CEO leadership in a broken system

A more personalised, authentic approach to communications can help engage the sceptics

As the world of business, politics and social norms continues to evolve at a rapid and often unpredictable pace, the expectations placed on leaders may feel like a moving goal post. For more than two decades, I have had the privilege of working with some of the world’s top leaders and CEOs to help them understand how to best communicate their strategic vision in a way that drives stakeholder value and corporate action.

While leaders have always faced intense demands, the current moment stands out as a particularly challenging environment to project and embody true leadership. Defining a strategic vision and sharing it in a way that galvanises others has become increasingly complicated as the world is more complex and less trusting.

The era of mistrust

The world is experiencing a crisis of trust. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer – a study of 28 countries that explores levels and implications of trust related to the four institutions of business, government, the media and NGOs – reveals just how deep of an emergency trust is experiencing.Trust in all four institutions has decreased since 2016. In business, trust has decreased 15 points over a five-year span. Additionally, mistrust has spread throughout the general public, as 20 of the 28 countries surveyed have mass populations that rank as distrusters. 

Most concerning to executive leadership is the level of trust in chief executive officers. The Trust Barometer shows that only 37 per cent of respondents view CEOs as credible; this percentage is even lower for CEOs of foreign companies (25 per cent).

As the research found that more than half (53 per cent) of global respondents believe the “system is broken,” CEOs face immense challenges in communicating and leading in an environment where everything is met with skepticism and distrust.

Challenges and opportunities in CEO leadership 

With every economic, technological and societal change, effective CEOs learn to adapt to the new expectations placed on them and, in the process, define a new style of leadership. This era of mistrust has created such a moment for today’s leaders.

Various factors contribute to this atmosphere of C-level skepticism. For one, CEOs themselves are not well known. When asked, most people around the world cannot name a single CEO. This creates a significant challenge and opportunity as CEO trust levels are higher amongst those that can name two or more CEOs. In addition to being seen as faceless executives, CEOs are also perceived to be part of the “elite class.” Viewed as overpaid in comparison to others and unrelatable, many CEOs offer no narrative or action to counteract the mistrust and anger aimed at the wealthy “1 per cent.”

While traditionally CEOs may have been able to stay in the background, in an era of mistrust, anonymity is a liability. Understanding a CEO’s personal history, the obstacles she has overcome and her own personal success story all can have a positive impact on building trust and credibility.  Illustrating how the CEO’s personality informs her approach to leadership dismantles the barriers to trust.

"Understanding a CEO’s personal history, the obstacles she has overcome and her own personal success story all can have a positive impact on building trust and credibility. "

Personal heritage and personality, however, are just part of the solution to combatting mistrust and misunderstanding. Perspective is also critical. A CEO must be able to represent and communicate the value of her company. People expect the CEO to be visible on the corporate purpose and vision (78 per cent), launches of new products and services (73 per cent) and the company culture (72 per cent).

Honoring the corporate purpose and reason for existence may lead the CEO to establish a point of view on social issues. With six in 10 2017 Trust Barometer respondents reporting that a CEO should have perspective on social issues, it is clear that business leadership cannot exist in a vacuum outside of the broader society. However, any stance or engagement must be informed and authentic, as almost as many respondents (58 per cent), believe that corporate initiatives do not have to address a social issue unless the company’s CEO is personally involved.

All of these findings – from the desire to understand an executive’s backstory to the belief that corporate efforts on social issues should be aligned and authentic to executive leadership – illuminate a demand for connection, meaning and engagement. The CEO must first and foremost communicate and embody the purpose of a company, but she must also explain her own “reason for being.” In doing so, the CEO fosters familiarity and connection, which serve the fertile ground for trust and engagement.

Building a new model of leadership

The 1980s and 1990s were marked by the popularity of the Celebrity CEO. It was commonplace to see a chief executive gracing magazine covers standing in front of a private jet or dripping with the trappings of wealth and success. As the Great Recession upended the global economy, the Celebrity CEO was replaced by the more cautious and quiet Invisible CEO. However, being invisible is now a threat to corporate success and confidence. The model of leaders who succeed in the present and future will be the Engaged CEO.

