Leading with Trust

Build Trust Through Professionalism – Seven Mindsets for Success

Do you consider yourself a professional? Or do you think professionalism is reserved for those occupations that require a special degree or qualification, such as a doctor, lawyer, or accountant?

Being a professional has nothing to do with a particular job, title, or degree. It has everything to do with the mindset you choose to hold in the way you approach your work, argues Bill Wiersma, in the Fall 2011 issue of the Leader to Leader Journal. In Fixing the trust deficit: Creating a culture of professionals, Wiersma makes the valuable point that adhering to professional ideals builds trust with others and he offers the following seven mindsets that are characteristic of trusted professionals.

  1. Professionals have a bias for results, knowing that they are counted on to achieve results by using their knowledge, expertise and skills. They develop a track record of success and a reputation for getting the job done, no matter what it takes.
  2. Professionals realize (and act like) they are part of something bigger than themselves. They understand that true success is measured beyond their own personal interests, are good collaborators, and are committed to the goals of their organization. In the world of sports, they say this is being more committed to the name on the front of the jersey rather than the name on the back.
  3. Professionals realize that things get better when they get better. They are engaged and committed to improving their craft, always looking for opportunities to personally get better. When it comes to being a professional, it’s not just business; it’s personal.
  4. Professionals often have standards that transcend organizational ones, because they are motivated by a core set of values that compels them to do the right thing rather than what’s expedient. They keep focused on the long-term goal and don’t get wrapped up in the daily drama.
  5. Professionals know that personal integrity is all they have. Following through on commitments, being honest, authentic, and not violating the trust that has been extended to them is a reflection of their character.
  6. Professionals aspire to master their emotions, not be enslaved by them. Dealing diplomatically with difficult people, rising above the fray, and remaining objective in emotional situations are key skills for trusted professionals.
  7. Professionals aspire to reveal value in others by keeping their ego in check, celebrating the success of others, and valuing the contributions that other professionals bring to the table. Professionals understand that no one of us is as smart as all of us.

One of my pet peeves is when I hear people describe their work by saying “I’m just a ______” (insert title or job). You are not just anything. Don’t discount yourself or your work by qualifying it with the word “just.” The work you do is valuable and important! Elevate the value of your work and your own self-image by approaching your job with these professional mindsets. You will be more satisfied in your work, perform better, and build higher levels of trust with others.

Defining Moments of Leadership – Will you define the moment or will the moment define you?

It’s inevitable. Through the course of your leadership journey you will be faced with defining moments. Defining moments are those situations that require you to make a tough decision or take a stand on a controversial issue.

Will you define the moment, or will the moment define you?

Consider the news headlines of recent events in society, politics, sports, and business that illustrate defining moments for several prominent leaders:

  • “Cameron vows ‘uncompromising measures’ in dealing with riots” – U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, faced the challenging situation of how to respond to rioting in the streets of London after a fatal police shooting. Was he too slow to respond? Is he properly managing the tensions between the government and police force?
  • “U.S. debt crisis: Is Obama’s leadership style suited to the moment?” – President Obama had to navigate rough political waters in route to getting the debt ceiling raised. Was he assertively leading the effort to bring the parties together to reach a deal, or was he too hands-off by leaving the negotiations and details to leaders in Congress?
  • “Shalala Breaks Silence Over UM Allegations” – University of Miami President, Donna Shalala (former Secretary of Health & Human Services under President Clinton), is currently dealing with an athletic department scandal involving a former booster who claims he provided athletes with cash, jewelry and prostitutes over an eight-year period, several of which were under Shalala’s watch. How will she respond?
  • “Gay advocates pressured Starbucks chairman to cancel church speech” – Last week Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, faced a defining moment when he decided to cancel his speaking appearance at the Global Leadership Summit, an annual leadership training event hosted by Willow Creek Church. His cancellation was prompted by an online petition signed by slightly over 700 people who expressed concern that he was speaking at a church that was “anti-gay” (see the response from Willow Creek’s Pastor, Bill Hybels). Did Schultz do the right thing or was his decision short-sighted?

