How CEOs can build a culture of trust

Every employee looks up to you to know what is your vision.

 |  6-minute read |   06-01-2016
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Did you ever manage a team where more than 50 per cent of the leaders did not trust each other? When was the last time you did not trust the boss you were reporting to?

When was the last time there was a change in leadership and you started feeling very uncomfortable as within a few weeks you realised you could not trust your boss?

Well, I am sure each one of you hase gone through such situations.

Over my corporate career of more than 2 decades, transitioning across five different industries, I have realised that one of the most critical tasks of a CEO is to build a culture of trust, an environment where leaders trust each other.

A culture of trust is the most critical building block of any great team. Why?

Simply because it gives you a sense a safety. When your team members feel safe with each other, they feel comfortable to open up, take appropriate risks, and expose vulnerabilities. And building trust takes time.

I have often observed in my corporate journey so far that in spite of a compelling vision, rock solid strategy, excellent communication skills, innovative practices, deep consumer insights and talented teams many corporates and leaders are not able to take the organisation to the next level.

And what is the reason? Well, you will observe team members not sharing information openly, battling over rights and responsibilities, not cooperating seamlessly, not sharing bad news in time, not sounding alarm bells over "ticking" little bombs and working in silos.

I am sharing below some of the practices I have practiced and found success in build this culture of trust in my teams:

Share your vision:

Every employee looks up to you to know what is your vision. They are looking at the direction you are going to steer the ship and how you plan to take the ship in that direction.

What is even more important is how you communicate this vision. Keep is simple and clear. It should be an overarching vision and how this vision will translate into "what is in it for me" for every employee and how they can contribute to the success.

When you share your strategy for success, you acknowledge your trust in employees who determine that success. I've learned that when you show someone that you trust them, they work hard to show that your trust is well placed.

Leading through e-mail?

Trust is all about relationships, and relationships are best built by establishing genuine connections. The more you hide behind your email, the more difficult it is. Go out to connect and listen - have more and more "face time". I find walking around the office premises and meeting employees 1-on-1 or in small groups during these walks very effective.

When I visit a remote geography, spending few minutes doing 1-on-1 with skip level of that geography head and a town hall with all employees there helps me tune in to what is happening there. Talking to frontline call centre executives, distributor salesmen or going with them as a pillion on their 2-wheeler, which I have done till few years back, gives a feel of what is happening on the ground.

I practice what is call "coffee with Rupak", where I spend 20 minutes with an employee picked up at random to have a cup of coffee and chat. When managing large virtual teams, speak as much on the phone or connect over Skype of Facetime call.

Ask questions, listen, and above all, show gratitude. Simple questions like "what are your biggest pain points?" and "how I can help you?" gives them a lot of freedom to speak and you can hit a goldmine. As children, many of you were taught to say "please" and "thank you" whether you wanted it or not since it was considered polite. How difficult is to say, "I Appreciate you for…?"

Try it. Don't limit yourself to appreciating only the big things that took place today - try appreciating the little things that you observed today.

Promise made, promise kept:

As you connect and listen, it is very important to listen intently with a genuine desire to intervene and help. Do you have a personal discipline and system to make a list of all little things that you need to follow through? When a team member tells you something which needs some action from your end, it is to them a promise you are making. They will never follow up with you.

Family circles:

You spend a lion's share of your time interacting with your team. Put your hand to your heart and honestly ask yourself, "How well do I know my first line?" I practice what I call "Family Circles". In your family, you know exactly what is happening today. Whether your child or spouse is happy or not, what their concerns are and what challenges they are facing. In my concept of "Family Circles", every leader needs to know his first line like his family member.

That's how emotional bonds get built beyond the immediate work area and builds trust.

Asking simple questions like, "How is everything at home?", "How is your child doing?" before a work chat helps strengthen trust.  Sending thank you notes and engaging with your team outside of the work environment at an informal environment does work in breaking the invisible wall between you and your team.

Lead communications and engage:

Building trust in an organisation's leadership requires a personal effort on the part of the leaders themselves. Yet it's a team effort too. People want the CEO to communicate the strategic issues - the "big picture" questions. For things happening at the corporate level, they want to hear it from the top. Make sure that constant communication is happening, and use both informal and formal methods. And more so, when things are not too good. You need to be honest and transparent in your communication and allay any fears.

When returning from headquarters after a review, or after attending some conference, do you take time out to brief the highlights to your team?.

Remember, when your team sees you repeat the same message atleast 3-4 times in different methods/forums, it sinks into them that it matters to you the most and they jump into it. Communications can't make a person trust someone who is basically untrustworthy. But it definitely creates a culture in which trust can thrive.

Encourage bad news to flow in:

Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes Benz once said, "The higher you climb up the ladder, the more people will tell you what a great guy you are. The worst trap you can fall into is believing them." If nobody tells you that they have a different opinion - that they actually don't agree with what you are doing - then you may sleepwalk your way into disaster. Encouraging bad news to flow in to you seamlessly is a key leadership skill to build trust.

The CEO's greatest battle today is to win the trust of stakeholders. Building this culture of trust within an organisation is insanely important and starts from the top. To my mind, trust is like a forest - takes lots of time to grow but can burn down with just a torch of carelessness.

I have been practicing the above practices with success to create a culture of trust in organisations I have been leading. I look forward to hearing your experiences and views.


Rupak Agarwal Rupak Agarwal @rupakagarwal

The author is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore and currently works as a Business Head with Godrej Properties Ltd. He is a turnaround specialist with multi-industry expertise across technology, consumer, media, telecom and real estate.

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