Leadership: Trust First?

Chatting with Bob, a peer in the industry this week, we wandered into the world of leadership trust.

What felt like a conversation we should be having at 2am in the morning over several glasses of wine, we embarked on a philosophical subject — as a leader do you trust until trust is broken — or should people earn their trust?

My career has always been very sales led. First as an individual contributor, then as a manager.

As a newly promoted manager, like many others before me, a mixture of lack of control and knowing myself better than any proxy, I see now I was a pretty controlling leader.

Trust had to be earned.

I was lucky enough that over time my amazing team and once a rhythm was established, trust was built and together we achieved some amazing things.

But — I had 5 people directly and a supporting cast who didn’t report to me.

Very quickly in my career, I was promoted and had 90 people, in many disciplines, not just in my background of sales.

My previous experience in building trust could not scale. I would burn out in the process of micromanaging and the business nor I could afford the time lag.

More importantly, I learned figured — what sort of an employer and business would we create if we started from a zero-trust basis?

So, I made a decision. I would trust first. Only if trust was broken would I need to go through the build or in fact, the rebuilding process.

As a sales leader my instinct was to distrust. It was tough to re-wire myself to not to ‘interfere’. Instead I focused on coaching, asking smart questions and offering help if things went a little off track.

Returning to my conversation with Bob. Bob was now very uncomfortable with the ‘trust first’ concept — with his eye twitching, I could see he was having a real issue with the prospect.

‘That’s a pretty big risk — surely you must have had a safety net?’

Of course, I had many safety nets.

Trusting first is an employee engagement strategy. Not trusting is a business risk insurance policy. As a leader, it’s important to balance both.

We shared some basic risk strategies for success:

1) A robust hiring process

A continuous focus on hiring, a good pipeline of talent, a rock-solid hiring criteria for every role, a set of values and traits we looked for to protect the culture and a documented interview process.

It’s important to remove the ‘art’ of hiring and focus on the ‘science’, with the exception of cultural fit, which frankly is always an art.

And be sure that every hire is the best it can be. Always. No compromises.

2) Trusting your network to expand the talent pool

Using the best recruiters and trusted contacts from the network seems like an obvious point, but the importance of being able to call on people from within the industry to find you great candidates, cannot be under estimated.

It’s a wider conversation than hiring from the ‘old boys network’.

Trust your network to expand your choice. You have to be broader than rehiring successful old employees.

On the basis of 6-degrees of separation, there is a great opportunity to access great talent through the continuously expanding network.

Great talent enters our workforces everyday through internships, apprenticeships etc — and they are usually the ‘gems’ which haven’t quite cottoned on to the head hunter and recruiter space — so being able to identify this talent through the network really helps.

3) Having great leaders

It goes without saying that if you have great managers, leading big teams becomes easier.

It’s easy to trust knowing your managers share your values and goals and are dedicated to the tasks in hand.

4) Transparent conversation when trust is broken

Great teams, working hard, sometimes things go wrong. Maybe the results are not up to scratch. Being able to have an open conversation, quickly and transparency to ensure trust is rebuilt immediately is so key.

Situations of distrust become toxic. Looking back, when I have seen those situations deteriorate, the teams I have worked with have hit the situation ‘head on’, resolving them quickly.

With all of this in mind, Bob and I met in the middle.

Leadership trust is so important to create a great culture of growth, success and employee engagement in a company — however leaders must have talent risk strategies to lay the foundations for success.


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