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Trust: Your #1 Line of Business

By: Lou Solomon

When you meet Jane McIntyre, you know instantly you’re with the real deal.  She is CEO of the United Way of the Central Carolinas, one of the largest fundraising agencies in the country--but it’s not her title that will impress you. She is admired for turning around non-profit agencies in free fall, but it’s not about her reputation, either. She is also a charming woman with a deep Southern accent, but her Carolina drawl is not what will impress you.

No, Jane McIntyre is distinctly real because she is full of heart and takes zero crap.  You recognize the look in her eyes as the mark of someone who knows who she is—and has the confidence to risk moments of vulnerability.  She tells you the truth.  She fakes nothing.

In 2008, McIntyre’s predecessor left her post in disgrace and the agency in crisis.  The newspapers ran stories daily about her greed and mismanagement and the community was outraged.  Contributions dipped and the employees of UWCC were scapegoated.  The scandal was poignant as the bigger economic crisis turned darker.

McIntyre, who was heading up the YWCA, stepped up and took the job no one wanted, which was to bring UWCC back from the edge.  At the same time, she became my client—and one of the most colorful to date.  She is small in stature but every bit of a red-headed cowgirl who can rope the biggest steer at any rodeo.

McIntyre made it clear to the team at United Way that she would ask a lot of them and together they would do extraordinary work to change lives.  They have delivered because they trust her, which is no small thing in this economy. 

We’ve all been living with scandal, crises, and uncertainty since the recession hit in 2008. The greatest majority of employees in this country are disengaged and distrustful of leaders, which can erode an organization's bottom line. Gallup estimates that employers lose between $450 billion to $550 billion a year in productivity due to employees who lack commitment to their work—and contribute to absenteeism, employee theft, poor service, safety violations, turnover, and mediocre work.

After the big banks toppled and entire industries came apart at the seams, the trust rating of CEOs flopped to the bottom of the list, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.  Only one in five people trusts leaders to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions.  The presence of engaged employees who make companies competitive has slipped to just 30% of the American workforce.

At this crossroads, we have to pause and become intentional about the future.  Instead of just reviewing cash flow projections, process, and procedures—we have to consider adding trust as a line of business.  Crazy amounts of money are pumped into business processes, while employees long for the kind of human connection and common sense that builds trust, grows engagement, and pushes performance.

Three Stories
We need a new kind of leader who is ready for the rodeo of the 21st Century.  The corporate landscape has become a place of so much posturing and over-managed communication that leaders don’t trust themselves to get real. 

Before each talk, Jane considers, “What’s the most important thing I should be talking about today?” I can tell you it’s never about statistics and data. Jane knows that people just like her are looking for a meaningful conversation. 

There are three stories every leader should know:  Who I Am, Who We Are, and Where We Are Going. People need to hear these stories to trust your motives (and by the way, you can’t fake it, you have to feel it).

Who I Am is not found on your resume or bio.  It is the story of what your life has taught you and the obstacles you’ve overcome on your way to being a leader.  One of the many defining stories Jane shares with people is her battle with cancer in her twenties. She tells them that the disease forced her to grow up. She tells them she has not taken one day for granted since.  She advises, “You’ve got to live to the max. One day you look up and say, ‘It’s time to go to work.’” People can see who she is and they trust her because she “Walks the Talk.”

Who We Are is the story of defining successes within the organization.  Jane is intimately aware of the unique abilities of the individuals who work for her.  She doesn’t care about triple-degrees nearly as much as she cares about people who are smart and have the heart that it takes to do meaningful work.  She celebrates the employees, contributors, heads of agencies, and clients of United Way.  She does it in a way that makes the core values of her organization crystal clear.

Where We Are Going is the focus and vision of the leader who understands the greatest good for all involved.  Upon accepting the position, McIntyre appeared on an NPR affiliate talk show and began driving the conversation from scandal to, "What’s important is that the United Way makes a difference to thousands of people in our region and in the community.  That message has been lost. It’s time to get the focus back and ask how we can do more for the people who can lift the entire region."  This is no script.  McIntyre says it with heart and she says it often.

Can you restore trust in your for-profit organization?  The answer is yes, but there are no short cuts. Some leaders come at the idea of building trust with attempts to manage their speeches and financial reports.  This is painfully transparent and produces the opposite effect. 

#1 Line of Business
Think about a leader, coworker, strategic partner, vendor, or employee you trust.  Why do you trust them?  I’ll bet it’s because they are willing to keep big and small promises, and choose people over immediate gain.

