Leadership & Trust – who writes the rules?

We are living in fascinating and hugely unpredictable times, where the majority of the global population now lacks belief that the overall system is working for them. In this climate, the rules have been challenged: people’s societal and economic concerns (including globalisation), the pace of innovation and eroding social values have turned into fears, spurring the rise of populist actions now playing out in several Western-style democracies.

Business is far from exempt, with society’s concerns around the impact and pace of change and its implications on jobs. At the same time, consumers – while embracing technological changes – are disrupting traditional business models by growing a sharing economy, made possible by social media – the irony!

As a consequence, issues around leadership and trust are being challenged more than ever before.

The recent Edelman Trust Barometer  points to a breakdown in trust at levels not previously seen. The 2017 annual survey of 33,000 respondents globally found the general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust in 2012.
Edelman recognises that even though trust in business continues to decline, it remains higher than that of government and the media, and although business may be the last retaining wall for trust, society’s expectations of business are now higher than ever.

According to Deloitte Global’s sixth annual Millennial Survey , ‘76% believe business should be a positive force for social impact, and 88% believe business is a force for social change’.

So, given the issues these hugely significant global concerns raise, would Northern Ireland score any differently?

While some of the worldwide issues around globalisation, tax evasion, executive pay and bonuses are not as relevant here in Northern Ireland as they may be elsewhere; they still resonate with the public and, if we add the implications of Brexit on business decisions, and the recent RHI scandal, the trust dial is under pressure.

As companies seek to rebuild trust, the resurgence in Corporate Responsibility (CR/CSR) is significant. It is no longer perceived as doing good things; it’s now accepted as the right thing to do, with leading businesses recognising the need to integrate CR/CSR into business effectively, becoming part of its DNA. In Northern Ireland, we have in the past been ‘followers’ – stepping into the footprints of bigger businesses; however, our recent survey  of leading companies here suggests that Northern Ireland business has truly embraced the responsible business agenda, with more than 250 businesses formally embracing CR/CSR – so much so, in fact, that 75% are measuring, and 69% are reporting their activities and impacts.

Furthermore, we know that small businesses – those who are at the heart of local communities, are themselves embracing the responsible business agenda. As such, I believe Northern Ireland is leading the way across the UK and Ireland.

These commitments, activities and measures should be applauded, and they will go some way to ensure that trust levels in Northern Ireland business surpass our regional neighbours; however, if our business leaders are to truly build trust in a changing world, we need to get out of our comfort zone and change our behaviours.

First, as leaders, we need to engage and listen to our employees. No action can build trust more than valuing our workforce, being honest and open, treating them with respect, and finding ways for them to develop and grow. Increasingly, employees tell us that they want to work for employers whose values match theirs. By implication, they expect their employer to live up to its values and to become a force for good.

Second, we need to ‘future proof’ our business. For business to regain trust, it must have a longer-term vision – one that transcends the next set of accounts. This is about the sustainability of business and goes beyond the internal processes, product and technological innovations, and new market opportunities. It is as much about how business conducts itself in a global (and in our case, a Northern Ireland) community to maintain its reputation. It’s about addressing the key societal challenges and issues that will directly, or indirectly, affect our competitiveness in the long-term. In Northern Ireland, one challenge on the skills agenda relates to the fact that almost 20% of pupils in primary school education receive a level of education that is ‘not good enough’ . This is an issue not only in which business has a stake but also a role to play as it looks to the future.

Finally, we need to recognise that trust is broken, and we must all take steps to address the fears and uncertainties. The distrust relates to all our institutions, and we need to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the actors. While business has recognised the challenge, with organisations such as the CBI (see box) taking a proactive step to raise and discuss the issue, other institutions have been found wanting. We all need to recognise the issue, to listen to the people, and to work together to advance policy solutions, and to collectively address Northern Ireland’s key social and economic challenges.

Smart business leaders will not let this breakdown in trust go to waste. In Northern Ireland, we have made some gains; however, enlightened leaders will recognise that in the new world order, a long-term, participatory approach to shared responsibility is the only way to a sustainable future.