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Why building trust is more important – and more difficult – for business leaders than ever

Cisco Systems Asean president Naveen Menon tells us why it’s an uphill battle in Asian organisations and how to fix it.

Building trust is a top priority – 96 per cent of global business leaders agreed in a Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO) 2020 Global Pulse survey. Yet, only a third of them have a concrete plan.

Having worked in over 20 countries during his 17-year stint of strategy consulting, Naveen Menon is no stranger to the importance of building trust – not only by delivering promises to shareholders, but also by empowering employees and practising social responsibility.

Trust essentially boils down to the feeling that companies care – and the cliche that trust takes years to build, yet can be broken in a moment, remains true, says Menon. It is vital to engineer a company culture that encourages stakeholder trust for businesses going forward. And that means change, starting today.

Home improvements

Significantly more Asian business leaders cite company culture and organisational structure as one of the biggest barriers to building stakeholder trust as compared to the rest of the world. Asian companies tend to be more hierarchical with cultural norms creating more reticent employees, observes Menon.

Fixing organisational structure is more straightforward – Menon recommends no more than six levels between the CEO and bottom-rung employee, based on his consulting experience. Company culture, on the other hand, is more difficult to solve. “We had to fundamentally re-architect our entire culture,” says Menon on his stint at Cisco System. Labelled Conscious Culture, Cisco sought for company values that respect diversity, encourages inclusivity and enables viewpoints from anywhere in the organisation. No mean feat when the company has more than 77,000 employees – which is why having a structured plan with goals and measures in place to build trust is necessary.

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Modern challenges

Contemporary business leaders will have a more difficult time maintaining trust, he says. The advent of social media means that a gaffe or indiscretion never remains secret for long. “You have to be much more focused on maintaining trust in the future,” he says.

That focus means more than careful tweets. With big data and an ever-expanding archive of knowledge, leaders need to be agile, up-to-date and far more problem-solving oriented – knowing what you’re dealing with is one thing. But knowing how to deal with it is another thing altogether. By being able to interpret the wealth of data available to today’s business leaders – and quickly – they’ll not only be better at managing the company, but also building stakeholder trust. At Cisco, the company has eschewed annual appraisals in favour of weekly updates. “That’s a big difference compared to traditional leaders who rely on looking through old reports six months later,” he said. Real-time data provides timely solutions – as long as business leaders know what to do with it.

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These skills are also critical for surviving in an increasingly competitive business environment, where the problems are ever-changing and continuous – and leaders have to be just as flexible. As the business environment morphs unpredictably, societal issues like climate change are becoming increasingly pressing.

In good company

“Now every time we talk about the planet, we are talking about 25 years away. Twenty years from now, those decisions are going to be right there, front and centre. At the same time, there’ll be a very sensitive business climate,” says Menon.

Companies now more than ever must be accountable to more than their immediate stakeholders. While business leaders were often reluctant to spend for social good in the past, the YPO survey sees some 97 per cent of leaders taking action to address societal concerns today. These include equality, community development and sustainability. “It’s all about how we can help shift the lens of the world,” he says. Business leaders will be the role models for the following generation, and anyone can be a changemaker.

Employees now have unprecedented choice to build a career in companies that they believe in, he says. They will choose a workplace they trust – as they should, says Menon, if the world is to become a better place.

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