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What People Want Out of Leaders Now

New research suggests that employees want leaders to get back to matters of trust and stability. But don’t buy the idea that empathy is “out.”

Despite some relatively optimistic data points in the past year or so—low unemployment, declining Covid numbers—executives are fielding a lot of stress in their workplace lately. Inflation and supply-chain issues aren’t entirely resolved; recession concerns still loom; hosts of industries are concerned that AI will termite into their business model, if it hasn’t been doing so already.

For association executives who are leading not just their staffs but also the industries their members represent, it’s become a time where reliability is key to soothing a lot of stakeholder anxiety. A report released last week by FTI Consulting underscores the point: People are looking for CEOs who prioritize workplace wellness and other measures that speak to stability. For instance, the percentage of employees who listed “financially minded” as a most-desired attribute in CEOs increased from 17 to 23 percent. And respondents said they want more transparency from leaders: The percentage citing “accessibility” as a key attribute leaped from 15 to 28 percent.

Employees now indicate they want to see a CEO who is ethical, accessible, and transparent.

Gone, for the moment, is the emphasis on the CEO who’s simply “here to listen”; getting things done and being clear about it is now a priority. As the report puts it: “The desire for a ‘Chief Empathy Officer,’ which rose in importance during the pandemic amid increased health concerns, is behind us. Employees now indicate they want to see a CEO who is ethical, accessible, and transparent.”

On a similar note, last week Deloitte and SAP released a report last week calling for a chief trust officer—an executive role that recognizes the role that trust plays in “employee engagement, customer loyalty, and financial performance.” According to their report, Introducing the Chief Trust Officer, the job is closely aligned with leadership around information security and real concerns about how data breaches can affect how a company is perceived. But the role as the report envisions it is also expanding well beyond that, covering all manner of potential reputational hits, from how an organization handles sustainability and wellness issues, regulation, and more. 

Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect most associations to make an investment in one more full-time executive role. But some of the elements of the CTrO job can be folded into a CEO’s work, if they’re not already. For instance, the report advises that organizations look at “relevant signals emanating from different sources—ranging from news media and social media, to blogs and regulatory postings, among others. This exercise lets organizations evaluate how they are perceived by the public and helps them to pinpoint opportunities to earn or rebuild trust with external stakeholders.” Knowing how you’re perceived internally and externally is always a good practice.

These trends will likely see-saw over time. The FTI report also notes that of late CEOs are being asked to modulate their comments on social issues, a substantial shift from 2020. With a presidential election year coming, that emphasis may change, especially for associations engaged in advocacy. For now, though, there’s a strong craving for consistency, transparency, and stability. It will be the executive’s job to determine how best to establish and communicate it.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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