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Building Trust As A Leader

Culture is key, and building a sustainable culture is your biggest challenge as a leader

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Author, Roger Fisk

Authenticity First 

While we may believe that making important decisions involves a great deal of time and thought, in actuality, we actually make key – and often large – decisions very quickly. This is especially true when it comes to how we view people in leadership positions. When you see a candidate running for President, you likely already have an inherent sense of whether or not they’re worthy of your trust. 

The limbic system in our brains are designed to quickly take measure of a person and decide if they indeed are who they say they are, and whether they’re passionate about what they claim to be passionate about. Before we rationalise our way to a decision, much of our minds and emotions have already made a choice. As a leader, you should live and breathe authenticity to inspire trust in people. 

Whether you’re the leader of a team, the CEO, or a candidate running for presidency, you should know exactly who you are and what you want to contribute – your value proposition. Once you’re able to clearly answer those questions, other aspects of the organisation such as culture, content, or even online presence will flow from that clarity. If there’s disharmony in the most elemental of questions about a leader’s authenticity, eventually ruptures will surface. These ruptures will extend throughout the organisation. 

Think of how many times you’ve seen business leaders or political candidates who clearly seem like they either don’t believe in what they’re selling, or are unsure about their stance because so much has pivoted in a short period of time. Ask yourself if there’s a constant, simple core truth as to who you are and what you represent. Write this down if it helps you. When you’ve established your core values, you’ll be able to communicate it more effectively to the rest of the organisation. On the flipside, inauthenticity at the top of the pyramid will also manifest across the rest of the organisation. 

In fact, if you think back to the candidates who ran against Barack Obama – Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney – both were unclear about their “why’s” even halfway into the race. If you can’t answer that question at the very beginning of your journey as a leader, you shouldn’t be building an organisation, a team, or a brand just yet. This lack of clarity will not cause too many cracks on the surface in the beginning, but end up causing severe damage to the foundations of your organisations in the long run. 

A simple way to get started is by clearly and explicitly sharing across the organisation why you’re all doing what you do – your why’s. Don’t simply begin a meeting by jumping straight into administrative items on the agenda. Instead, start by framing the discussion. State the purpose of the meeting upfront, and explain how your efforts are contributing to the larger goals of the organisation. 

In the absence of that clear sense of why, that vacuum will be filled up by other people’s agendas. The last thing you want is to present yourself publicly as an organisation in an inconsistent way. You shouldn’t, for instance, be marketing change in one context and experience in another. Mixed messaging dilutes trust. 

Changing Your Vision 

With a strong sense of your cultural North Star, you can scale, pivot, and evolve without losing your authenticity. Think about the Covid-19 pandemic that’s unfolding. From hospitals, to higher education institutions, to supply chains, everyone is going to come out of this differently. The question is: can leaders navigate this unexpected disruption on an operational level while continuing to collect insights –non procurement and risk management, for instance – which will provide the crucial foundation upon which we can rebuild society after the Covid-19 crisis. 

If enough leaders are meticulous about documenting the lessons that were learnt during this period, this will help us redefine “normal” in the next few years. The most successful leaders, and the ones that inspire most trust, will be those who are able to change to accommodate the changing demands of personhood, while still maintaining a core authenticity that people find familiar. 

Nobody has a crystal ball to anticipate the next curveball that will come your way. However, being able to constantly learn and evolve will keep you relevant and competitive. Yet as your strategy and tactics may change with the times or circumstances, who you are and why you do what you do shouldn’t. 

Appealing to Your Audience 

During the Obama campaigns, we travelled across the country, sharing our vision with audiences who were radically different from each other. Yet we were able to connect with people and win their trust in our vision. How do you inspire trust when you’re speaking to people with very different concerns and backgrounds? 

What worked for the Obama campaign, and could just as easily apply to a business scenario, is to customise your messaging. While your values and the core of your message should remain consistent, you can choose to highlight different parts of your story to make it more relevant to the people you’re speaking to. 

For example, in a rural area, we could take Obama’s core values and apply them to relevant issues such as agriculture or the challenges of distance learning. In an urban setting, we’d choose to focus on the access to healthy food and green spaces in the city for children. The same message was customised for specific constituencies for maximum resonance. 

A leader’s challenge, then, becomes striking the fine balance between giving the people what they want while also staying true to the vision. If you find yourself customising your message to the point where you’ve drifted away from your core authenticity, you’ve lost that balance. Mixed messages never lead to success. But if you’re packaging your core values in a way that appeals to certain audiences and circumstances, you’ve hit the sweet spot. 

Too many times, leaders try to please everyone. They might get carried away and promise more than what they can deliver, or even genuinely stand by. That’s a dangerous space for a leader to occupy. 

“Doing your job well and winning a popularity contest are two different things.” 

Sometimes, the truth is a hard pill to swallow. As a leader, you often have the difficult job of conveying difficult messages to the people who rely on your counsel. If you want to inspire trust, you should always choose the discomfort of being honest and transparent over misleading people by sugarcoating the truth. I had no issue sharing bad news or being the one contrarian voice in a room of 15 people. When I shared these views, it was always in the interest of our big picture goals, and never about being liked. 

