John Taft is no stranger to politics. A self-described "genetic Republican," he is a great-grandson of President William Howard Taft, grandson of Ohio Senator Robert Taft and himself a former aide to a mayor of St. Paul, Minn.
But no politically charged cause has done more to elevate his executive profile than his campaign for same-sex marriage rights, a position based in his belief that equality makes great economic sense.
It's a belief for which he has long been known at Royal Bank of Canada. As the Minneapolis-based CEO for RBC Wealth Management in the United States, Taft has championed workplace policies designed to promote inclusiveness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees. When Minnesota decided to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would define marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, his opinions became a lot more public.
Writing last summer in an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Taft made his best case for voting down the measure, which will appear on the ballot this November. "If we want to maintain our standing as one of the most economically vital states in the nation," he argued, "we must demonstrate a commitment to creating open, healthy, equitable and tolerant communities in which the broadest range of current and prospective employees can live and work."
Cue the crickets. Despite Taft's public call to arms, other CEOs in town showed little to no interest in joining his vocal pursuit of a "no" vote.
"Privately, many CEOs personally agree with my position, and they said they would help me behind the scenes. But publicly, they feel forced to pay attention to what is best for the company. They can't afford to take a position on the marriage amendment because it might offend their employees and clients."
Seven months later, another op-ed in the Star Tribune appeared, with themes very similar to Taft's. This time it was Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman of the Minnetonka-based travel and hospitality company Carlson, arguing against the amendment. But the heads of Minnesota's largest companies have otherwise remained largely silent on the issue.
"I truly am disappointed that more business leaders have not been willing to go public with their opposition," Taft says. "The business case for diversity is unassailable. If you are going to have any hope of competing in today's business environment, which is only getting more diverse, you will need to attract, and keep, the best, most diverse set of employees-regardless of their ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation."
Moreover, he argues, "when a diverse staff is not only accepted but celebrated, by financial services firms in particular, that immediately translates into higher client satisfaction."
Taft, who last year served as chairman of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, is encouraged that CEOs outside of Minnesota, such as Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, have voiced similar views on the business advantages to supporting same-sex marriage. TD Bank Group's Ed Clark has gone even further. In a recently produced video for the "It Gets Better" campaign-an outreach effort supporting gay youth-Clark spoke about his desire to see equal treatment of all for reasons that go well beyond business. "It's hard to be different in an environment that doesn't celebrate your difference," Clark said in the Web video. "The issue is a group of people who are trapped in historical prejudice and anger, which have no place in a modern society."
Taft has mainly framed his argument against the Minnesota ballot measure in terms of business concerns, but his activism also has a personal element, one that started with the bumper stickers he began noticing on his car 15 years ago. Back then, Taft was happy to let his then-16-year-old daughter drive his car around their Minneapolis neighborhood, until he got aggravated with all those stickers she had festooned on his back bumper.
And then he stopped to read what the stickers said. Each one seemed to signal that Taft's daughter was gay.
"Those declarations opened up a very interesting chapter in my life," reflects Taft. "They further pushed me to understand what it is like to be a member of the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered community in America and all the issues surrounding them. No doubt, the fact that my daughter is a lesbian played an enormous role in getting me engaged in all GLBT issues."
Engaged on both a personal and now an amped-up professional level, Taft is the executive sponsor of RBC's internal employee resource group, and has vigorously pursued a mandate to make RBC's U.S. wealth management business (the nation's sixth-largest, full-service retail brokerage) one of RBC's most diverse divisions. Working with Wanda Brackins, RBC Wealth Management's director of diversity, Taft has ensured that the firm, like most of the big names in banking, extends benefits to same-sex partners. The firm also assists employees electing to go through the sex-reassignment process, and has endorsed incorporating support for transition surgery and other transgender needs as part of the medical benefits package for U.S. employees.
"I want to make sure we have a work environment that is totally welcoming, safe and stimulating for all employees," says Taft, who touches briefly on this, and on the marriage amendment debate, in "Stewardship," his new book on what he calls "the lost culture of Wall Street."
A marriage amendment, Taft says, would "put up a big 'you're not welcome' sign on Minnesota's front lawn as it relates to how we treat and employ some of our brightest and most engaged employees. That is just not very good business."
Opponents of a marriage amendment in North Carolina made a similar case, but the measure there passed by a wide margin. Minnesotans will vote on their measure in November. A poll by the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling showed that as of early June, roughly 49 percent of the state's registered voters opposed the amendment, while 43 percent were in favor of it.