The defining moments for most of us may not approach the scope or severity of the ones mentioned above, but the principles for handling them remain the same. I would offer the following suggestions to help you prepare for your defining moments of leadership:

  1. Be crystal clear on your personal values – Your values should serve as the primary filter in your decision-making process. If you aren’t clear on the values that motivate and guide your life and leadership actions, you’ll be like a rudderless ship tossed about on a stormy sea. When faced with difficult decisions, ask yourself if the action you’re about to take is in alignment with your values and if it will contribute to the growth and welfare of the stakeholders involved.
  2. Develop a Leadership Point of View (LPOV) – If you understand your LPOV – what motivates you as a leader, your life purpose and values, your beliefs about leading people, and the legacy you want to leave as a leader – you will be better equipped to sort through the complex issues that need to be addressed when those defining moments arrive. Instead of just focusing on the immediate impact of the issue at hand, understanding your LPOV helps you take a long-range view of the consequences of your leadership actions.
  3. Expect to be criticized – President Harry Truman is famously known for having a sign on his desk that stated The BUCK STOPS Here! Leaders will be faced with moments of truth when they, and only they, can make the decision. With that responsibility has to come the knowledge that there will always be some who disagree with you and won’t be afraid to say so! Keeping your eye on the goal and making your decisions in alignment with your personal and organizational values will keep you pointed in the right direction.
  4. Understand that there will be a personal cost – Rarely are there instances when defining moments do not exact a personal toll. The cost may be stress, popularity, fortune, or friendship. I suggest that leaders handle defining moments with contemplation and conversation. Making rash, snap judgments based on gut feel can be a leadership death knell. If possible, thoroughly vet decisions and seek input and guidance from trusted advisors.
  5. Learn from the past – It’s easier to recognize a defining moment after the fact. Unfortunately, that usually means you missed the opportunity to maximize your influence and the moment defined you. Review and assess previous defining moments you’ve experienced. What were the circumstances? How did you react? What could you have done differently? Just like a sailor learns to predict weather patterns based on the color of the sky, the type or movement of clouds, and the direction of the wind, leaders can become more aware of the conditions of defining moments by analyzing their past experiences.

“Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
Herb Brooks, Coach of 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team

Have you had defining moments in your leadership journey? Feel free to leave a comment and share what you’ve learned.

Got Ethics? Three Questions Every Leader Should Ask

Acting with integrity; being honest in word and deed – 57% of more than 600 attendees in a recent webinar I conducted cited this as the most influential leadership behavior that builds trust. Making ethical decisions is a key component of being an honest and trusted leader, yet many of us don’t have a defined process or rubric for handling ethical dilemmas.


A simple, yet powerful process that I’ve relied upon is one that I learned from Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale in their book The Power of Ethical Management. Blanchard and Peale suggest that leaders ask the following three questions when making a decision about an ethical problem:

  1. Is it legal? The purpose of this question is to get you to look at existing standards. The legality of the decision should be examined not just from the civil law perspective, but also in regards to company policies or standards. If the answer to this first question is “no,” there isn’t much need to ask the following two. If your organization doesn’t have an ethics policy or company values that outline the behaviors desired by team members, check out a recent article from my friend and colleague, Chris Edmonds, that will help you get started.
  2. Is it balanced? The purpose of this question is to activate your sense of fairness and rationality. Will the decision be fair or will it heavily favor one party over another, in the both the short and long-term? Decisions that produce big winners, at the expense of making others big losers, often come back to haunt individuals and organizations. It’s not always possible to make decisions where everybody wins, but leaders should strive to avoid major imbalances over the course of their relationships.
  3. How will it make me feel about myself? This last question gets you to focus on your own emotions, standards, and sense of morality. How would you feel if what you were considering doing was published on the front page of your local newspaper or CNN.com? Would it make you and your family proud or embarrassed? If you’re losing sleep over the situation, it’s probably an indication that your conscience is wrestling with the decision and its alignment with your personal values. As John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.”

Constant use of these three questions as an ‘ethics check’ can help guide you into a pattern of ‘right’ behavior that can become habit-forming and put you on the path to being an ethical and trusted leader.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences in handling ethical dilemmas. Have you used this ‘ethics check’ process? Please leave a comment below.

Are You Playing Fair? You better be, because your people are keeping score

Coaching a bunch of energetic 5-6 year old kids in tee-ball is really just controlled chaos. Tee-ball is normally the introduction to baseball that children experience at age 5-6, and generally speaking, most leagues don’t keep an official score for tee-ball games. The purpose isn’t to win, it’s to teach the fundamental skills and rules of baseball. Notice that I said the leagues don’t keep an official score. I remember many occasions while coaching tee-ball that kids in the dugout would be tallying up the score to see who was winning and losing!

