complex and the internal events leading up to his announcement were controversial. To those outside the company who are navigating these choppy waters, I’d like to offer up a distinctly different perspective.

This isn’t about Jason. While I disagree with many of his opinions, I respect what he’s accomplished as a CEO, I appreciate the trails he’s blazed, and I’ve been a customer of the tools he’s built. However, what this is about is a system that has elevated him into a position of power, and helped him establish an audience, then enabled him to wield that power in ways that silence others.

His recent post shifts the narrative from one of “influence” to “cautionary tale”. It’s a perfect example of how privileged tech bros like Jason can easily pull back from difficult conversations. On the surface, he joins the ranks of leaders at companies like Coinbase, and Pinterest who have criticized “woke” culture enacted similar restrictions surrounding staff conversations. But Jason’s policies go further in a dark way.

The systems surrounding tech, social media, and journalism have provided Jason a tall podium and loud megaphone — and ignoring his comments are akin to silently endorsing them. Too many leaders and entrepreneurs in the tech industry look to his example. So it’s not enough for us to shrug our shoulders and say, “Basecamp’s approach is different”.

In the end, Jason’s policies might very well work for him and his 60 or so employees, but it should not be used as a model by entrepreneurs and tech CEOs who seek to leave the world better than where they found it.

Jason publicly acknowledges that he likes staying out of it and instead prefers remaining in his comfort zone. But don’t we all know that growth happens outside of your comfort zone? Uncomfortable conversations have a way of pushing your boundaries. And when you’re a CEO, your growth zone is your company’s growth zone.

Active avoidance of and muzzling of employees’ voices around uncomfortable topics is a clear sign of privilege. Whether you are present for them or or not, these conversations are taking place in your workplace. They affect all community members.

It is shown that diversity of thought is what leads to better business outcomes. Through these conversations we expose new and diverse thoughts and opinions — avoiding these discussions damages us individually, as a community, and as companies.

Jason’s original post goes into more details, but the essence of his new policies are a banning of “societal and political discussions”, “committees”, “360 review” and “paternalistic benefits”. Aside from seeming a tich hypocritical (Basecamp founders have been vocal on other political issues such as anti-trust and municipal elections), by implementing these policies, Jason is shutting down open discourse, killing mechanisms for feedback, and eschewing any influence on decisions. By implementing these policies he abdicates his responsibility as a prominent leader and as an influence in the entrepreneurial community.

I reject with his view that we need to shutter conversation in order to thrive. It is 100% possible to build an inclusive environment that still trusts people to each do their own individual jobs well. Sticking your head in the sand is a disservice to your employees, customers, and investors.

You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target” — if you read this and agree, if you’re surprised that you suddenly need to think before you speak, this is explicit evidence of systemic privilege. Your colleagues from other backgrounds always need to think before they speak — thinking before you speak is a good sign. You and your organization are growing. Don’t follow Jason’s example of withdrawing. By making your workplace stay out of it, you’d be defaulting to side against oppressed voices and making your entire company culture complicit.

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented

~ Elie Wiesel, Nobel Acceptance Speech

It’s not Basecamp’s place to encourage certain behaviors” — yes it is! In fact, the World Economic Forum agrees that we’re moving to broader stakeholder capitalism. We’re all moving away from serving just shareholders towards serving the interests of all stakeholders including customers, suppliers, employees, local communities and shareholders. It’s impossible to understand how to best serve these groups without having meaningful conversations — especially those around the messy “societal conversations” Basecamp is looking to avoid. CEOs have more influence and leverage than individual employees — that gives CEOs the opportunity (and the responsibility) to improve the societies in which broader stakeholders work and live.

I’m not Jason, I’m not running a $100B company, but I have built and sold multiple companies with hundreds of people and teams spread across five continents. Moreover, I now work with an amazing team to deliver a career accelerator that helps people establish careers in tech; the majority of our customers are people who experience this type of toxic, barrier-building behaviour every single day. As these grads go on to work at some of the hottest tech companies (like ClearcoDoceboVidyardLever, and HyperComply) they demonstrate, every day, how disadvantaged people in tech (BIPOC, women, newcomers) can ramp fasterachieve more, and add to their company’s culture.

Jason — I’m not proposing an abandonment of all principles. Yes, it’s your company and it’s your choice. Yes, an over-abundance of committees and meetings can harm productivity, Yes, you need to stay true to your stated values of “giving a damnand “proving that you don’t have to be a big company to have a big impact”. All that said, the violent overcorrection you’ve announced will stifle voices and harm those who are most disadvantaged. And, as much as you’ve been a visionary, in this area you have a blind spot — one that I hope does not become precedent-setting given how tall your podium is and how loud your megaphone can be.

For those who are looking for some alternative models, here are some quick lessons that have helped me become a better leader:

  1. Lean into difficult topics and conversations — build better products and make better business decisions by getting outside your comfort zone and into your growth zone. It will help you remain open to new information and new perspectives.
  2. Encourage a culture of temperance over extremism — a quick and easy way to do this is to consider whether your company values need complements. At Uvaro we’ve had great success helping our teams consider how the values of Diversity and Solidarity help us incorporate new information then all pull together.
  3. Prioritize helping leaders assess their privilege — learning and change is best supported bottom-up and top-down. Inviting your leaders to assess their own inclusivity can be a great learning experience, without the feared 360 review.

Right now every leader is asking how they should engage in broader societal issues while simultaneously keeping their teams united and focused. While there are no clear answers, and while we’re all doing our best, sticking our heads in the sand won’t make anything better. It’ll only make everything much, much worse.

Headline Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Joseph

VP HCM Products at NetSuite and Founder of TribeHR and Lewis Media. Waterloo Region Enthusiast and active volunteer.

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