Trust: The high-octane fuel that drives transformation

If your strategy, culture and leadership are not facilitating stakeholder trust every day, they’re holding your company back. Here’s how to assess it.

You’ve got tech stacks, data platforms and cybersecurity protocols. You speak digital, prioritize stakeholders and translate data so dynamically that your competitors are envious. But none of that matters if you’re missing one key ingredient: trust.

Trust is your company’s ticket to a sustainable and transformative future. When you move beyond simply serving stakeholders—your customers, employees, suppliers, investors, regulators and the communities in which you operate—and instead work to earn their trust, magical connections can happen. That’s when you secure permission to innovate boldly, grow responsibly, and create the future your customers and your entire company deserve.

Trust isn’t a sprint, though. It’s a marathon. It starts at the top of the organization, with strategy, culture and leadership then gradually spreads throughout. Eventually, it becomes the glue that binds—and the oxygen that sparks growth.

Help wanted: Trusted organizations

Trust, of course, is hot topic these days for society at large, with a meaningful cross-section of surveys pointing to a steady decline in trust in traditional sources like government and the media.

To fill the trust gap, people are increasingly looking more closely at the companies they work for or buy from. And company leaders are taking notice. Our recent U.S. CEO surveys, for example, show an increasing focus on issues like diversity and equality, corporate purpose and commitment in local communities, and climate change, and other ESG concerns.

Companies will need to be aware of these changing expectations and plan accordingly, as we outline in our new report, The Trusted Imperative. The paper captures three overall themes:


Among CEOs, 77 percent agree that as confidence and trust in governments decline, the public is looking to businesses to fill the void on societal challenges. 

Embrace the fundamentals
Research suggests that people trust organizations that demonstrate three key characteristics: ability, humanity, and integrity. But building and flexing those muscles across the entire organization—especially large ones—is daunting and potentially fraught with operational challenges. Our new report suggests strategies to consider for all three areas.

Take a dynamic approach to risk and regulation
Too often, risk and regulation are afterthoughts. But why? They’re actually at the heart of digital transformation. If trust is the ultimate business enabler, your risk and regulatory functions help create it. Our report offers some recommendations and guidance on getting ahead of risk.

Prioritize moments that matter
Certain things are non-negotiable: for example, keeping data safe, complying with regulations, and ensuring that staff and vendors follow ethical business practices. But even with precise preparation, a critical failure at a key moment is still a possibility. The more the moment matters, the more important that trust be consistent and predictable. The Trusted Imperative explores this dynamic in-depth, detailing six elements of trust, where they intersect, and how to get them right.

When trust erodes

Mistakes happen in every organization. Even the best systems and processes sometimes fail. And when they do, it can erode trust with investors, employees, regulators, and the physical or virtual communities in which you operate.

The journey from incident to recovery isn’t a straight line, but it doesn’t have to be a scenic route, either. Case in point: A technology company recently reached out to KPMG to help it respond to a cyberattack and rebuild trust in its business. The breach enabled hackers to access hundreds of companies and government organizations that used one of its products.

Six elements of trust

To help earn and sustain the trust of your stakeholders, embed trustworthiness throughout your business:

Embedding Trustworthiness
Products, services & operations Processes that help ensure stakeholder needs and expectations are met, legislation adhered to, and values upheld
Purpose & strategy Clear purpose and strategy with trust-inducing core values that creates value for society and accommodates stakeholders’ interests
Culture Culture Shared values, beliefs, and norms that foster constructive trust-inducing behavior aligned with the organization's purpose
Systems & processes Leverage and align planning, management, HR, reporting, and compliance systems to reinforce trustworthy behavior in line with the legal and regulatory context
Governance & structure Formal organization and governance that set clear roles and accountability and provide discretion within prudent oversight
Leadership & management Leaders who embody the company values and purpose, and hold themselves and others to account for trustworthy conduct

As our report outlines, we helped the organization mitigate the threat, but also use the experience as an opportunity to re-evaluate and ultimately upgrade its approach, embedding security awareness into every area of its business. Key steps included:

  • Investigating and responding to the attack
  • Assessing the impact on all stakeholders and proactively reporting back
  • Transforming its approach to cybersecurity

With the right remedies, companies can bounce back from reputational damage, prevent it from happening again and gradually rebuild trust with their stakeholders. As a starting point, we lay out five key steps to restoring trust.

Transform to inspire trust

Stakeholder trust is the essential ingredient for digital transformation. Our KPMG teams know that—not just from our work with clients, but in our own company’s transformation. We’ve been in your shoes. Whether you’re optimizing a single function or connecting an entire enterprise, we can help you inspire stakeholder trust. Download and read our full report, and then let us know if we can assist.

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Rob Fisher

Rob Fisher