A World in Trust

10 years, 6 months ago


Leadership and performance measures are essential to re-ignite trust and sustainability, writes Sandra Macleod.

Trust and sustainability are the big twin issues of our time. The drivers of this duo and their implications for communicators are tracked by Echo Research among CEOs and thought leaders in the group’s fifth global study on corporate responsibility, A World in Trust - Leadership and Corporate Responsibility.

Conducted with the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) and based on interviews with 55 corporate leaders and analysis of the latest thinking and insights from business sources around the world, the study finds the excessive focus on short-term results and bonus culture is damaging trust in companies.

The research shows dramatically that, against a backdrop of soaring expectations of transparency, good governance, fairness and proper discipline, truly enlightened organisations are going beyond comforting gestures and focusing on the growth of internal cultures and measures that will align business and society over time, above the focus on growth for growth’s sake alone.

These organisations recognise that giving in to pressures of short-termism is a cancerous practice, and that for greater resilience, globalisation and capitalism are moving away from the shareholder-centric model to encompass customers, employees and broader stakeholders

New language

A new language is emerging with the new thinking that is inspiring the best and most successful. Discussions about ‘values’ are now jostling with ‘risk’ in boardrooms. ‘Authenticity’, ‘engagement’, ‘culture’ and ‘passion’ are starting to define the ‘corporate soul’ and ‘true north’ of organisations.

Corporate leaders are now being challenged to step up to greater commitments on sustainability, and ensure they have performance measures for behaviour directly linked to responsibility and trust if they are to succeed. Companies are making it core to their strategies and activities, so having stand-alone CSR (corporate social responsibility) departments looks like a fast-declining trend.

Echo has been tracking CSR, or as it is known by many, corporate responsibility (CR) since 2000, and has seen it move from so-called PR-driven ‘greenwash’, to becoming critical to an organisation’s success in driving innovation and change in order to be trusted and valued in the long run. While much has been accomplished in a relatively short time, especially among the leaders interviewed, there is still a long and difficult road ahead as internal structures and systems need to be changed to focus on better alignment with society’s interests.

Built to last

For trust to flourish among sceptical customers, corporate responsibility must be ‘built-in’ rather than ‘bolted-on’, with a model for success starting with clarity of goals and mainstreaming through all operations to embrace engagement, partnership, and full accountability.

Ways ahead for CR is not a route map for the half-hearted, nor is CR itself a PR exercise.

Leaders in the survey speak of their commitment, focus, determination, and drive to address the business challenges and opportunities with stakeholders and partners in a completely new way in order to be successful and truly fit for the future. These leaders recognise a certain amount of progress to date, the importance of authentic communications, the problems encountered and the long route ahead, but ultimately say they feel that they can be a force for good when they make sustainability strategic.

Enthusiasm comes through in the report for a growing body of evidence that the pursuit of sustainability sparks innovation. As markets call for products and services that conform with higher ethical and environmental criteria, inventiveness flourishes. CR, far from being a drain on funds or misplaced corporate ‘niceness’, is delivering a payback to the best managed balance sheets.

Unconventional steps

There are more object lessons here too. Unconventional steps are being taken by some companies to give themselves a standout sustainability profile. Ways are being investigated of enthusing teams and thereby maintaining the momentum of CR internally. Some are wrestling with how to keep pace with stakeholder expectations, especially the Facebook generation. Others are preoccupied with the business discipline of showing and measuring impact, and, where this proves difficult, recalibrating the tools of measurement. Many are focused on how their corporate antennae pick up signals from external stakeholders, including the all-important faint but crucial pointers to change.

Nothing is problem-free. Pointers to where companies face challenges and would benefit from exchanges of experience or pooled expertise include:

1. Geopolitical challenges, especially in the emerging economies
2. International competitors with lower standards of responsibility putting responsible companies at a disadvantage
3. Tougher legislative challenges, and at the same time examples of disinterested or remote governments
4. Leaders reluctant to lead from the front on corporate responsibility because it does not always offer the smoothest path.

Peering into the crystal ball, the opinion leaders interviewed see:

1. Greater technical competition in the marketplace for optimal sustainable solutions
2. Natural resources and raw materials coming under price pressure, but paradoxically spurring inventiveness
3. Partnering and partnerships across NGOs, public sector and competitors driving far-reaching innovative solutions to the wider benefit of civil society and the environment.

Positive positioning

Faced with these many challenges and opportunities, companies are positioning themselves as major forces for positive change, to the point indeed where sustainability is being welcomed as a stock market listing requirement for public companies.

As always, it is the simple things that are the hardest. "Single-minded commitment from all acting as one" is easily said, difficult to achieve. Only when organisations actually think, do, behave and deliver in line with what they promise will trust slowly rise again from the embers.

Communication professionals, take note and rise to the challenges you above all others should be equipped to help navigate the course ahead.

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The Author

Sandra Macleod

Sandra Macleod, Global CEO, Echo Research

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