Fast forward 20 years or so to the workplace and we find that not much has changed. Adults are still keeping score, only now it’s about who received the new project, promotion, or corner office. And as soon as someone perceives that the leader made an unjust decision, the first thing we hear is exactly what five-year old tee-ballers say when they think another player has violated the rules: “That’s not fair!”

Leaders aiming to build trust in relationships need to pay particular attention to the issue of fairness. “No problem,” you may say, “I treat everyone the same, no matter what.” Actually, that can be one of the most unfair things you do! A quote from Aristotle speaks to this: “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” People should be treated equitably and ethically, given their individual needs and circumstances, and the differences between people should be recognized and valued, not diminished.

In order to build and maintain trust with followers, leaders need to exhibit fairness through the distribution of organizational resources and application of policies to all team members. It’s helpful to understand exactly what “fairness” means in an organizational context. Fairness is composed of two main elements: distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice is fairness in the organization’s pay, rewards, and benefits for employees. Procedural justice is fairness in the organization’s decision-making processes of how those rewards and benefits are doled out. Of the two, procedural justice is the element most under control of individual leaders and is the aspect of fairness most closely linked with building or eroding trust with followers.

According to the results of a survey published in the July/August issue of Training Magazine conducted by a team of researches from The Ken Blanchard Companies, procedural justice was ranked as the most important organizational factor for employee retention. Additionally, over 60% of respondents believed the primary responsibility for influencing and improving procedural justice rested with their immediate supervisor.

So how can leaders be fair and build trust with their team members? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Be transparent – Share information about the criteria and process that you use to make decisions. Putting all your cards on the table eliminates doubt and mistrust.
  • Increase involvement in decision-making – As much as possible, involve the people who will be affected by your decisions in the process. People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.
  • Play by the rules – Clearly establish the rules, play by them, and hold others and yourself accountable to following them.
  • Listen with the idea of being influenced – Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you know it all. Ask others for their input and genuinely listen with an open mind and be willing to change course if needed.
  • Don’t play favorites – No one likes a teacher’s pet so don’t create one. That will eliminate a key source of jealousy.
  • Save spin for the gym, not the office – Be authentic and genuine in your communications. People see through the political spin.
Remember, your people are keeping score of your every behavior. Play fair!

Four Leadership Practices to Build a Culture of Trust and Openness

In today’s fast-paced, globally-connected business world in which we live, an organization’s successes and failures can be tweeted across the internet in a matter of seconds. A knee jerk reaction of many organizational leaders is to clamp down on the amount of information shared internally, with hopes of minimizing risk to the organization. Many times this backfires and ends up creating a culture of risk aversion and low trust. For organizations to thrive in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, leaders have to learn how to build a culture of trust and openness. Here are four suggested leadership practices to help in this regard:

  1. Encourage risk taking – Leaders need to take the first step in extending trust to those they lead. Through their words and actions, leaders can send the message that appropriate and thoughtful risk taking is encouraged and rewarded. When people feel trusted and secure in their contributions to the organization, they don’t waste energy engaging in CYA (cover your “assets”) behavior and are willing to risk failure. The willingness to take risks is the genesis of creativity and innovation, without which organizations today will die on the vine. Creating a culture of risk taking will only be possible when practice #2 is in place.
  2. Mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities – Imagine that you’re an average golfer (like me!) who decides to take lessons to improve your game. After spending some time on the practice range, your instructor takes you on the course for some live action and you attempt a high-risk/high-reward shot. You flub the shot and your instructor goes beserk on you. “How stupid can you be!” he shouts. “What were you thinking? That was one of the worst shots I’ve seen in my life!” Not exactly the kind of leadership that encourages you to take further risks, is it? Contrast that with a response of “So what do you think went wrong? What will you do differently next time?” Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, characterizes these incidents as “learning moments,” where planning and execution come together, a result is produced, and we incorporate what we learned into our future work.
  3. Transparency in processes and decision making – Leaders can create a culture of trust and openness by making sure they engage in transparent business practices. Creating systems for high involvement in change efforts, openly discussing decision-making critieria, giving and receiving feedback, and ensuring organizational policies and procedures and applied fairly and equitably are all valuable strategies to increase transparency. On an individual basis, it’s important for us leaders to remember that our people want to know our values, beliefs, and what motivates our decisions and actions. Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines, likes to say that “People will respect you for what you know, but they’ll love you for your vulnerabilities.”
  4. Information is shared openly – In the absence of information, people will make up their own version of the truth. This leads to gossip, rumors, and mis-information which results in people questioning leadership decisions and losing focus on the mission at hand. Leaders who share information about themselves and the organization build trust and credibility with their followers. When people are entrusted with all the necessary information to make intelligent business decisions, they are compelled to act responsibly and a culture of accountability can be maintained.

