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The CEO’s critical role in restoring public trust in institutions

The challenge is great—but so is the opportunity.

Even before the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, most CEOs would have likely agreed that today’s leadership requires attention to a broader set of stakeholders. But the health crisis forced CEOs to juggle their efforts to support employees, customers, suppliers, communities, shareholders, and more like never before. The past year highlighted that the era of multi-stakeholder responsibility is here, and here to stay.

But the trials-and-errors of getting multi-stakeholderism “right” are still playing out live and in real time, generating more questions than answers. If CEOs and corporations are now assuming responsibility for the good of their communities and stakeholders, are they comfortable with that responsibility? Are we as a society comfortable with them having that responsibility? Do we trust them to define what “good” is, for which stakeholders? And where does the role of government end, and the role of business begin?

A January survey conducted by Fortune in collaboration with Deloitte shows that CEOs are tasking the U.S. administration with big changes—not merely regarding the pandemic but in rebuilding the cultural and systemic fundamentals at the bedrock of our democracy. When asked to select the three most important priorities for the U.S. administration over the next two years, more than half of CEO respondents gave first ranking to “restoring trust in government.”

Many survey responses hinted further at disquiet. Answering an open-ended question about their biggest uncertainty about the future, more than one-fifth of CEOs mentioned U.S. government, politics, and social unrest. A few were particularly impassioned, and it’s notable that the survey dates—January 5 to 13—bracketed the Capitol breach on January 6.

Reflecting on the survey results, Deloitte US CEO Joe Ucuzoglu shared, “With the focus on large-scale societal challenges like racial equity and climate change that are far too large for any one organization to tackle alone, we are seeing a clear desire to foster greater collaboration between the private and public sectors. Business leaders have built a great deal of trust over the past year by leading through the pandemic, and are well positioned to work with elected officials to drive meaningful change.”

As society looks ahead to post-pandemic solutions, CEOs in the private sector can be an important channel for sharing and a powerful force for integration. Vincent Firth, who leads Deloitte’s US Chief Executive Program, says, “Many CEOs already have a view into what happens state by state, and their organizations give them a national, and possibly even an international, platform for sharing information, enacting change, and amplifying what works for their multi-stakeholder constituents. The increased opportunities for business leaders and state leaders to work together are tremendous.”    

If CEOs want to make change, one of the first steps is to demonstrate their conviction about the necessity and the value of public-private partnership. When CEOs engage in meaningful ways with the public sector—by leading their companies in collaborations with the private sector on new transportation networks, energy systems, or COVID-19 vaccine development, for example—it displays a conviction of action and shows what’s possible when corporate America and public entities collaborate for the common good.

The January survey data is encouraging: Three out of four CEOs agreed that the pandemic has accelerated the formation of new alliances. And there should be ample opportunity for CEOs to do so. After “restoring public trust,” the two top government priorities CEOs cited are “COVID relief and recovery” (with 55% of respondents choosing this option) and “infrastructure” (33%).

Company leaders generally think the future is bright. Asked to sum up 2020 in a single word, the vast majority responded with a negative one. But when asked about 2021, their predictions were much sunnier: Three in four CEOs responded with upbeat words like “hopeful,” “recovery,” “opportunity,” “upside,” and “optimistic.”

By acting on that optimism, company leaders can restore some faith in corporate America, the power of institutional alliances—and CEOs, too. 

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