During the mid-2000s, I worked with an architectural engineering firm client struggling to find its footing in the face of a quickly changing, uncertain future. Quite frankly, the executive leadership team was having a crisis of confidence. They were convinced that embracing what was coming would be different from anything the firm had experienced in its roughly 100-year history. The leadership’s worries were not small; they were existential. Turns out that the answers to how to handle what would come next were buried in its past. After reviewing the company’s history, I thought it was time to unearth the answers.
An initial read of the company history weaved a story of events and dates that offered little context or insights that shed much light on the firm or what made it tick. As you might imagine, no firm could survive for a hundred years, experiencing the likes of world wars, depressions, natural disasters, and advances in technology without being able to pivot. So, I dug a little deeper and rewrote the company history for the executive leadership team. The newly crafted story reminded them that based on what they had done countless times before, there was no team anywhere better equipped to deal with what was coming next. It was part of their DNA. The challenges remained, yet the crisis of confidence was averted.
The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer
Less than two months ago, Edelman released the findings from its 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer – a study of public trust in business, media, government, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in 28 countries, which the agency has conducted since 2001. (If you’re wondering how Ode to Joy is going to factor into this article, I get it. Stay with me).
The results were sobering, to say the least, citing four forces leading to an even more polarized world:
Economic Anxieties: Economic optimism is collapsing around the world, with 24 of 28 countries seeing all-time lows in the number of people who think their families will be better off in five years.
Institutional Imbalance: Business is now the sole institution seen as competent and ethical government is viewed as unethical and incompetent. Business is under pressure to step into the void left by government.
Mass-Class Divide: People in the top quartile of income live in a different trust reality than those in the bottom quartile, with 20+ point gaps in Thailand, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.
The Battle for Truth: A shared media environment has given way to echo chambers, making it harder to solve problems collaboratively. Media is not trusted, with especially low trust in social media.
As business leaders, here’s what the data also tells us:
- Business is the only trusted institution.
- Employees look to CEOs to Act on Treatment of Employees, Climate Change, Discrimination, Wealth Gap, and Immigration
- Businesses and Government working together create the best results.
- Employees expect CEOs to hold divisive forces accountable.
- CEOs are obligated to improve economic optimism.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, business experienced a low level of trust, to say the least. Upon being intentional about rebuilding trust among employees, customers, shareholders, and vendors, today, business enjoys a level of trust slightly higher than that of NGOs. It’s now time for CEOs and business leaders to embrace that public trust to our society’s benefit – where everyone wins.
Ode to Joy
Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy is best known for its use by Ludwig van Beethoven in the final (fourth) movement of his Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824. Beethoven offered his musical gift as a group hug to the world, one that celebrated freedom and brotherhood. Composed while Beethoven was essentially deaf, it was also the first symphony ever composed to include choral, recognizing that, in this case, words mattered and realizing, of course, that his music would give those words even greater reach and power.
While the final stanza of the poem (my favorite) punctuates the message, the music is magical. Here’s the final stanza, along with a link to Beethoven’s magnificent Ninth Symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (to advance to the 4th movement, start at 52:13).
Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss to all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Are you collapsing, millions?
Do you sense the creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy!
Above stars must He dwell.
We have big challenges ahead. There’s no doubt about that. That notwithstanding, we have been down this road before, and as a society, when we have been intentional about course correcting, we have done so with remarkable success.
As CEOs and business leaders, it appears that now more than ever, society needs us to step up, be our best selves, and inspire the best in others. Like my former client, it’s in our DNA to do so. Game on.
Written by Leo Bottary
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