Please take a moment to participate in the Leading with Trust poll that appears below. I’d like to hear your feedback on whether or not these four leadership practices are present in your organization and I’ll share the results in a future article.

Do You Have Truth Decay?

Winston Churchill once pointed out that people occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened. The great American author and humorist, Mark Twain, opined that many people must regard truth as their most valuable possession since they were very economical in its use. His advice was simply, “Always do right.”  Truth decay is the gradual erosion of honesty and integrity in a relationship, and if not diagnosed and treated promptly, can result in a complete loss of trust. Here are four warning signs of truth decay and suggestions for prevention and treatment.

  1. Withholding information – This causes suspicion in the leader, a lack of empowerment in the followers, and wasted time and energy as people try to manage the business without all the right information at their disposal. People without information are incapable of acting responsibly. People with information are compelled to act responsibly. Share information about yourself and the organization openly and in the appropriate formats and forums, and set the expectations of how the information should be used. Trust your folks to do the right thing.
  2. Not “walking the talk” – When leaders say one thing yet do another, followers quickly learn that the leader can’t be trusted. Leaders can not underestimate the power of leading by example. Get clear on what values are most important to you as a leader, communicate those to your team, and give them permission to hold you accountable to living those out.
  3. Dropping balls – Not following through on commitments is a leading contributor to truth decay. Make sure you under-promise and over-deliver. Don’t commit to do something unless you know you can follow-through. It can be tempting for leaders to think they have to say “yes” to everything, but if you don’t follow through on your commitments, then people begin to doubt that you are a person of your word. As the Scripture advises us “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’, ‘No.'”
  4. Gossiping – When you engage in gossip or talk disparagingly about a colleague behind their back, you demonstrate a lack of care and respect for others. Your followers observe this behavior and begin to wonder to themselves “If my leader treats others this way, is he/she doing the same to me when I’m not around?” Remember, one of your most precious assets as a leader and colleague is your reputation and good name.

Leadership guru Warren Bennis has noted, “So much lip service is paid to the issue of business ethics; but how do you in fact build an organization distinguished by tangible integrity, moral vision, and transparency? The key is a commitment on the part of the corporate leader to establish a culture of candor in which followers feel free to speak the truth to power, and leaders are bold enough to hear such truth and act on it.”

As leaders we are responsible for setting the example of ethical behavior for our team, and if we pay attention to the warning signs of truth decay and take actions to prevent its spread, we will build a culture of high trust, engagement, and productivity.

Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy. Period.

My grandpa would frequently say to me “There’s no right way to do a wrong thing.” The resignation this week of embattled Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is the latest public example of the consequences a leader can face when he chooses not to be honest and transparent in his duties and relationships with others.

If you’re not familiar with the story, this week’s Sports Illustrated has a cover story that is worth reading as a leadership case study. The cliff notes version is that last year Jim Tressel was made aware of behaviors his players were engaged in that were against NCAA rules (exchanging personal school memorabilia in return for tattoos and other services), and rather than alerting his superiors and the school’s NCAA compliance office, he kept the information to himself. It wasn’t until the story came to light that Tressel admitted that he was dishonest and hid the truth.

Being honest is a core attribute of any successful leader. Being honest in your relationships with others strikes at the core of who you are as a person because your actions reveal what you truly value and believe as a leader. Honesty is demonstrated not only by telling the truth, but not covering up, or obscuring the truth. Honesty means admitting your mistakes and accepting responsibility for your actions. As illustrated in this case with Jim Tressel, covering up the truth always leads to worse consequences than if you own up to your misdeeds from the very beginning.

Now, I have to practice some transparency and be completely honest by saying that I’m a native Michigander and huge University of Michigan football fan. “That school down south” is our chief rival, and any day that’s a bad day for Ohio State is usually a good day for me. But in this case, I’m saddened, because Jim Tressel has always had a public persona of a leader who “got it,” and even though his team has had my team’s number the last several years, I’ve quietly admired the way he’s led his team. He’s written books on what it takes to be a successful leader and he’s experienced a tremendous amount of professional success. This experience has reminded me of the delicate nature of trust in relationships. Trust can take a long time to build, and an instant to ruin.

Honesty is always the best policy. Period.

%d bloggers like this: