In Business We Trust

Six in 10 people now believe corporations are taking better care of them than governments. What leaders are doing right—and wrong.

CEOs are supposed to manage companies. These days, many people think they’re doing an OK job with a rather larger outfit too: their country.

Indeed, a surprising new survey reveals that 61% of people worldwide say companies have been more reliable than governments in keeping their countries running during the coronavirus pandemic. The survey, conducted jointly by the Milken Institute and the Harris Poll, shows how organizations’ focus on purpose and social impact during the coronavirus crisis is paying dividends in the form of increased trust and cultural standing.

According to Evelyn Orr, a Korn Ferry senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, the results mirror the movement for a new conception of capitalism that marries profits and social impact to create a virtuous cycle of prosperity. “There is a growing demand to connect business success with social progress,” she says. “What differentiates CEOs now is being radically human.”

Certainly, the enormous scope of the COVID-19 crisis has forced companies to fill a void left by political leaders, raising the business world’s profile in the minds of the public. Companies like the investment bank Goldman Sachs and the supermarket chain Kroger, for example, began offering free COVID-19 tests to employees when public agencies struggled to handle the rising load. When the major racial justice protests this spring  numerous firms donated millions of dollars to help that cause. In some ways, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice, this may all be a return to the unwritten partnership of the past where firms and stakeholders were loyal to one another. “Companies can take care of people financially, look after their health, and provide resources for their long-term well-being,” Kaplan says.

But the faith people are placing in business leaders also poses an inherent risk. The pressure to explain where they stand on climate change, racial justice, or gender equality, for instance, can be so intense that business leaders can easily go too far. There’s a fine line between speaking out and coming across as partisan, experts say. At the same time, the financial damage inflicted by the pandemic increases the chances that layoffs and pay cuts could quickly diminish the confidence people have toward business leaders. The survey—which polled 30,000 individuals globally—highlights how the pandemic has left people around the world feeling financially vulnerable: 69% of respondents fear losing their job, and 33% believe their country will go into a recession in the next six months.

“If business leaders go too far over the line, they will soon be seen as looking out for themselves and no different than our partisan leaders,” Kaplan says.