The Rise of the CEO

What if your organization’s CEO was the most trusted person among the staff? Among citizens in your community? In the United States or around the globe? If you are the CEO, what if it was you?

There are more than a billion mentions of CEOs on Google. CEOs going to jail. CEOs threatening to “axe” mediocre staff. CEOs who are the best performing executives in the world. CEOs accused of sexual harassment and misogyny. CEOs who are activist leaders. There are debates about the merits of female CEOs in a world overwhelmingly populated by male CEOs. There are stories of high-profile companies with low-profile CEOs. All manner of debate, conversation, and confounding analysis.

None of it explains the recently released 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reveals trust has changed profoundly in the past year. People have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their “employers.” Globally, 75% of people trust “my employer” to do what is right.

• 58% of employees look to their employers to be a trustworthy source of information about contentious societal issues.
• 67% of employees expect employers will join them in taking action on societal issues.
• 71% of employees believe it’s critically important for “my CEO” to respond to challenging times.
• 76% of the general population concur – they say they want CEOs to take the lead on change instead of waiting for government to impose it.

Uncertainty Is The Only Certainty

Stephen Kehoe, chair of the reputation practice at Edelman, points out that “in the face of heightened expectations on CEOs to step into the trust vacuum left by government, pressure is on them to do more – and quickly – to invoke a sense of certainty, reassurance and confidence with employees as well as the general public.”

If, as Kehoe writes, “CEOs must clearly also consider the significantly heightened expectations on them to be advocates for change in a world that is still confused and uncertain,” a critical question remains. How does a CEO lead in a world that is “still confused and uncertain?” As writer Kirsten Ludowig cleverly noted, “For CEOs, uncertainty is the only certainty.”

Michael Ventura’s new book “Applied Empathy, The New Language of Leadership.” explores the significant improvements in customer satisfaction and new business opportunities when companies deploy empathy as part of their overall product and service development cycles. Consumers are increasingly savvy about what makes truly great products and services. Under the right circumstances, when asked to contribute their ideas and opinions, consumers – residential and commercial alike – will happily share their insights.

The momentary discomfort of a cold toilet seat brought about several innovations to warm things up. The push to eliminate the use of toilet paper will drive others. The commercial application of automatic flush toilets, hands-free faucets, towel dispensers, hand dryers, and even those nifty paper dispensers next to the bathroom door, keeping customers from grabbing the door pull bare handed, reflect empathy for the concerns (and fears) shared by travelers, hotel guests, and consumers. While most of us believe our sense of empathy is well-developed, there are always lessons to be learned. The effort by U.S. airlines to shrink the size of the standard airplane bathroom from 48 inches to 24 inches wide may be distancing empathy for and from travelers.

Are Best Performing CEOs Empathetic?

Assuming empathy is a critical component of leadership, so too is performance. In seeking to assess the best performing global CEOs, Harvard Business Review (HBR) examined companies in the S&P Global 1200 Index. The top 100 roster is full of well-known brands from around the globe—Marriott, Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Disney, Northrup Grumman, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Microsoft, Accenture, and 92 other firms.

With the rise and potency of populism in the global political environment, business leaders are facing the reality of a range of dynamic business conditions. Whether it is government tariffs, a long-term trade war, or citizen push-back on tax incentives for corporate relocation or growth, CEO’s are finding fresh uncertainty.

The significant amount of push-back aimed at Amazon and its selection of a new HQ in Long Island City, New York further illuminates the point. Amazon was set to receive $1.2 billion in refundable tax credits and an additional $505 million grant assuming the company created 25,000 net new jobs in New York by 2028. The deal broke down over protests by  residents, unions, and political leaders concerned about increased housing costs, congestion, and the scale of the taxpayer funded incentives.

Asking HBR’s high performing CEOs for their take on how best to manage this and other uncertainty was instructive. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon pointed out that, “If you want the right public policy, you have to be an advocate…you can’t be parochial. You can’t talk only about that one little regulation that’s going to help your company. You need to talk about tax policy, trade, immigration, technology.” In other words, you need to build trust and that’s how you earn a place on the barometer.


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