A lot of these dynamics are playing out in the White House today. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the White House seems to be engaging in a marketing exercise, giving people reason to be hopeful rather than delivering the sober information that will help them make important decisions about their families and lives. 

“A lot of people are like water: if there’s an easy way out, they’ll take it. Exemplary leaders are those who choose to stand for their values, especially when it’s not easy to do so.” 

It’s only human to avoid being the bearer of bad news. However, if you sugar coat things as a leader, you may give someone short term gratification, but are setting them up for even bigger losses and hurt in the long term. Being straight and honest is the tougher, but more advisable choice. This way, whether you’re delivering good news or bad news, you’re trusted. 

Internal Dynamics 

Try this: go up to someone and ask them about the organisation they work at. Pay attention to the language they use. Do they say “we do XYZ” or “they do XYZ”? The former points to a healthy organisation, while the latter is evidence of internal disconnect, where the leadership didn’t correctly navigate change at some point. The first Obama campaign team grew very quickly, from just around 35 people, to the mid-thousands. With this rapid growth, the team was still held closely together with the connective tissue of trust and vision. 

Culture is key, and building a sustainable culture is your biggest challenge as a leader. Products and marketing campaigns are the second step. Your primary concern should be putting a culture in place that allows for the organisation to change and pivot without losing sight of itself. Creating this sustainable culture requires a dual effort from both HR and leadership. Take time to get this right, because with a strong culture in place, you’ll be able to tackle other challenges of running an organisation with panache. 

When he was first campaigning, Senator Obama intentionally created a specific culture with a simple mandate. The key word here is simple. A vision that is simple, easy to understand, and easily communicated will help you share it across the organisation with clarity. Don’t over complicate your “why”. The more accessible and relatable you are, the easier it will be for you to establish trust. 

Operationally, creating a solid culture is also an HR effort. The Obama campaign team was able to rapidly grow while staying true to the culture because those involved with hiring and getting people trained were highly discerning about the kinds of people we took on. Are the people joining your team here for the right reasons? Of course, you should be open and welcoming of different styles of working, but there should be an alignment in core values. You might take longer to staff up, but it’ll certainly be worth your while. If you grow your organisation in this way, the culture will remain constant even when the challenges and circumstances you’re up against change. 

I was once speaking with the Principal of a high school in Minnesota, where some of the other candidates who were running against Senator Obama had also held rallies. In fact, the school had hosted Senator Clinton’s campaign at its premises just a month before ours. On our second or third day working with him, he said “You know what makes you guys different? You ask, while the others would tell.” 

That phrase alone spoke volumes about how successfully we’d been at staying true to our culture and vision. Obama built a humble culture that tricked down to the whole team. Everyone from staff to volunteers were on the same page. We were the underdogs, and held on to that mentality – of humility, not assuming we know it all, being open to change and new viewpoints, and keeping our eyes open – even after we won the election the first time. When the people who work with you are in it for the right reasons, they will contribute to scaling while keeping culture constant. 

In fact, throughout 2007, the campaign manager – who sat in the Campaign Headquarters in Chicago – would maintain that the true headquarters were out there. It was the storefront office in Iowa or New Hampshire, and he wanted to empower these local offices in every way he could. The organisation went out to the grassroots, not the other way around. This was certainly a different way of operating, but one that empowered people and built trust in the vision. We weren’t just talking the talk – we were living and breathing our “why’s” even in the way we ran the organisation. 

Managing Disagreements 

A clear culture and a shared sense of purpose together form the connective tissue that binds people together. As a result, people gravitate towards you. You’d also base your messaging and plan of action around these shared values. While it’s natural for people working together to have disagreements, the Obama campaign team had minimal staff infighting that went public. We were able to manage any disagreements internally. 

However, in the absence of a simple, binding vision, all of that real estate gets filled with the myriad agendas of people who aren’t contributing to the shared culture. It goes back to the harmony that needs to be struck between HR and leadership. It’s highly challenging to keep culture consistent if you experience massive employee turnover rates. Yet often, these turnover rates are an indication that the leadership hasn’t been clear about their vision from the very beginning. 

Looking back at it now, so much of what we took for granted – getting along, the sense of it being “us against the world”, how we mobilised around the country to bring in new people – were actually a product of design. As a leader, if you know who you are and why you’re doing what you do, you are able to empower others, share your vision, and build a solid culture that reflects your core values. This authenticity in every area of your organisation is what will help you inspire trust. 

Steps to Take in 24 Hours 

Define Your Voice and Purpose. Things can quickly go awry if you don’t have clarity about who you are as a leader, and why the organisation is doing what it does. Extend this exploration of the “why” through your team. Begin every meeting by talking about why you’re discussing the topic, frame it in relation to your larger goals and vision. 

Choose Transparency. While no leader wants to be the bearer of bad news, stay clear of sugar coating important information, however difficult it may be to hear. While you may want to downplay the severity of the situation to make people happy, know that by doing so you will be hurting them more in the long term. 

Keep it Simple. In simplicity lies power. Articulate your vision in the simplest possible terms that anybody would be able to understand and relate to. This will help your vision trickle down from the management level to the rest of your teams with clarity. As a result, your public presence will also be consistent and authentic. 

Roger Fisk is the Director of Special Events, 2008 Obama campaign and longtime Obama aide.

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