Close this search box.
Close this search box.

A Recipe for CEO and Company Trust

Every leader’s actions strengthen—or diminish—a company’s reservoir of trust.

CEM_SONNENFELD_GSSince founding Chipotle 23 years ago, the visionary Steve Ells built a colossus of 1,900 restaurants based upon branded principles of wholesome high-quality fast food ingredients and animal welfare, brazenly teasing the standards of his competitors over processed foods along the way. Now with waves of food poisoning in his own restaurants, his confidence has wilted to queasiness.

Over the past six months, each time Ells announced that they turned the corner on safety, there was yet another mass outbreak of suffering customers—five people in Seattle; then 234 in Simi Valley, California; 64 in Minnesota; 140 Boston College students. Ultimately, the number of victims topped 500.

“Trust is the most powerful tool you could possibly have.”

Many required hospitalization, suffering norovirus and E. coli outbreaks of uncertain origin—despite closing 43 restaurants. Investors suffered heavy losses as this once high-flying stock dropped more than 30% and sales fell by 16%. Nonetheless, the restaurant chain is reluctant to identify its suppliers. Chipotle continues its high-velocity growth, throwing thousands of new hires into high-speed food assembly lines.

In 1993, 623 people across several Western States suffered from E. coli poisoning traced to undercooked burgers at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. More recently, Yum! Brands stumbled into serial mass food poisoning fiascos at its chains. Food quality scandals at Chinese Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC chains forced Yum! to split off the China business, formerly its strongest division.

Similarly, in 2012, Taco Bell customers from around the U.S. were felled by salmonella poisoning in meat and by E. coli in vegetables in 2010 and 2006. Company reassurances were coupled with denial and finger-pointing. In his autobiography, the CEO actually bragged about stonewalling the media.

Recall the dismissive but empty pronouncements in New Orleans by Homeland Security’s Michael Chertoff and FEMA’s Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the disdainful sneers of BP CEO Tony Hayward in the 2010 aftermath of the massive Gulf Coast oil rig explosion. Then there were the false assurances of safety from top officials of Tokyo Electric Power
Company following the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Remember, as well, when Carnival’s Micky Arison went AWOL, except for merrily cheering on a Miami Heat basketball game from the comfort of his owner’s box, while a fire onboard the Carnival Triumph stranded 4,229 passengers and its crew at sea. It was hours before passengers finally got an explanation for the power loss—and 12 hours passed before they were told of
possible rescue options. The ship’s crew did not communicate, reportedly, because they did not know Carnival’s plans.

J&J’s legendary CEO Jim Burke provided a different model with his mastery of the research, embrace of critics and open pipeline to the media. In his celebrated national recall of tainted Tylenol capsules. Burke told me: “All we said was, ‘Trust us.’ We were cashing in on 100 years of trust that had been built up…. All the previous managements that built this corporation handed us, on a silver platter, the most powerful tool you could possibly have—that institutional trust is real, palpable and bankable. So that every act that every person puts into an organization that builds that trust enhances the long-term value of that business and with every improper payment or every time you put a product out that is inferior, you trade off that trust.”


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.