January 20th, 2014
09:25 AM ET

A win-win if companies can build trust

By Dennis Nally, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Dennis Nally is chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers International and is participating at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting this week. You can follow him @Dennis_Nally. The views expressed are his own. This is the first in a series of articles ahead of a special GPS show from Davos this Sunday.

We live in an era when lapses in corporate behavior have damaged public trust in business. But to do business in the right way, you first need to decide what the right way is. And that can actually be the hardest part.

In many cases, I find that CEOs and boards are approaching the question of the “right” business behavior through the lens of trust and value, essentially asking themselves: “How can our business regain trust through long-term value creation?” Yet by assuming that the route to renewed trust lies via creating long-term value rather than behaving in a particular way, I think this question highlights a deeper challenge.

There are two parts to the challenge. The first is that, while creating value can contribute to trust, a business without trust will never generate value in the first place – or at least not sustainable value. Looked at one way, increasing trust and rising value form a virtuous circle. Looked at another, they present a Catch-22: unless a business is already trusted, it won’t have the wherewithal to deliver the value that helps to generate more trust.

The second part of the challenge concerns what we mean by “value.” In the past, most businesses would have assumed that this referred to financial value for shareholders, and little else. Today, any such assumption is not only misguided but potentially terminal. More than ever before, value is in the eye of the beholder. And in the 24×7 global goldfish bowl where companies now operate, those beholders are more diverse than ever – and more capable of making their voices heard.

Put simply, society’s expectations of business have changed, and businesses must respond or face losing the license to operate that society grants them.

To start rebuilding trust, a company first needs to demonstrate that it is worthy of being trusted. The only way to do this is through behavior that authentically reflects the organization’s core values at both an individual and collective level. In other words, embracing and living by the right values is the first step towards creating value in all its forms – financial, social, ecological and more.

The need to shift the focus from value to values is a challenge that business leaders worldwide are taking on board. PwC’s 17th Annual CEO Survey will be published during the annual meeting in Davos, and its detailed findings are still under wraps. However, having had a sneak preview of the results, I can reveal exclusively – and perhaps unsurprisingly – that the proportion of CEOs globally expressing concern over the lack of trust in business rose significantly in 2013. And there is a high level of agreement on the importance of initiatives such as promoting a culture of ethical behavior and reducing environmental footprints.

But as in previous years, we’ve found that awareness of the right thing to do is not always following through into concrete action. So, while business leaders have recognized the need to rebuild trust, they are still only part way along the journey towards responding effectively. Against this backdrop, how can businesses demonstrate not only that they understand the need for values-based behavior, but also that they are putting it into effect? The answer lies in tracking and measuring their progress and achievements against the expectations of all stakeholders, not shareholders alone.

While it may initially seem counter-intuitive, my experience shows consistently that looking beyond the profit motive and shareholder value as the primary compass for business decisions is the most effective and sustainable way to grow investor returns. To do this, companies need to identify more socially relevant reasons for existing, and then pursue those reasons visibly and consistently. Any business that says one thing and does another – whose fine words about “ethical” values are not are reflected in their behavior – will quickly get caught out and suffer a collapse in trust. We can all think of industries where this has happened, from banking to resources to food manufacturing.

To avoid this kind of value destruction, businesses must identify and articulate a corporate purpose that takes into account their total contribution to society, and aligns the interests and priorities of management, boards and shareholders with those of wider stakeholders.

A company that succeeds in fulfilling this chosen role in society successfully will still make a profit and grow its business. And it will simultaneously rebuild public trust, by demonstrably keeping its promises and achieving success in a way that is acceptable and beneficial to society.

At root, this means recalibrating the corporate compass around a new pole star – and then being cohesive and unwavering in navigating by it. Any departure from the core purpose will end up with divergent leadership exhibiting a variety of behaviors, in turn leading to confusion among the organization’s people.

In contrast, when an organization’s purpose has been defined with a genuine commitment to the social good, and that purpose drives consistent values, behaviors and integrity from top to bottom, employees will trust and feel confident in who they are and what their organization stands for. And the public will trust the business, too – triggering the virtual circle of trust and value that benefits not just shareholders, but society as well.

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Topics: Business • Economy

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    Lol its gonna be real hard to start trusting corporate america again, when they are the prime reason that this country has been in the recession that has plagued us for the last several years!

    January 20, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
  2. JAL

    Just hire responsibly.

    January 20, 2014 at 4:04 pm |
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