CEO Insider

Forget Fiduciary Trust – CEOs Have a Bigger Job

Bob Priest-Heck

Resiliency, trust, and connecting through a shared sense of purpose.

Which metrics do you like to use when presenting to your Board of Directors or adjusting your strategic plan? In addition to the usual financials, I find it interesting to ask fellow business leaders about the bellwethers they monitor. For me, it’s the Edelman Trust Barometer. For the last 20 years, trust has been in steady decline, which is discouraging but not surprising given the converging pressures that have piled up.

What alarmed me most about the 2022 report was the shift in trust it revealed ― an insight that I found both gratifying and terrifying.

First, some background.

We’ve all read about the importance of corporate resiliency in an age of unrelenting disruption; in my opinion, this begins and ends with the resiliency of individual employees. The people I work with are heroic in their ability to rise to any occasion, leave it all on the field, and then regroup, recharge, and jump back into the fray. They can only do this because they work with a common purpose and trust that their compatriots share their values. They know they have each other’s backs. That’s been our history ― our proven formula ― for 95 years in the events industry.

And then suddenly, two years ago, all in-person events were cancelled. Along with the rest of the planet, we hustled to pivot and do whatever we could to keep our doors open until the pandemic passed. But the resiliency of our people, both those furloughed and those manning the barricades, was totally drained by two years of physical isolation, emotional assault, and social upheaval. How do we earn trust on a video call when we aren’t sure where or how to make eye contact? How can we demonstrate  our values when we are pushed apart? How do we nurture a shared resolve when our source of outside information is driven by algorithms geared to promote outrage and divisiveness? 

I believe trust is earned and can be restored. But this means replenishing our reservoir of resiliency. This has everything to do with leaning into a common purpose. 

Now ― here’s the scary thing I found in that 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. As trust in government and mainstream media declines, ’Communications from My Employer’ become the most believable information source, and ‘My Employer’ is listed as the most trusted of any institutions, with a corresponding expectation that CEOs should be the face of change relating to social issues ranging from climate change to racial injustice.

If you thought your personal accountability had more to do with fiduciary trust, think again. Obviously, no one is absolved from bottom-line results, but we need to rethink the metrics that will guide us there. As business leaders, we have a clear mandate to honor the confidence of all our stakeholders and their shifting expectations. Trust is the currency of our success; we cannot squander it. We must seek an authentic way, within the context of our respective organizations, to inspire our people with a shared sense of purpose. 

Of course, there are countless books, blogs, and businesses devoted to building trust. A critical common denominator is the imperative to encourage connections. According to a leading HR resource, businesses should, “Help employees to meet face to face and eye to eye, in order to build trust and relationships with their colleagues. Provide spaces where individuals can talk and connect in person rather than via digital devices. Design the workplace to maximize movement, interactions, and collaboration.”

Creating a time and place for people to connect is something I know a lot about. As a global leader in events, Freeman has the stated purpose of connecting people in meaningful ways. Our customers are the associations, show organizers, and corporations responsible for the conferences and trade shows that touch every major sector represented in the U.S. GDP, historically contributing nearly $1 trillion to the U.S. economy every year.

You can imagine, I think, what the pandemic did to the global live events industry and the impact it had on close to 7 million Americans whose jobs rely on it. Fortunately, we learned a lot during these trying times about how technology can help us stay connected. We became smarter about leveraging the broad reach of internet-based digital connections and how to design for that medium. We saw that the ability to take training and recertification online is preferred. We learned that digital translated to data and brought key insights to our event designs. Best of all, we saw how everyone benefits when we extend the network virtually, reaching around the world to include more diverse constituencies than we did for events that required attendees to travel. And we learned to appreciate, more than ever, how face-to-face experiences have true depth — connecting people in significant ways that engage all the senses.

Now that we are ramping back up, we are encouraging our clients to embrace integrated designs that include both live and digital elements. These are platforms for building trust. According to industry research, 99 percent of marketers said they found unique value from trade shows that they did not get from other marketing mediums with no live connectivity. They valued the opportunity to make important contacts. It’s a recognition that trust is built face-to-face.  And this alchemy of putting people in a room together is in evidence everywhere, not just in our world of organized events. Whether it’s meeting up with extended family, returning to the office, attending a basketball game, or yes, travelling to a professional conference, it just feels good to be with people again in a shared experience. The power of connecting live-and-in-person scales at every level. 

