Early in my career, the department I had just exuberantly joined underwent a reorganization. The boss I identified with and learned from was no longer my boss, and my new boss was another senior member of the team who had previously shown little interest in my work or me personally. In short order, I needed direction from the new boss to complete a project aligned with her government/public affairs expertise. My habit was to work late, so I left her a short list of questions before departing for the evening. Her habit was to arrive early so, to my surprise, a thoughtful response was waiting on my desk when I arrived in the morning (yes, this was before email!).
The new boss and I never became best buddies, but she embraced the role of leader, gained my trust and taught me my first valuable lesson about trust and leadership. Below are four lessons I learned throughout my leadership career, starting with that new boss from years ago, about how leaders can build trust and show their team they’re committed.
1. Honor your commitments.
When we sign up for leadership, the success of those around us comes with the privilege. My new boss won me over by consistently showing through her actions that my success was a priority to her. A relationship that started out with skepticism on my part taught me the valuable lesson that the strength of our relationships is measured by how much people can count on us. TWEET
2. Show people you care about them.
Author Jon Gordon succinctly said, “When people know you care about their interests as much as your own, they will trust you. If they know you are out for yourself, their internal alarm sounds and they will say to themselves ‘watch out for that person.’”
One of the most powerful forms of showing employees that they are cared for that I’ve ever witnessed comes from Southwest Airlines. Unusual in the corporate world, Southwest Airlines has a department called Internal Customer Care that was started by president emeritus Colleen Barrett and carried on by CEO Gary Kelly. If an employee is experiencing a major life event—marriage, birth of a child, death of a loved one, etc.—leaders are encouraged to alert this department so the CEO can acknowledge the event. Acknowledgements can take many forms: from a card, to flowers, to a “care package” when an employee is recuperating at home. I’ve observed many grateful and tearful thank yous to Gary Kelly from employees who felt valued and appreciated during one of their proudest or darkest moments. The impact of showing people you care about them is one of the most powerful steps in building trust. TWEET
3. Set the tone by being the first to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability probably didn’t show up in research about leadership and trust until 20 years ago. But, as in all relationships, when we are willing to be vulnerable, a whole new area of opportunity and growth opens up. After an operational incident at Southwest Airlines, such as an aircraft going off the runway in a snowstorm, all of the leaders involved in the response would gather a few weeks later for a post-event review. We would engage in open dialogue as part of our continuous improvement process. The various teams ranging from pilot leadership to customer relations would candidly share through a “Start, Stop, Continue” dissection of our response. What set the tone for being completely candid and vulnerable was the emergency director, who would kick off the discussion with what he could have personally improved upon. When leaders take the first step in being vulnerable, it sets the tone and frees others to openly share. TWEET
4. Remember, how you act always trumps what you say.
As leaders, we are in the spotlight and others are following our example, whether good or bad, large or small. A global company, into which I have an inside view, recently appointed a new CEO who immediately set out to lead the organization through a needed transition: relocating its staid headquarters to a vibrant urban environment; recalibrating the retail operations with customer-pleasing technology; and generally setting a vibrant new tone that ramped up the pace at the company. But who knew the CEO’s casual dress would be a beacon and catalyst? In a matter of weeks, gone were the ties and heels, and in was the On or Nike sneakers—and a faster pace around the headquarters followed suit. As leaders, our actions are being closely watched, and even the smallest acts signal that you can trust our intentions and agendas.
We are at an opportune time to build upon the level of trust we have for our employees. Case in point: The Edelman Trust Barometer has documented some of the largest opinion shifts shaping the world over the last 19 years. The 2019 survey reveals a profound shift to “relationships within their control, most notably their employers” with 75 percent of respondents saying they trust their employer, compared to government (48 percent) and media (47 percent).
Let’s lean in to further build on the trust we share with those we lead. Here’s to you being the kind of leader that others trust and choose to follow.