In the past ten years, in my role as a CEO of alva, I’ve become fascinated by the concept and the effect that reputation has on businesses and stakeholders. Over these years, I have pored over the research, worked with many leading corporate reputation professionals and—alongside a highly talented team—have built a successful business. With the founding of alva, we set out to help organisations better understand their stakeholders and the issues that create or erode value in their business. During this continuous process of discovery, we have identified many key insights that have shaped my thinking.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis and in response to the intense scrutiny coming from society, business initiated a process to repair the damage caused by the excesses of the previous years. Not all companies took the same approach to restoring trust; a few adopted a long-term perspective, some went into hiding and many continued being dominated by short-term financial goals.
The last two categories, companies that were mainly driven by short-term goals and those that tried to be invisible, didn’t fully grasp what it took to succeed in the New Normal - the current business environment defined by interconnectedness, hyper-transparency and media anarchy.
The invisible company type, motivated to avert public scrutiny by avoiding the limelight, failed to obtain stakeholder support when they needed it. The short-term type focused on restoring trust and building their reputation in the old-fashioned way, treating reputation as a construct. While previously, it was perfectly normal for companies to use spin and manipulative “reputation management” strategies to attract and engage stakeholders, in the New Normal, these techniques have become of very little use to navigate and recover from a crisis or restore the company’s trust.
Contrast the above with the companies that have taken the long-term view, companies that have been operating under the same values and purpose from the outset. Most of the time, these are trustworthy organisations whose identity is well defined and embodied by its employees and that live by a strong set of clear and positive values to achieve a positive relationship with society. These companies make the Social Contract the starting point of their existence, they embed distinctive ethical values and practices in the identity of the organisation and these guide the engagement strategies with all stakeholders.
As a result, these companies have experienced less disruption, less intrusion and fewer obstacles from stakeholders, including regulators and investors. These are the businesses that have mastered the art of connecting all of the pieces to create corporate value and achieve a harmonious balance across all stakeholders. These are businesses that have understood how to be relevant in the twenty-first century.
Enter the Connecting Leader
One fundamental difference between Authentic & Connected companies and the other two types, the invisible and the short-term, is that authentic companies understand the need to have a Connecting (executive) Leader who brings the outside-in view, develops policies to connect the business with the various stakeholders and maintains a healthy balance between the company objectives, outcomes and Social Contract.
The Connecting Leader has a deep appreciation of the issues affecting stakeholders and enables the alignment between the company and its stakeholders while ensuring that trust is preserved by all parties involved. The Connecting Leader acts as the “Society Proxy” in the executive team and is the one who has the licence and courage to ask tough questions such as: Is this initiative really aligned with the type of business we are? What’s the implication to society of taking this action? Are we doing this just to make money or because it is the right thing to do for all our stakeholders?
Unfortunately, during our research, we found that there are just few Connecting Leaders in Big Business today. While executives understand that the business plays an important role in society, the pressure to deliver financial returns in the short term is far more intense than the desire to invest in the building of long-term relationships with a wide range of constituents.
However, the Connecting Leader is a necessity in today’s business. They are the partner that every CEO needs to facilitate a fruitful and fulfilling relationship with all the key internal and external stakeholders of the business. This role is the game changer in enabling companies to succeed in the New Normal.
Why Another “Business” Book?
One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job has been the opportunity to meet and work with many Corporate Affairs and Communications professionals in some of the largest companies in the world.
While it is undeniable that these professionals play a fundamental role in their organisations, I have found multiple times that the role is not valued or elevated to its full potential. In some cases, the Corporate Affairs Director would play a senior adviser role reporting to the CEO but detached from the rest of the business. In other cases, the Chief Communications Officer would be relegated to tactical PR or crisis management.
Being seen as a cost centre instead of a value-creating function will always be part of the challenge.
With the book, I put a strong case forward to CEOs and the other members of the board that to actively connect the business with society and its key constituents, the Corporate Affairs Director or the Chief Communications Officer must be elevated to a more strategic position in the company. Equally, I also want to call all aspiring Connecting Leaders everywhere to recognise and seize the opportunity to step up and make the difference to the business (and themselves).
In my opinion, the New Normal has created the perfect context to catalyse this evolution of the Corporate Affairs and Communications professionals. Communication and stakeholder engagement have become a core competency that all companies must excel at to achieve a healthy relationship between business and society. These professionals are the best placed to enable the fundamental connection between the two.
The Connecting Leader book is available on Amazon 6 November 2018.