October 2, 2014
Thu 10, 2014

In leadership we trust…Or do we?


Newly elected Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and his government are making changes at a monumental pace to rebuild a trust seriously broken by the past regime. The message is accountability and transparency; favourite words of leaders everywhere. Whether the new Tory government succeeds is still a question. Trust only grows when leaders deliver on the promises made.

In my many years sitting at the executive tables of private- and public-sector organizations, I see how important establishing and keeping trust is for leadership to survive.

Just ask Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland who recently lost to the Yes side in the Scottish independence referendum. In the end, it all came down to a lack of trust in Salmond and his ability to deliver. He made a lot of statements about the economy and how it wouldn’t be affected if Scotland separated, but failed to convince the majority.

The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals CEOs and government leaders remain at the bottom of the list for most trusted.

Only one in four of the general public trust business leaders to correct issues and even fewer – one in five – to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions. Government leaders scored even lower across the board.

So why is it leaders still place such low value in trust? You’ll never hear them trashing the subject as common sense tells all of us trust is important. But after the discussions, their actions show how little it figures into decisions. Amazing.

Too often, it’s only after trust implodes, explodes, erupts and comes tumbling down that leaders realize what they’ve lost. Then it’s a long, gruelling climb to try and regain even a portion of what they so casually tossed away.

The recent celebrity nude photos hacked on iCloud or iPhone systems, caused Apple CEO Tim Cook to post a letter on the company’s website that said: “At Apple, your trust means everything to us.” Taking nothing for granted, the company recognized a conversation that questioned the security of Apple’s products could potentially, almost overnight, cause consumers to think twice about purchasing its products. That their most senior leader directly addressed the issue shows how seriously Apple viewed it.

Experience tells me that leaders are only as effective as the trust they generate, especially during times of high emotion and controversy. During a $1-billion consultation process I developed for a proposed petrochemical plant, the most senior people in the company led the way. They were there to shake the hands and introduce themselves, but more importantly, they answered the tough questions and acknowledged any concerns or issues.

From this meaningful and challenging consultation, and after approval for the new plant was received, management wanted to ensure the discussions and contacts with neighbours and others continued. The company created a Community Advisory Panel with a senior plant manager a member of the group.

And when I launched the marketing of an Edmonton region-wide 24/7 nurse call centre that eventually grew into Health Link Alberta, we worked extensively behind the scenes with the physicians and nurses in charge of delivering the service and other staff well before it went public. Leaders explained the value of Health Link and addressed any concerns.

Everyone recognized sometimes it’s the unofficial leaders who carry the most influence or trust with stakeholders, an impression supported by a recent study that found of the 42 most common jobs, nurses, doctors, teachers, farmers, professors and child care workers all had the highest warmth and competence.

What makes the issue of trust more urgent today, is the digital world and the real time flow of information and conversations. The words and actions of leaders are immediately up there for everyone to watch, listen and monitor.

It’s a challenge for leaders everywhere to be seen to be giving and building trust.

Leaders who want to build trust must step up and lead differently. Next week, I will share with you the top practices good leaders follow when it comes to building, restoring and / or maintaining corporate trust.