Last year, Jane McIntyre called me from home to apologize for postponing a workshop for her leadership team.  She was laid up after taking a bad fall.   She could have had her assistant call, but she was willing to be inconvenienced to honor a relationship. She didn’t consider it un-leadership-like.  This is one example of the ways she has galvanized trust over and over.

What if leaders considered themselves the promise-keepers of genuine conversation?  If you are to lead well and help your organization thrive, you must rethink putting short-term gain ahead of people—and “see” performance in a new way.  Begin with the fact that the people who work with you need a glimpse behind your title—to see your humility and humanity.  You must be willing to risk vulnerability. 

Strategic Use of F2F
The human connection is a relief valve.  Have you ever had a mental resentment against someone, only to have it dissolve when you sat down with them face-to-face?  The longer you go without face time, the more time a misunderstanding can metastasize.   Without the cues of body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, you imagine a negative tone and suggestion of blame in an email.  You make things up. 

Within less than one week on the job, McIntyre was meeting one-on-one with every employee before moving to the large contributors, and then to the community agency leaders. No one heard her sugar coat, suck up, or put a spin on the truth.  She listened and she laid out her vision, along with what it would take to get there.  People were invited to be a part of the positive urgency around, “It’s time to go to work.”  She made it clear that “no” was an option.  For those who said “yes” to the new landscape, she extended trust by delegating power.

The world we live in requires that we communicate virtually, but without the “reset” power of face-to-face connection, the trust supply can run out.  Anonymity and disengagement move in like an organizational illness. The culture turns aloof and even rude. Talented people leave and find other work where they can enjoy a sense of belonging in an environment that sparks innovation.

Meeting Revolution
So what do we do when we can actually take advantage of face-to-face communication in meetings?  Leaders allow people to open their laptops, disconnect, and check email. They tolerate cross talk, boring rounds of reporting out, and meetings that squander the resource of face time.  Research shows that 70% of executives feel the majority of their meetings are a waste of time.  How much does it cost for you to pay people to be bored?

There is little more important than the strategic use of face-to-face communication where we need it most.  Start with your own meetings.  Establish Meeting Agreements that honor people’s time, voice, and contribution.  Plan off-site meetings to reset trust and performance. 

Where does face-to-face communication fall on your priority list? Too often, virtual forms of communication take precedence because they are easier and less expensive.   It’s time we soften the lines between face-to-face and virtual forms of communication and stop talking about them as though they’re either/or.  The right attitude is to address culture itself as a conversation and search for ways to apply technology for connections. 

Engagement Is Not a Survey
Engagement is a great buzz word, but most of the corporate world is dragging its feet and putting Band-Aids here and there.  We need positive urgency to do the real work of shaping environments that can be the home of innovation.  We have to start listening, laying out the vision, and making it clear that “no” is an option. If people are told and never asked, they will comply without buy-in.

Leaders tell me:
“There isn’t enough time.  I can’t connect with everyone.”
“You can’t expect me to forget about Wall Street.”
“But the world is too complex today.  This is way too simplistic.”

Yes, the bar keeps going up, up, up for great communicators.  We can’t just throw up our hands and say, “That’s it.  I’m out.” 

To be sure, it’s about balance.  Leaders have to make both careful and courageous decisions.   You’ll still have to make tough calls. When you do, give people as much information as soon as you can.  Share the realities you are weighing and your intention for the best, balanced outcome.  Don’t hide downsizing under a flowery name.  Communicate with strength, heart, and zero crap. 

The human connection is an attitude. Employees want to follow leaders who are strong and competent--but also honest, likeable, personable, inclusive, and regular people.  Building trust is difficult and expensive in the short-term, but short-term gains don’t mean too much this time next year. 

Leaders and Wall Street along with them have to adopt a grown up, delayed-gratification perspective. Serving shareholders’ interests at the expense of employees and communities is just bad business. 

We lose our competitive edge not because we don’t understand business, but because we don’t understand people.  Our value begins with the human connections and relationships we have with employees, and pushes out to customers and shareholders.

McIntyre has a way of connecting with the common sense and dignity within people. She leverages meetings, speeches, interviews, and conversations as a strategy for making human connections to drive her agenda.  Is any of this easy?  No, but leadership in the 21st Century is no cakewalk.  As Jane has said in the past, “If you can’t take the heat, you shouldn’t be in leadership.”

About the Author(s)

Lou Solomon  is CEO of Interact, a communications consultancy that helps business leaders and their teams build authenticity, make connections, earn trust, and build influence. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte.  Solomon’s new book focuses on building trust, influence, and charisma, and is set for release later this year. Learn more and subscribe to her newsletter at www.interactauthentically.com and contact her at lou@interactauthentically.com