As a professional events guy, I am convinced that this is how we rebuild trust and resilience ― we find reasons to gather and celebrate our common purpose and forget our differences. 

When pediatric ophthalmologists connect at their annual convention to learn the latest ways to treat  strabismus, they don’t worry about political affiliations. When people show up at Comic-Con, they are more interested in someone’s cosplay character than their twitter feed. And when entrepreneurs invest their life savings to display a new product at a high-profile trade show,  they are joining the tribe of innovators in pursuit of the American dream. 

Sherry Huss, Co-creator of Maker Faire and now Innovator-in-Residence at Freeman, once described how the diverse galaxy of makers bonded over the shared purpose of creating things. Bobbin lace makers found common ground with robotics engineers. Puppeteers were inspired by rocket builders. “The real magic is when they all come together and they start mashing it up,” Sherry explained. “And I just loved seeing that ― the magic of people doing things together ― it’s contagious. People are curious, they want to do something together and be part of something bigger.”  

This is the challenge that’s been issued to all business leaders: we must each find a way to help our people be part of something bigger. We need to connect our respective tribes in meaningful ways that supersede the agents of divisiveness. At Freeman ― where we design, build, and orchestrate these events ― helping connect others is the vital purpose that connects us. We believe that our industry is an incubator of innovation, value, community, meaning, and, most of all, trust. 

So, we must be intentional about nurturing this sense of purpose. We are looking at a growing workforce in which 50 percent of our employees are new. It is a strategic priority to not only remind people about our shared sense of purpose but to live it.

Here are some actions we are taking; I offer them in hopes they prove useful to you:

  • Being intentional about articulating and communicating our values and sense of purpose through a rigorous internal communications plan. 
  • Living our values by showing empathy and earning trust. This includes scheduling long-weekends and closing all our offices between the holidays ―something we’d never done before. 
  • Offering a variety of wellness initiatives ― focused on both physical and mental resilience – including online classes and coaching through the Center for BrainHealth® in Dallas.
  • Ensuring a plan for ambient wellness as people begin returning to convention centers and reconnecting at the office and other worksites.
  • Investing in tools, software, systems, and additional people to help reduce work stress. 
  • Celebrating our wins and the teams who are once again connecting people in meaningful ways.

I am an optimist. But even I recognize that connections will not be restored overnight, that resilience requires a thorough wellness plan, and that trust must be earned and re-earned every day. It begins with finding common ground. With that solid footing, we can again move forward ― with purpose.


Written by Bob Priest-Heck, Freeman CEO.
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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck is the Chief Executive Officer & Board Member of Freeman Company. Known as a visionary leader of people and events, Bob’s extensive experience across industries, technologies, and geographies brings a forward-thinking view to people development, business strategy, and the industry at large. An advocate of design thinking, Bob inspires by demonstrating innovation, made possible in a diverse and risk-tolerant environment. He encourages and motivates employees to integrate and optimize new technologies, championing Freeman’s vision to transform the world of live engagements.

Bob has always worked at the forefront of innovation in the events industry. In the emergence of digital technology, he managed and created specialized trade events for early Internet developers such as Digital World, where international Internet entrepreneurs first gathered to learn from the likes of a young Steve Jobs. He was a major contributor when the first user-friendly web browser, Mosaic, was relaunched as Netscape Navigator. He moved to Japan to unveil the first major tech event produced outside of the U.S., NetWorld+Interop, and built a market for disruptive technology events. He helped host the first JavaOne conference for developers while working with Sun Microsystems, acted as an executive coach to Google leadership, consulted UBM on key acquisitions, and helped Dwell magazine expand its media platform into the new world of brand experiences.

Bob continues in the spirit of transformation and is respected for his progressive efforts in technology, advocacy, sustainability, and safety. He is optimistic about the future of the events industry and its evolution as the world’s markets change. He was honored among BizBash’s 2021 Most Influential Event Management Consulting Professionals and named by Meetings Today as one of the top twenty 2020 Meetings Trendsetters, recognizing those who stepped up when the industry needed them most. Through Bob’s leadership, Freeman continues to transform live events, working as a team to reshape experiences — virtual, in-person, or integrated — that unite people for the moments that matter, no matter the format or timeframe.


Bob Priest-Heck is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn.