How To Manage Constantly Shifting Public Expectations

The companies that will not only survive but thrive in these uncertain times need to deploy five key strategies to move beyond business as usual.

Public expectations have been shifting for some time, disrupting the status quo and manifesting in several significant social movements as diverse as MeToo, Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future. Issues of fairness, wealth inequality, discrimination and environmental sustainability are top of mind for many. Business leaders are overwhelmed by emerging expectations for increased accountability, equality, fairness and sustainability.

Some leaders hunker down, sustain business as usual, and hope the status quo will be enough for their company to survive the storm. Others choose to divert corporate resources and personal energy to defensive strategies aimed at shielding their company from the asteroids heading their way.

The companies that will not only survive, but thrive, in these uncertain times keep a close eye on the asteroids in the zeitgeist, but don’t get distracted from the essential work of building their company’s internal capacity to succeed in a very different future.

So how can a leader grapple with these competing demands? In order to build corporate capacity while fending off the asteroids heading your way, it is critical to deploy strategies that connect the dots between external threats and foundational corporate values and capacities.

Strategy #1: Figure out which of the asteroids are most relevant to your company and focus your attention on how to respond to those challenges. Your company does not have to tackle every issue that appears in the headlines. But staying quiet during a raging conversation relevant to your sector isn’t likely to land well. Whether the issue is diversity or sustainability, leaders are getting called out—and losing out—for their silence.

Strategy #2: Ensure that your company’s core values shape your response to emerging expectations. While it is useful to pay attention to how your peers and competitors react to public calls for fairness or diversity or social justice, individual companies hold distinct values. Leaders are encouraged to design strategies rooted in these unique foundational values. To launch this essential conversation inside your company, ask: What motivates our company to care about climate change, diversity, social justice or any other relevant issue in question? What’s our role in helping to find solutions?

Strategy #3: Demonstrate your company’s integrity by effectively monitoring and communicating how your corporate values align with commitments and actions. Be explicit about what “walking your talk” on environmental sustainability or diversity or social justice looks like in practice. How will you know you have manifested your intended organizational values? Implementing values in practice requires ongoing attention and is far more challenging than the making of bold promises. Integrity—the alignment of values, commitments, and actions—is the aim. Pay attention to any gaps in this alignment. This work can bring together leaders, build resilience, solidify the core, and of course, enhance credibility with internal and external stakeholders.

Strategy #4: Assess whether your internal systems and processes are designed to support your corporate aims. While your company may have built up well-functioning risk management and stakeholder engagement systems over the years, do these status quo processes require upgrades to be effective in the present environment? If your company is primarily motivated to comply with laws and rules—to react to new threats rather than being proactive—business-as-usual practices may suffice. If, however, your corporate values incorporate “beyond compliance” strategies, such as the aim of having a positive social or environmental impact, it may well be time to redesign some of your systems.

Consider, for example, how your company engages with key stakeholders. Most businesses are able to engage with like-minded and open-minded stakeholders with relative ease. When dealing with emotionally-charged issue, like climate change or EDI, however, it is often necessary to connect (and potentially even collaborate) with skeptics and other stakeholders who hold entirely different perspectives.

Strategy #5: Take a closer look at your leadership team. Undoubtedly your company has hard-working and talented people with proven leadership attributes. But does your leadership team have what it takes to navigate this asteroid belt? Foundational leadership skills—the ability to assess risk, make decisions and execute to plan—are essential attributes, but on their own insufficient in such a disruptive environment.

Higher-order leadership skills are required to bring together highly polarized points of view and innovate with inputs beyond familiar corporate boundaries. If your leadership team is truly motivated to play an active role in making capitalism work better for more people, your leaders may require a skills boost. Identify the required capacities—perhaps your company needs leaders with the ability to synthesize different perspectives, to suspend judgement and decision-making, and navigate paradox—and prioritize those learnings in your existing team and new hires.