Why Business Leaders Can Solve Our Problems — and How to Use Their Help Better
COMMENTARY

March 3, 2023by Elizabeth Fairchild, Executive Director, Business Forward
Why Business Leaders Can Solve Our Problems — and How to Use Their Help Better
Elizabeth Fairchild, Executive Director, Business Forward

We’ve seen it play out time and again: The media doesn’t trust the government, the government doesn’t trust the media, and people throughout the country don’t trust either. So who do we trust?

Edelman’s recently published annual Trust Barometer helps answer that question. This year it’s clearer than ever: Business, and especially local business, is the most and the only trusted institution in our polarized world.

When people think about big issues like climate change, immigration and the future of work, they tend to worry about jobs, wages and taxes. And local business leaders are best suited to answer those questions.

According to the 2023 Trust Barometer, trust in business is at an all-time high. In fact, business is the only trusted institution worldwide, with the government and media seen as sources of misleading information. And, with society more polarized than ever, the most trusted sources are local people (CEOs, employers, coworkers and neighbors).

Based on this year’s findings, it is clear that the societal role of business, especially local business leaders, is here to stay. As someone who supports local business leaders to spark change on economic and social issues, I think this is good news.

Our work at Business Forward is a testament to the Trust Barometer’s findings. Americans want to see action, but gridlock in Washington and the ever-present cycle of distrust have dimmed Americans’ optimism for the future. With the trust of the American people already at their backs, business leaders can help turn the tide.

When a business leader calls for change, it’s news — and Americans, hungry for leadership, are listening. By focusing on the economic costs and benefits of key reforms, business leaders can build the kind of broad community support needed to end gridlock, rebuild trust and find common ground.

Which is why it’s so critical for local business leaders to share their voices on divisive issues and bring real solutions to the table. Over the past 14 years, we’ve seen this work well with every piece of major legislation as we helped more than 270,000 local business leaders make the “business case” for climate action, affordable health care, immigration reform, diversity and inclusion, sensible tax laws, criminal justice reform, infrastructure investment, new trade deals and other pro-growth reforms.

These small business owners, entrepreneurs and executives brief policymakers, work with local media, publish op-eds, submit testimony, advocate online and work with their communities. We help them speak from their experience to make data-backed arguments that move the needle on otherwise polarizing issues.

Businesses can propel real change. But it doesn’t happen by accident.

You need a smart strategy for engaging businesses on your issue. When you engage them on issues, it’s important not to treat all businesses or business leaders the same. A statement of support on your issue from a CEO of a Fortune 500 can raise awareness and create media buzz, but as our federal politics become more and more polarized, we have to look local.

Civic-minded small business owners often have the most energy for taking action and have the strongest impact because of the deep ties they already have in their communities. For example, they can answer questions like, “What does the CHIPs Act do for us here in Kalamazoo, Michigan?” They are also perceived as more loyal and committed than global brands. Kalamazoo families love Apple products, but they trust Steelcase — a local employer — more.

In my experience, empowering business leaders means letting them speak for themselves to lean into the “business case,” or economic arguments, for reform. The moral imperative is often deeply established, and we’ve learned that it alone won’t convince the movable middle.

By focusing on jobs, wages, taxes, opportunity or waste, the right messenger can be more effective. For example, ensuring your employees have access to reproductive health care services, no matter where they live, isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business. Data shows that if we take action to help women stay in and re-enter the workforce through access to reproductive health care, the U.S. annual economic output could be $2.4 trillion larger by 2030. And in states with aging populations, talent retention is paramount to remaining economically competitive.

These are just some of the lessons from our work to date. And there’s more work ahead.

Businesses must continue to lead, and the best results come when business works collaboratively with policymakers. Together, by prioritizing solutions over divisiveness, we can restore economic optimism, advocate for truth and restore trust in our collective ability to build a better future.


Liz Fairchild is the executive director of the Business Forward Foundation, an independent research and education organization that takes a business-minded look at policy issues affecting America’s economic competitiveness. You can reach Liz on Twitter.

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