Corporate Reputation

The Need to Lead: Advancing Corporate Leadership Amid Uncertainty in 2020 and Beyond

It is no secret that 2020 has been dominated by extensive social, economic, and political instability. As public trust has eroded amid the turbulence and conflicting information coming from government leaders and health officials, we find ourselves in a leadership vacuum. The flipside of this is a widespread desire for the confidence and stability that comes with strong leadership. Times of uncertainty cultivate a unique imperative for organizations and their executives to take on positions of true leadership—addressing the circumstances, stating their values and purpose, taking decisive action, and reinforcing their commitment to progress. Speaking out amid the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread demands for racial justice requires courage, authenticity, and an acute awareness of the significant attention that is being paid to the actions of organizations and their executives in today’s environment.

Just as the benefits of active leadership are at an all-time high amid this heightened awareness, the cost of corporate silence around pivotal societal issues is staggering. For example, the intensified focus on race in America and around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder led scores of companies to speak out against racial injustice. Both Black and White Americans agree that not giving an official statement amid the Black Lives Matter protests decreased a brand’s favorability, for a net negative of 7 points (-10 and -7 points respectively), according to a national poll conducted by Morning Consult.

Not only are audiences watching how leadership engages around these issues, but they are also actively contributing to dialogue online around company actions, which can have further reputational implications. This is increasingly true among the Gen Z and Millennial populations, as digital natives who customarily take to social media to share everything from baby pictures to breakfast ideas and now use these platforms to praise and criticize companies in their handlings of recent social turbulence. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half (45%) of Gen Z and Millennials have posted or shared content on social channels about a company or business leader going above and beyond, according to wave 2 of FTI Consulting’s research. This trend is set to continue, as Millennials are the largest generation in the workforce today, and Gen Z is set to make up a larger share of the workforce in coming years. Gen Z and Millennials have been the most skeptical of CEO actions during the pandemic, with 41% stating that CEOs who have volunteered to donate their salaries are just doing it for positive headlines—that’s 11 percentage points higher than Gen X and 24 points higher than Baby Boomers.

With the prevalence of social media, a generational shift in our workforce, and ever-growing access to information online, heightened expectations of leadership will only come into greater focus in the future. We need to recognize and be prepared to leverage the impact and attention dedicated to the way companies and leaders respond to the next curve ball—whether that be the second wave of COVID-19, continued attention around the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidential election, or whatever else 2020 has in store.

Here are the five things organizations and their leaders need to know in order to meet these demands for leadership, and in doing so, embrace the opportunity to raise their company’s profile in 2020 and beyond.

  1. Articulate and build upon existing messages & values

Authenticity will resonate with your audience. Speak out on issues that are of substantive relevance to your business and align with the organization’s mission, purpose, and values. Moments of crisis and uncertainty often provide pivotal opportunities to live out your company’s purpose in new ways by articulating your messages to a captive audience that is eager to witness your values in action. While a hot-button topic might not always have an obvious tie-in to your industry, product, or service, valuing people is at the core of most organizations’ strategies. By supporting issues that matter to your employees, customers, and other stakeholders, you earn even more credibility as a leader with purpose. It’s of equal importance to maintain this credibility as you navigate challenges to your business in today’s turbulent market conditions. While layoffs, shifts in strategy, and other forms of business upheaval are often unavoidable, be aware of the public perception of executive actions around these events. Maintain your credibility by communicating changes up-front and honoring commitments to your stakeholders.

  1. Lean into opportunities to showcase corporate courage

Don’t be afraid to make the first move—organizations taking initiative in response to the pandemic are being credited with leading their industries and communities. Corporations have recently gone a step beyond government mandates, announcing measures like mask requirements to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, sparking widespread adoption of this policy across industries. Identifying opportunities to prioritize the wellbeing of customers, employees, and other stakeholders positions your organization on the cutting edge. And since the dominoes are likely to fall anyway, you’ll benefit from taking a leadership stance as an early adopter.

  1. Remember: You don’t have to be all things to all people

While there is no shortage of opportunities to speak out (particularly in 2020), invest in leading through the issues that matter most to your organization and its stakeholders. In this polarized climate, organizations don’t need to take a side or have a partisan agenda to make an impact. And there is no way to please everyone—particularly when taking a leadership stance amid divisive, politically-charged issues. Persevere through any backlash, stay true to your corporate values, and remain focused on your goal to make a positive impact as an organization.

  1. Don’t let where you are stop you from talking about where you’re going

Particularly when engaging with topics like diversity, it is helpful to affirm that your organization is committed to learning and growing in the years to come. Not having the perfect procedures, products, or leaders shouldn’t stand in your way—find opportunities to admit your organization is a work in progress, own your growth, and lead through the uncertainty. Make commitments to affect change—set goals for diversity and sustainability, describe your vision for a company-wide initiative to support employees, and anticipate how adapting to global crises will fit into your long-term strategy. Even if you don’t have all the answers today, showcase your leadership by admitting any shortcomings in impactful areas and follow through on your strategy to learn more and do better.

  1. Think about the long-term

While the days of safely sitting on the sidelines are behind us, approaching hot-button issues can be intimidating. When weighing the risk of offending or alienating your consumer base or other constituents, remember: your organization belongs on the right side of history. Staying mindful of the bigger picture and investing in fundamentally sound issues like the value of human rights will serve you in the long run. Plus, once it’s out there, it’s forever—be sure to do it right the first time.

[i] FTI’s wave 1 Shifting Expectations survey was fielded March 24th through March 31st, 2020, among a nationally representative sample of 1209 Americans; a 2nd wave of the survey was fielded May 12th – May 14th, 2020, among a nationally representative sample of 1012 Americans.

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