The Engaged CEO has a strategic vision that is informed by the realities of the business and the world in which the enterprise operates. She is strategic in how she shares her positions and thoughtful in engaging stakeholders. She intimately understands that employees are a crucial and trusted source of information about the company and, as such, she nurtures employee relationships and empowers the voices of others. She does not, however, allow others alone to be the mouthpiece of her purpose and vision. She herself champions the value and reason for being for their company, and complements this with authentic insight on her personal story and approach to leadership.

Embracing the new model of leadership, the Engaged CEO dedicates herself to addressing challenges to leadership through four important trust-building actions:

  1. The Engaged CEO takes on issues that matter to the industry and/or society. The expectation and value of CEOs having a meaningful stance on matters of importance to their business and most critical stakeholders – employees, customers, potential business partners, etc. – cannot be overstated. Understanding and communicating around how various industry shifts and occurrences impact the industry, company and key stakeholders can highlight the CEO’s connection to the business and drive engagement with relevant audiences.

To effectively take a stance on industry topics, the CEO should start by mining her own observations about the business, industry and broader societal landscape. CEO observations on the industry, as well as how social issues intersect with the business, can be both noteworthy and illuminating to her expertise and leadership style.

  1. The Engaged CEO is visible, open and authentic. Trust is driven through familiarity, shared values and connection. However, in a time when every person with a cell phone has the potential to be a media outlet, all actions and stances must be transparent and authentic. The Engaged CEO must strive to share not only what she is doing, but why she is doing it and how the course of action is informed by business and societal realities, as well as her personal beliefs.

To position and share the opinions and values of a CEO in credible and authentic way, the CEO herself must be intimately involved in the effort. Communicators cannot lock themselves in a room only to later present to the CEO the talking points she is meant to deliver. The CEO participates in platform development to reflect honest opinions and personality. When the ideas, focuses and causes come from the CEO, they will be believable to a skeptical public.

  1. The Engaged CEO enlists broad voices to share her story and vision. In a time when CEO trust is on the decline, CEOs need to activate other trusted voices. The Trust Barometer shows that a person like yourself, technical experts and academic experts are the most trusted sources of information about a company (each tied at 60 per cent), with employees following behind at 48 per cent.

As such, the Engaged CEO must empower employee voices to echo the purpose and value of the company. Leveraging technical experts and academic partners can also increase the resonance and believability of corporate messages and information. Programmes that engage employees and develop third-party influencers into ambassadors are proven to amplify CEO messages. While the Engaged CEO remains responsible for the vision of the company, a chorus of voices makes the vision real.

  1. The Engaged CEO is accessible and engages through multiple channels. Today, a vast majority of the population receives news via social media versus traditional channels, like newspapers or television. Search engines are more trusted than traditional information sources. As such, the Engaged CEO must express her personal values and purpose through direct engagement with stakeholders and by utilising multiple online and off-line platforms to tell a consistent, discoverable story that showcases her as an individual and leader.

"The Engaged CEO must express her personal values and purpose through direct engagement with stakeholders."

The best CEO visibility and engagement programs employ a strategic mix of traditional media coverage, conference participation and digital engagement. Understanding the channels that best correspond with the company’s key stakeholders is also a hallmark of the most effective programs. The Engaged CEO doesn’t need to communicate on all channels at all times, but rather she must find the ones that are most authentic to her and that support strategic stakeholder engagement.

The persistent and growing wave of distrust only amplifies challenges to CEO leadership. However, by acknowledging the current state of trust and evolving leadership and communications approaches to that of an Engaged CEO, leaders can be better prepared to drive both corporate and societal value in an evolving and broken system.

Justin Blake

Justin Blake leads Edelman’s Global Executive Positioning offering, where he works with CEOs and other leaders to develop and communicate messages through a range of channels. He has worked with CEOs, government officials, university presidents and NGO heads for more than two decades including leaders from eBay, PepsiCo, Samsung and Yale University. Justin was part of the World Economic Forum media team during eight Annual Meetings in Davos and now leads Edelman’s client work at Davos.