When it comes to sustainability, politicians are placing increasing demands on companies. Various existing EU directives already require large companies to disclose information about the way they work and deal with ecological challenges. But the Dutch political sector is demanding more and more from companies in this area.
The majority of Dutch consumers find it (very) important that organizations show their impact on society and the climate. This concerns speaking out as an organization about social issues, and especially offering solutions by taking concrete actions. In addition, the Dutch expect CEOs to be the engines and torchbearers of real change. How can executives do that best? That’s what I want to discuss in this blog.
Talking about behaviour and impact
These high expectations for companies do not only stem from politicians. In 2022, consumers also expect a lot from companies. And at the same time, those particular A whopping 65% of Dutch people think that in order to be more credible than competitors, a company should talk about its behaviour and impact on society, and the environment. This is evident from the recently presented Authenticity Gap survey 2021 by Omnicom PR Group, a survey of 1,000 informed consumers*. In fact, Dutch people now identify ‘Taking better care of the environment’ as the most important driver for a company’s reputation. They also expect commitments on topics such as minimum wage, data privacy and data security, income and wage inequality, combating discrimination and providing equal opportunities.
Nice intentions and plans alone do not convince the Dutch consumer. To remain relevant, brands need to showcase even further what they are actually doing to take responsibility for our society and the climate. This is demonstrated by the order in which respondents place possible measures to make an impact.
For example, matters such as the appointment of a Chief Sustainability Officer or a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) score relatively low. Having a measurement program in place for progress, or publishing an annual report on the effectiveness of the measures taken, do not score high either. The Dutch seem to value concrete actions that show accountability, such as ensuring CO2 compensation is in order or switching to a renewable energy supplier for all office, factory or storage locations.**
CEOs as engines and torchbearers
In all of this, consumers expect CEOs to be the engines and torchbearers of real change:
- 86% say CEOs should have a voice in the environmental policy debate;
- 75% think they should lead by example in their behaviour;
- 73% say they should be role models both internally and externally.
The vast majority of consumers (78%) expect executives to speak out on issues that have a major impact on society, even if they are not directly related to the organization:
- No less than 86% of consumers want executives to speak out on climate targets and actively contribute to them;
- More than 80% of consumers in the Netherlands think that CEOs should make clear how they contribute to the promotion of diversity and inclusion, both internally and externally;
- 84% think that CEOs should contribute to improving public health.
Exemplary behaviour gives the right to speak
Interestingly, the results of the Authenticity Gap survey 2021 suggest that CEOs should not concern themselves with external issues until they have their affairs in order internally. The Dutch believe that they should first and foremost tell the world what the added value of their company’s products and services is. They should also stand up for the interests of their own employees. Only then executives are considered to have the right to speak on socially relevant topics, such as the climate.
But this alone is not enough. To be credible in the eyes of Dutch people both in internal and public debate, CEOs must first be seen as role models. As much as three quarters of consumers expect top execs to always set a good example, according to the Authenticity Gap 2021. In the process, they are also constantly under the magnifying glass. Employees and customers listen to what they say, and watch what they do even more closely. CEOs must therefore systematically show them that they mean business. Doing what you say contributes to respect and trust. If you want to get things done, and show your stakeholders how you turn words into action it’s essential.
Personal and professional alignment
To really convince the outside world of the sincerity and authenticity of the CEO and to get the desired change going and keep it going, my advice is: CEOs, show that your personal goal and mission are in line with those of the company, internally and externally, on a regular basis and in a consistent way. How do you do this? Talk about your values, convictions and experiences, as a professional, and particularly as a human being. About your choices, dilemmas, turning points, moments of learning, highs and the pride based on these. From your private and your professional life. Share this through channels that further strengthen your credibility. Discuss it in blogs and video messages on the company website, and also share these via your personal LinkedIn account. Tell about it in interviews in influential media and on impactful event stages, such as those of the events interested stakeholders attend. Let your personal story be the catalyst for change that the world needs, and ask communication experts and (other) employees in your organization to help you do that. In this way you will win the hearts and minds of your employees, the most credible spokespersons of your company. And through them those of your customers and other stakeholders. There is a solid chance that they will then work with you to actually realize that coveted change.
* Persons with above-average interest or involvement in one of the ten sectors studied.
** This does not mean, however, that more policy-related issues are not important for companies active in the Dutch market. Having a Chief Sustainability Officer or a Chief DE&I Officer and ESG reporting is often further removed from the consumer. It will often not be immediately clear to them what this entails, what it can do for them and how credible it is. For other stakeholders, however, such metrics are often important. They help them to determine whether a company takes its social responsibility seriously and has its affairs in this area in order.