Which of society's key institutions do people trust most? For over two decades, Edelman has posed that question to members of the public as part of its annual global Trust Barometer survey.

Last year, for the first time ever, a majority said they trusted business more than government, as faith in the latter sank amid governments' response to the pandemic, mounting social unrest and political friction.

Furthermore, businesses were the only institutions seen as both competent and ethical. But with more trust came more responsibility: nearly eight in 10 expect their company to act on social issues, including vaccine hesitancy, climate change, automation and racism.

The survey additionally underscored the great expectations that company boards and CEOs continue to face in building and maintaining stakeholders' trust. Meeting them begins with understanding what those expectations and how best to address them. Which issues should leaders prioritize and how can a board effectively oversee a company’s response? Should CEOs take a public stand on social and political issues? How can companies meet the high expectations of their employees?

Edelman, in partnership with a premier U.S. board organization, hosted a discussion with a distinguished panel of directors and experts, and nearly 200 board and C-suite audience members, to discuss these pertinent business issues and more. Here are the key takeaways:

Employees are capital, not a commodity

The war for talent has escalated, fueled by the stress of the pandemic on workers and evolving expectations for a flexible work environment. Moreover, as business processes become more automated, many workers fear losing their jobs to machines.

Boards must ensure that company leaders take strong measures to build loyalty and a sense of shared purpose with the workforce. That starts with identifying issues that have a direct impact on employees – retraining, fair wages, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – and consistently and transparently communicating to employees about them. As one director put it: "You have to listen and learn. Only then can you lead."

In addition to ensuring that employees' concerns are heard and taken seriously, boards should make employee welfare a permanent agenda item since workers' needs evolve and shift.

Maintaining workers' trust can pay substantial dividends. Satisfied employees serve customers better, which tends to boost sales. The notion that companies must choose between meeting the expectations of employees and those of investors is antiquated, the panel agreed.

Read more: Board’s Guide to Trust: The Trusted Employer

ESG remains a work in progress

In the years since Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) matters became a formula for enlightened corporate management, companies have made some progress at addressing issues tied to "E" (environment) and "G" (governance). But there has been a deep lag with respect to "S," social impact.

In particular, U.S. companies have fallen short in building workforces that reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the country. Many boards are overseeing ESG initiatives more closely through the formation of dedicated committees and keeping management accountable for meaningful progress on their targets. Companies are increasingly waking up to the reality that diversity throughout an organization enriches decision-making and improves corporate performance.

Business leaders must speak up regarding societal issues.

The role of the CEO has evolved substantially over the last decade, bringing with it the expectation to speak out on today’s issues. Employees – and the public at large – expect business leaders to take a stand on salient societal concerns.

There is no tried-and-sure template on what issues to speak about and how. The most effective response is one rooted in the belief systems of the company and of the CEO. And regardless of what they say, leaders must accept they will always have critics - and not let that let them shy away from action. Authenticity and conviction are key.

Before speaking out, CEOs need to agree with their boards on the issues the company will focus on and ensure that what leaders will say is consistent with their companies' purpose and values. Boards have a responsibility to guide CEOs on the issues that are most relevant before action is necessary.

Board members must keep in mind that silence is a form of speech. Staying silent about pivotal social issues may weigh on a company's reputation.

Boards must actively embrace accountability

Boards are facing new expectations and accountability as stakeholder capitalism gains steam.

The speed at which the business environment is changing means annual stakeholder feedback metrics are no longer enough – more frequent measures are critical to ensure the board has a pulse on progress and setbacks.

Enlightened boards are adding rigor to their processes to ensure that companies are meeting their ESG goals. Board diversity is also, increasingly, a hallmark of good corporate governance. Boards themselves must look at themselves and ensure candidates for leadership pipelines include those with diverse backgrounds.

While the role of the board remains principally unchanged, the expectations boards face has risen as multi-stakeholder accountability takes center stage.

A vortex of change

The shift in the corporate zeitgeist to stakeholder capitalism and agendas that benefit society is unfolding quickly. Although big corporations are at the forefront of change, the new dispensation is taking hold across the corporate spectrum and in organizations of every size. Board members must keep pace and zero in on the issues that matter.

The board is the last line of defense, and the first line of offense. It needs to set the playing field, set the principles and make them clear. The failure to do so can cause trust to erode quickly.

Julia Fisher is Vice President, Financial Communications & Capital Markets, Edelman