Taking the lead on trust: The new role of CEOs in the Middle East, by Edelman’s Omar Qirem

By Omar Qirem, CEO of Edelman Middle East.

The roles and responsibilities of CEOs in the Middle East are undergoing a vital upgrade – primarily fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on people’s lives, the economy and job security. Findings from the 2021 UAE Edelman Trust Barometer survey show that, as the second most trusted institution in the UAE (after government), the business must address new expectations resulting from the pandemic. Critically, the research indicates that 87 per cent of respondents expect CEOs to speak out publicly about societal challenges, such as the pandemic impact, job automation, societal issues, as well as local community issues. We can see from the numbers; the pandemic has not only fuelled existing societal fears but has also resulted in a shift of expectations for businesses and their leaders. However, knowledge is not enough – now more than ever, words must be followed by actions, an absolute necessity to gain and retain trust.

Redefining the scope of leadership

Business leaders are undoubtedly witnessing their sphere of influence expanding. Historically, they have been at the top of business hierarchies to make decisions and oversee the execution of those directions. Based on the latest research, the CEO will continue to be responsible for the many departments’ command-and-control under their charge while now also stepping up and filling the trust voids left by other key institutions.

A core finding from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows accelerated fears due to the pandemic have led to a major change in people’s priorities, with an increased sense of urgency to find solutions for critical societal problems and a shift in expectations of all institutions when it comes to solving those crucial issues. For example, while the UAE population’s trust in the Government has increased, 71 per cent of respondents also believe CEOs, as societal leaders, should step in, with six in 10 agreeing that they should take the lead on change. As the CEO is ultimately responsible for all decisions and actions of the company, it stands to reason that continually updating the responsibilities of the job, based on the latest available data, makes sense for long-term success.

Consider also, pre-existing personal and societal fears have only been exacerbated by the pandemic: job loss (88 per cent), hackers and cyber-attacks (69 per cent), climate change (68 per cent) and fears of contracting Covid-19 (63 per cent) emerging as the main concerns. The effects of the pandemic have thus resulted in a shift in expectations for employers, with a dramatic net gain for attributes like job skills training programmes and worker/customer safety, along with a diverse and representative workforce and regular employee communications. All of which points to what I consider an urgent need that has been slowly building for some time now: a revaluation of leadership, particularly from a communications perspective.

Distilling the research and understanding the findings is crucial to making informed decisions. For instance, we know the past year was marked by uncertainty and a decline in trust in information sources. Yet, one in two people cites their employer communications as the most believable source of information, above traditional media, and just after government communications. However, a key concern on the horizon is the threat of communicating in echo chambers, whereby CEOs fail to deliver verified information from certified sources, opting instead to repeat information that is considered at best inauthentic – or at worst misleading.

Indeed, people trust their employer communications above traditional media. Yet, in my opinion, we must also acknowledge that we are experiencing an infodemic, whereby too much information, including false or misleading information, is presented to the reader. Now more than ever, people are seeking clear and reliable sources. By listening to those under our influence, partnering with our stakeholders and leading with facts and empathy, CEOs can position themselves as visible leaders, proactively offering trustworthy information sources.

A collective problem needs collective action

In the end, all four institutions (government, business, media and NGOs) must collaborate and find a common purpose to solve key societal issues. While it remains true that great leaders lead by example, the data indicates an evolution towards demonstrating ethics and competence as societal leaders, rather than business leaders alone.

Now of all times, communicating transparently and listening to and addressing people’s fears is increasingly part of the CEOs remit. However, with this revelation comes responsibility. Retaining and increasing trust in 2021 will be directly linked to how organisations, and their leaders, take action to meet new societal needs. Ultimately, trust is about empowering other people as a result of your presence. As we move forward in 2021 and beyond, the Edelman Trust Barometer shows us that the impact of your leadership extends beyond those previously considered under your command. Take a tailored approach that is authentic to each audience – as trust will no longer flow from a one-size-fits-all approach. Commit to providing only the most trustworthy and reliable information, personalised for everyone under your influence – and lead with empathy.