October 10, 2014
Fri 10, 2014

The secret to strong leadership: Here are my top tips on how to build trust


Last week, we looked at real-life case studies of corporate trust run afoul. Leaders who understand the value of trust can literally save the company after it has lost the confidence of its customers or the general public. When the Tylenol product tampering crisis hit Johnson & Johnson in the early ‘80s and seven people died, the company president James Burke asked “What is the most ethical action we might take?”

That simple question became the catalyst for the company to do the right thing. By giving permission to take the right actions, and with thinking that went beyond just the next day’s share price, the company was saved. Tylenol quickly recovered, consumer confidence was restored and the story is now held up as the gold standard for other companies to follow.[

While almost any leader will tell you they believe in the value of trust, many prove otherwise by their actions. It’s usually only after they are in full crisis mode that I get called onto the scene for help.

Here are my top practices for leaders to follow to build, maintain or restore corporate trust before it’s too late:

1. Ask the tough questions. For whatever reason, leaders are often reluctant to engage in discussions that identify the most challenging questions. Perhaps because it exposes their vulnerabilities and they fear having to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. Taking this step is the right one. It challenges everyone, particularly during difficult circumstances when the leader and often the organization’s trust and reputation are on the line. One of my clients recently presented to a major public board on a sensitive issue. In preparation, he hired me to work with his senior team to think of the toughest, bordering on nasty, questions he might get asked. We then did a series of dry runs. By taking such an approach, everyone on the senior leadership team shared responsibility for the outcome and gained a deeper understanding and sensitivity of the challenges facing their leader. No surprise, he did very well.

2. Become a digital media conversationalist. Never in our history have conversations – connecting, engaging and listening – been so important. Our digitized world now lets conversations happen all the time. Often leaders view this as a challenge that must be managed, rather than an opportunity for them and their organizations to drive the dialogue that develops trust. Good leaders excel at conversations and drive them on digital media to say they have integrity, competence and can deliver on their words. Probably one of the best roles models out there this is Richard Branson, billionaire and founder of Virgin Group. Just recently he came out with the powerful statement that his personal staff could take unlimited vacations. While not all leaders have the freedom to take such positions, Branson has an uncanny ability to sense the mood of his stakeholders and respond accordingly. Trust is at the core of all conversations – face-to-face, email or in social media. Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, believes behind all new ideas, information and inventions are strong conversations. “The most important work in the new economy is creating conversations,” he said.

3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. The world is suffering from a global empathy deficit. Something learned in childhood has been forgotten or put on a shelf, to be dusted off occasionally and used with small children and puppies. Empathy is integral to trust. Major announcements and conversations high in emotion and controversy call for the skillful use of trust. Looked at in a harsher light, organizations that forget to think about the reaction of the people and groups receiving their messages really deserve everything they get. This past August in Ferguson, Missouri, a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager. The lack of trusted, effective leaders in the early days allowed the issue to spiral out of control. The police chief only issued an apology for the actions of his police officers after several weeks of protests, civil disorder, tear gas and arrests. This community and its leaders have a long way to go before trust can ever, if ever, be established. Looking at the city’s website, there’s no mention of what happened just a few short weeks ago in their community. And nowhere can you find the police chief’s apology.

Transparency and Trust: Next week I’ll discuss how talk of transparency by today’s leaders is actually undermining trust, and what leaders can and should do about it.