Bolton: Authentic engagement starts with character

Research shows that companies that build a strong corporate character and partnerships with a range of shareholders, including some new groups, are more likely to be successful.

Roger Bolton, Arthur W. Page Society
Roger Bolton, Arthur W. Page Society

The challenge of building stakeholder engagement and enterprise trust is both more important and more difficult than ever.

In this era of radical transparency, hyper-connectivity, intense stakeholder scrutiny, and higher expectations for enterprise behavior, it’s critical that enterprises understand how to win the support of people who previously were not deemed worthy of engagement.

Today, armed with information and expertise, distant and unknown actors can wield powerful influence over the close-in stakeholders – customers, shareholders, employees, legislators, and regulators – that enterprises care most about.

Without broad stakeholder support, customers may seek more trusted providers, investors may demand change or sell off the stock, employees may give less than full effort or go work elsewhere, and communities and activists may demand legislative and regulatory restrictions. Conversely, with broad stakeholder support, companies may more easily achieve their objectives to create value for all stakeholders and society at large.

The Page Society’s new report, Authentic Advocacy: How Five Leading Companies are Redefining Stakeholder Engagement, provides a blueprint companies can use to win broad stakeholder approval. By examining how five leading corporations are engaging a wide range of influencers, we learned a great deal about how this can be done effectively and authentically.

First, the research shows that the foundation of stakeholder engagement is corporate character. In short, this means that an enterprise that wants to earn trust had better be trustworthy. If the first step of stakeholder engagement is building shared belief, as the Page New Model for Enterprise Communication holds, the question is, "belief in what?" And the answer is, belief that the purpose, principles and actions of the enterprise are appropriate and worthy of support.

Second, the research finds that successful stakeholder engagement is advanced by a systematic, data-driven approach that empowers and enlists employees as the best resource for building belief with external stakeholders. Understanding stakeholders and their needs and arming thousands of employees with the tools needed to engage them requires sophisticated, intentional, coordinated actions.

Finally, the research finds that effective stakeholder engagement is focused on building long-term partnerships, not short-term, transactional relationships. The companies in this study were committed to true listening and a genuine willingness to change that is the hallmark of lasting, trusting relationships.

In sum, enterprises that develop a strong corporate character and use it as the basis for a systematic approach to building strong mutual partnerships are likely to earn the support that’s necessary to build business success and create value for customers, employees, shareholders, and society.

Roger Bolton is president of the Arthur W. Page Society.

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