The transparent C-suite: a powerful New Year's resolution

Transparency is more than just keeping regulators out of executives' hair, says the CEO of WE Communications Melissa Waggener Zorkin.

Is it just me, or did we spend half of 2018 watching tech CEOs trudge in and out of congressional hearings, explaining themselves to policymakers whose grasp of the business was, in many cases, pretty slippery? (No, Steve King, Google doesn’t make the iPhone!)

Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai, all found themselves in the hot seat because, in one way or another, they and their companies failed the transparency test.

The tech they built isn’t just a collection of bits and bytes; it’s a new way of seeing and experiencing the world. It depends on our data and it demands our trust. But has that trust been earned?

WE Communications’ Brands in Motion study of consumer attitudes showed that globally, people have high hopes for tech and believe it will change lives for the better.

But that confidence isn’t unlimited. Consumers need reassurance that companies will use technology ethically. And when lapses occur, they need to know CEOs are paying attention, taking responsibility, and pushing for accountability from top to bottom.

Transparency is more than just keeping regulators out of executives’ hair. It’s not an empty promise or a short-lived ad campaign. From now on, transparency will be the backbone of every sustainable, values-focused business. As communicators, we know this to be true and we can play a role in making it happen.

The truth is transparency isn’t optional. It’s not a bolted-on, after-market modification. It must be an organic part of every purposeful company’s culture and leadership.

I’ve heard many definitions of the word, and I believe it means honesty. A transparent company conveys its point of view openly, generously, and with integrity. It celebrates its successes and own up to its shortcomings. And in this way, it builds trust with internal and external audiences alike.

This ethic of transparency especially applies to CEOs. Consumers and colleagues need to know the people steering the ship have all the facts and are willing to share them. CEOs need to let the world know who they are, what they care about, and how their organization lives up to its values.

Of course this is going to be different at every company. In general though, CEOs should embrace fireside chats, lightning rounds, and other ways of communicating transparently, proactively, and approachably. They should send fewer emails, do more short videos and yes, take time to walk around whenever they can.

For all brands, but especially at tech companies, accountability and transparency will map the way forward. Today’s consumers are acutely aware of the dangers of unconstrained technology, thanks to the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal.

By always acting ethically, and not backtracking when caught abusing consumers’ trust, brands won’t be forced, as Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote, "to choose between social responsibility and market success."

Transparent communications are a big part of this equation. Tech CEOs need to have honest, sometimes difficult, conversations and show they see the difference between the things they can do and the things they should do. This way, they’ll prove they’ve earned the trust we give them.

Consumers want brands to act ethically and transparently. Brands want to meet those expectations. And when everybody’s happy, lawmakers have little incentive to swoop in. And given the knowledge gap congress displayed at last year’s hearings, that’s a good thing.

When companies do the right thing—and transparently explain the what and the why behind their choices—we all win.

Melissa Waggener Zorkin is CEO of WE Communications.

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