Occupy Wall Street: An Opportunity for Corporate Leadership
By: Deidre H. Campbell
Wall Street protestors cannot be dismissed as a mob in the streets. It’s a massive, growing demonstration of frustration. And, unfortunately, a lot of people in this country have good reason to be angry. They didn’t cause the economic crisis. But it’s sure impacting their ability to get jobs.
While Occupy Wall Street takes to the streets in 250 cities around the world, the financial services industry and Washington seemingly take no action. Even more frustrating is that the dialogue on Occupy Wall Street undermines its efforts as lacking messages and focus without making the larger connection.
The point is that it’s happening at all.
The energy of Occupy Wall Street is being wasted on inarticulate outrage, because it’s leaderless. The protesters, along with many in the general public, are crying out for someone to help them understand why the debt-ceiling problem remains unsolved, when the job market will recover, and where symbols of hope can be found.
We do have some great leaders in financial services that could credibly take action, grab the leadership mantle and provide solutions. Treat the entire situation like a sustained crisis, and the classic communication steps come into play – (1) apologize, (2) address the problem, and (3) make sure it doesn’t happen again.
· Apologies can be tricky. A mere acknowledgment would go a long way in assuaging the wounded. These people are, after all, customers and hopefully future customers. They need to know that financial services institutions are committed to bringing their respective companies and especially their customers though this difficult period. Think Obama March 2008, bravely taking the race issue on front and center and then putting it behind everyone in the campaign. Look the issues dead in the eye and then move forward.
· Addressing the problem will be far more complicated. While Occupy Wall Street has now expanded to mean “mad about everything”, the initial movement was able to cast a net around why this movement and why now. Too many student loans. No jobs to pay them back. Taking these two concerns as the premise of the movement, we can begin to address them through education and action.
· Macro-economic Schooling: Consider that Occupy Wall Street is a microcosm of society. It is pretty clear that the demonstrators do not understand the global financial dynamics that are causing the drag on recovery. This is clear in their accusations heralded at the vaguely defined “Wall Street.” A financial education program that was honest, direct and delivered with straightforward language would be appreciated by everyone – far beyond the protestors. With greater understanding of domestic and global economic conditions, individuals can make better judgments for gauging progress and assessing the role of government and private sector in the progress.
· Take on the Jobs Issue: Financial services companies take on a myriad of needs through their corporate responsibility program and foundation work. Why not take on the jobs issue first hand? Howard Schultz of Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) has been the first to take a step in that direction with its “Jobs for USA” program. Not that Starbucks can cure job market woes with a $5 million donation and themed bracelets for sale, but it’s interesting to see business take action with tangible steps toward solutions. Even while unemployment stays stubbornly at 9.2%, thousands of jobs – largely tech-based – remain unfilled based on the lack of individuals with the right skills. Financial services companies could fund jobs retraining programs for individuals with the right backgrounds to traverse the skills gap. By showing that they are taking the job issue on directly, companies could demonstrate their recognition of the problem and their determination to be part of the solution.
· Making sure it doesn’t happen again is the final and often the most important step in moving through a crisis. The steps taken in this phase need to be real and long-lasting. Guided by the initial focus of Occupy Wall Street, it is the intersection of joblessness and debt that are causing widespread anxiety. For students, the feeling is that they were duped by “Wall Street” by making the debt so easily available to them for expensive educations only to rob them of jobs through market greed and short-sightedness. Making sure it doesn’t happen again requires education and remediation.
· Financial Education: Just like every other type debt, student aid was easy to get and enthusiastically encouraged. Certainly, no one foresaw this long lasting economic downturn, but the lax lending practices were at the heart of the crisis broadly. University-based financial education should be the center piece of financial services companies presence on-campus and online for this demographic. Companies are already there recruiting. If they are seen as a solid corporate citizens, those recruiting goals would be even easier.
· Take a Stand on Regulatory Reform: The general consensus is that financial services companies are pushing back on government efforts for regulatory reform. Frustration is felt because of the endless debate that doesn’t seem to result in any concrete reform efforts. This is where the lack of leadership is felt most harshly. With Washington firmly planted in presidential election mode, the opportunity is rich for financial services companies – even collectively – to propose regulations that safeguard long-term financial security for all. The public (not just Occupy Wall Street) needs to know this situation won’t happen again.
Without leadership and understanding, it’s not surprising that frustration is coming to a head – and not just in the United States. Remember, every protester is joined by thousands more equally frustrated and likely to take this angst out in other ways, like a lack of customer loyalty. Tackling the issues isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for the bottom line.