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Research shows that staff are increasingly looking to their employers for leadership.

Trust me, your staff want to put their faith in you

When Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer earlier this year, there was one finding that stood out to me as remarkable.

Some 75 per cent of respondents globally revealed they trusted their employer to do what is “right”, far ahead of government (48 per cent), the media (47 per cent), business in general (56 per cent) and NGOs (57 per cent).

The low standings of government and media are nothing new but the growing faith in employers is marked and sustained: in 2018 the figure was 72 per cent and when it was previously measured in 2016 it was 65 per cent.

It cements the theory that our relationships with work have changed (and are changing) profoundly. Where we once looked to outside institutions for leadership on important subjects, we now seek it within our day-to-day lives.

So what does it mean for businesses and their leaders?

To start with it’s an incredible opportunity for companies to build a true partnership with their employees and have their workforce act as advocates. That’s particularly the case in Australia, where employer trust was measured at 77 per cent.

Culture, once seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ in the corporate world, is now king and nothing illustrates this better than the findings of the Financial Services Royal Commission. There were more than 100 mentions of the word in the interim report alone and evidence presented to Commissioner Kenneth Hayne made it clear that, although big banks’ governance documents said many of the right things in terms of vision and values, the culture lived on a daily basis was too often about “greed.”

Therein lies one of challenges of when it comes to culture: it’s often easier to put into words than action.

At Cannings Purple we have some inherent advantages when it comes to deciding on, implementing and, if need be, adjusting cultural values as we go about our day-to-day business. We’re big for a communications consultancy in Perth but small by global company standards and there’s an element of nimbleness that goes with that.

But we also have leaders who listen and are committed to ensuring the business aligns with the expectations and values of its staff.

Family really does come first and we empower our employees to manage both their workloads and locations to fit in with that. Flexible work practices have been at the heart of the way we do business for a decade and we operate in a totally open plan office where our managing director and CEO are readily accessible to all staff.

When we decided to institute a purpose statement to coincide with launching a new office in the Perth CBD last year, all of us had input. Cannings Purple “starts and shapes conversations that matter” because that’s what its leaders and employees really want to do.

As a proudly diverse employer, Cannings Purple readily embraced and on a pro bono basis promoted the “Yes” cause in the marriage equality vote, because it was the right thing we do. We’re also delighted to have had the opportunity to be part of the establishment of the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, because building the capacity and wealth of the Noongar people makes for a better WA in the future.

In some ways it might be more challenging for bigger companies to take the lead on social issues and adopt more flexibility but there are enough examples out there to show that it’s possible.

The likes of Google, Netflix and Apple have all been consistently highlighted for the innovative and collaborative approach they take to managing their internal communication. When you consider that companies in the top quartile for employee engagement have been found to be 17 per cent more productive and 21 per cent more profitable than those in the bottom quartile, clearly its an area of your business worth investing in.

There is an element of courage in a company taking a social stand or deciding to manage its workforce in a different way but it’s also worth considering the cost of not doing it – or of declaring a set of values and failing to live and breathe by them.

Values shouldn’t ever be something you put in a top drawer and forget about. Paying them only lip service, as some major banks and financial institutions have done, can do more harm than good.

It’s a shame this still happens, because – as I outlined above – employees are looking within their workplaces for leadership like they never have before. According to Edelman’s research, 76 per cent of workers want their CEOs to take the lead when it comes to change, in preference to government.

There are no shortcuts for an organisation to build a positive culture, even for more nimble organisation like Cannings Purple. For bigger businesses it might be a five-year process and for major banks and financial institutions, in which trust has been seriously damaged, it could take even longer than that.

Still, it’s a journey they must take. A litmus test on engagement and culture used to be whether you could rely on your employees attending a barbecue and telling people they were proud to work for your company. But with the continued growth of social media, the stories your staff share now end up in front of thousands of eyeballs rather than dozens.

Companies must engage their people, demonstrate values to them that build trust and regularly communicate how the leaders of the business are contributing to a culture that reflects those values.

The evidence suggests employees not only want this type of leadership but genuinely need it.

Caroline Thomson is a corporate communications expert with 15 years’ experience across the resources, education, business services and land development sectors, including the development and implementation of significant stakeholder engagement strategies. Contact Caroline.

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