Ah, the good old days when it was so easy to hate big corporations and their managers. Greedy, morally compromised, reckless, maximizing profits at the expense of employees and society – the public opinion on the business elite was quite unanimous.
One didn’t even need a special occasion like the financial crisis. It used to be so easy to blame all kinds of societal problems on companies, from social injustice to pollution. Corporate was a synonym for villainous - and some managers or corporations probably were (and are).
But recently, that general condemnation and the attitude towards the corporate sector has been changing. In a world that is rife with conflicts, political power shifts, societal upheavals and cultural change, people are looking for leadership. And they are looking for a credible moral voice. Parties and other traditional interest groups can fulfill this role only to some extent. Political leadership is viewed as unstable and erratic in a growing number of countries. Trust in leaders is also eroding due to the spread of fake news - or by true facts that are libeled to be fake news. The news media are often viewed as pure echo chambers.
But people want someone to trust. So, what’s happening is that more and more citizens are turning to corporations for principled leadership and sustainable guidance with regard to the issues that they care about most. Yes, you have read correctly. “In corporations we trust” - ok, in some.
In a way, this development is logically consistent. Take climate change, migration, social justice or education. The corporate voice on those societal issues is becoming louder, stronger, more powerful as companies commit themselves to their stance on these topics very publicly. Their views and actions are in plain sight for everyone – and verifiable: in their own certified publications, such as Annual Reports, Corporate Responsibility Reports; in media information and on the corporate website, just to name a few. But they are also accounted for in independent ratings by NGO’s, positive and negative, for example, or by awards.
Companies have come to embrace that being a good corporate citizen is more than donating to charities or funding worthy causes. Just as private citizens, they need to participate in public discourse on matters that people care about, and to share their values and ideals. And, most of all, to use their considerable influence and to take a stand - for or against a cause. The most recent example is that, after the last school massacre in the USA, an ever rising number of people urged companies to cut their ties with the NRA because of its stand on gun violence. Many of those petitioned companies did so very publicly.
Or an example from the old continent: When the European Union was plagued by a crisis of confidence among its peoples, nine major German companies launched a business initiative “We4Europe” in 2017 to take a public stand for Europe.
Deutsche Telekom was among the founders. Our CEO Tim Höttges explains.
Corporate moral leadership is what people expect, and that’s also what people appreciate. In times of political divide in many countries, the corporate view in the public discourse is regarded as impartial, not bribable and sustainable. Corporations at least partly fill the void that a real or perceived lack of political leadership and guidance has left. It’s their chance to show customers, employees and investors their core values and that their mission is something greater than just making money.
This chance, however, comes with strings attached. It is surely not a good idea to weigh in on every issue in a “spray and pray”- manner. That’s not indicative of good judgement or credibility. Also, there’s more than one opinion and the other voices out there have to be acknowledged. Therefore, it is also not a good idea to kind of claim a “privilege of interpretation” on issues. Speaking up in such a manner may offend customers, employees or investors. Relations with policy makers could suffer.
So assuming the role of moral compass outside of their industry expertise is kind of a tightrope walk for business. If done in a confident and substantiated, yet sensible and unobtrusive way, I think it can benefit both society and the corporation. The best way to do it is, in my view, to adopt a cause or more and speak up on it on a regular basis so that the company or manager is viewed as an authority in that area. And to not stay silent when political or social issues or controversies arise that people care about. Even though you can’t and will not please everybody. So before making a general judgement on the business elite: take a close look at what a company believes in, stands for and acts upon.