Who do you trust: changing the perception of the CEO

Wideshot of building
Atholl Duncan By Atholl Duncan, Executive Director, UK and Global

13 April 2017

To change the perception of business as a force for good, and not simply for profit, is a job in itself …

CEOs are now an untrustworthy elite. It’s official: only one third of the public believes they are credible.

That’s the rather sobering and stark finding of the most recent global trust survey carried out by communications marketing giant Edelman. In every one of the 28 global markets it researched, trust in chief execs plummeted in the last year.

In a world where social media is now the predominant way people get knowledge, the most trusted source of information about a company is a regular employee.

The public now deeply distrust the taipans of corporate life, even though 68 per cent can’t name one CEO. For those who recognised one, in eight out of 10 global markets, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was the best-known CEO.  Number two in the global name game has been dead for a while – Steve Jobs – and the third best known has long moved into his philanthropic phase. He’s Bill Gates.

Is the current system of business failing?

The trust survey also tells us that half of those polled believe CEOs can’t relate to ordinary people, and two thirds think CEOs are too focused on the short term. Fifty three per cent believe the current system of business is failing.

Corruption in business; the pace of innovation; tax avoidance; and globalisation are all seen as frightening. Yet the great challenge is that 75 per cent believe that CEOs are the key people to improve social and economic conditions.

So, where did it all go wrong? Some argue that we have had three recent eras of CEOs. The 1990s were marked by the emergence of celebrity CEOs, such as Sir Richard Branson, Lord Sugar and Donald Trump himself. All were fond of a photograph with a yacht or a hot air balloon or a fast car (ICAS members have traditionally avoided such vulgar distinctions).

The second era came after the crash. More and more chief execs were less visible – faceless and nameless as they hunkered in their bunkers.

Now we see a third era emerging – the era of the engaged CEO, in which chief executives are more prepared to address societal issues; to be radical on tackling environmental concerns; take even stronger stances on corruption; and to engage their people in entirely new ways. It’s a time for CEOs to speak out.

A public message to corporate leaders

The public is sending corporate leaders a difficult message: “You’re not trusted. Trust in you is dropping, yet we want and expect you to be leading.”

So, what do we do about it? In a brightly decorated penthouse office on Fifth Avenue in New York you can find a group of young change makers who may hold the answer.

They are known as the B Team. Their managing director is a young Scot, Rajiv Joshi, whose father was a chartered accountant with Pannell Kerr Forster. Their figureheads include former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz, media mogul Arianna Huffington and the bearded titan, Richard Branson.

But it is the dressed-down, smartphone-wielding, bright young people here who may be more in touch with the public mood then most of our big corporate beasts. The B Team aims to be a catalyst for a new type of business, which puts people and the planet alongside profit. 

True accounting is now on the agenda

Their agenda seeks to scale “true accounting”; reinvent market incentives; redefine reward systems; drive fuller transparency in reporting; and radically reduce the environmental impact of business, including achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Their approach to business and their view of the future is shared by many of the CAs who have been so inspiring in our own “35 under 35” initiative.

The “echo chamber” is a term to describe the “groupthink” of people mainly exchanging views with those who agree with them on social media. This public discourse validates narrow and entrenched worldviews and offers little scrutiny, challenge or hope for change.

How much time do we spend in our own echo chambers as we debate rebuilding trust? Can the challenges of the B Team and our own 35 under 35 CAs take us out to a place where radical change can truly rebuild trust in business for the greater good of society?

Read the full version of this article in the April 2017 edition of CA magazine


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