Desire for Social Change, Ethical Behavior and More Relatability Creates Challenges for CEOs

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer: Expectations for CEOs report reveals that 76 percent of people agree that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it — an 11-point increase from the 2018 study. In a world where trust in government is at only 47 percent (well below trust in business, at 56 percent), people agree that CEOs can create positive change in critical areas, such as equal pay (65 percent), prejudice and discrimination (64 percent) and training for the jobs of tomorrow (64 percent).

The desire for CEOs to lead in through a turbulent world is strong among employees. Seventy-one percent of employees agree that it’s critically important for their CEO to respond to challenging times, including industry issues, political events, national crises and employee-driven issues. Yet the study shows that, among employees, CEOs are underperforming in their societal leadership and in areas of ethics and character.

Fifty-four percent of employee respondents say they expect CEOs to “speak up publicly on controversial political and social issues I care about,” yet only 48 percent say CEOs are doing this (a 6-point performance gap). Seventy-three percent expect CEOs to embody their organizations’ values, but only 60 percent say they are doing so (a 13-point performance gap). Seventy-nine percent of employees said that when considering a prospective employer, they expect that its management will always tell the truth, but only 55 percent agree that management is doing this (a 24-point performance gap).

“The expectation that CEOs will step out from behind their desks and speak up on the issues that matter has never been higher,” said Richard Edelman, President and CEO, Edelman. “At the same time, issues of character are now in play, with a desire for CEOs to be more relatable, speak directly, act honestly and model their organization’s values.”

The study reveals several challenging leadership expectations for today’s CEOs:

Work/life balance: Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would trust a leader who prioritizes work/life balance to lead us to a better future, versus 36 percent who said the same for a leader who works long hours and weekends and rarely takes vacation. The desire for CEOs to model work/life balance is strongest in Japan (83 percent) and South Korea (81 percent), two countries conventionally known for a demanding work culture.

Spontaneity: When describing the type of business-leader they would trust to lead us into a better future, 63 percent said they would prefer a leader who speaks spontaneously over one who delivers well-rehearsed speeches (37 percent). While popular belief might suggest younger generations to be more emphatic in this preference, there is a greater preference for spontaneous speakers among the 55-plus age groups by a 10-point margin over the 18-34-year old age group.

Relatability: Fifty-six percent said they would prefer a leader who speaks like a regular person versus one who speaks like a highly educated person, with a greater preference for this relatability evident among the 55-plus age groups.

Transparency: CEOs also should be transparent about the data that backs their decisions. Seventy-four percent said they would trust CEOs to lead them to a better future if they make decisions based on data and research, versus 26 percent who said the same about CEOs who follow their instincts.

People also want to understand a CEO’s persona. An overwhelming majority value information about a CEO’s personal life, including personal values (79 percent), obstacles overcome to become successful (71 percent) and success story (67 percent).

The report reveals clear directives for CEO communications in this challenging landscape. Sixty-three percent of respondents globally agreed that CEOs should communicate regularly and directly to the public using social media, up 11 points from the 2018 study. This finding is particularly significant, as CEOs currently lack credibility as a source of information about a company (47 percent), especially when compared to more credible voices, such as a company technical expert (65 percent), academic expert (63 percent) or a regular employee (53 percent).

“CEOs must consider several factors when determining how, when and on what to speak out about,” said Justin Blake, Global Head, Leadership Positioning, Edelman. “But the top considerations should include the issues that matter most to your employees and most align to your company’s values.”

About Edelman
Edelman is a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations. Our 6,000 people in more than 60 offices deliver communications strategies that give our clients the confidence to lead and act with certainty, earning the trust of their stakeholders. Our honors include the Cannes Lions Grand Prix for PR; Advertising Age’s 2019 A-List; the Holmes Report’s 2018 Global Digital Agency of the Year; and, five times, Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work. Since our founding in 1952, we have remained an independent, family-run business. Edelman owns specialty companies Edelman Intelligence (research) and United Entertainment Group (entertainment, sports, lifestyle). 

About the Edelman Trust Barometer
The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer is the firm’s 19th annual trust and credibility survey. The survey was powered by research firm Edelman Intelligence and consisted of 30-minute online interviews conducted between October 19 and November 16, 2018. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer online survey sampled more than 33,000 respondents, which includes 6,000 informed public respondents across 27 markets. All informed public respondents met the following criteria: aged 25-64, college-educated; household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week.