The Best Way for New Leaders to Build Trust – HBR
The Best Way for New Leaders to Build Trust
DECEMBER 13, 2013
When I took over as CEO of Intralinks, a company that provides secure web based electronic deal rooms, the company was hemorrhaging so much cash that its survival was at stake. The service was going down three times per week; we were in violation of the contract with our largest client; our chief administrative officer had just been demoted, and so on.
So, what I do on my first day? I spent more than four hours listening in to client support calls at the call center. I shared headsets with many of the team, moving from desk to desk to speak to the reps. To say they were surprised is an understatement: Many CEOs never visit the call center, and virtually none do it their first afternoon on the job.
I made this my priority partly because I wanted to know what customers were saying—but also to make an internal statement. I knew there had to be some radical changes to behaviors, expectations, and attitudes. There was no time to be subtle. I needed to show I was different, that things were going to be different, and I needed to establish trust as quickly as possible.
In leading various companies over the years, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that establishing trust is the top priority. Whether you are taking over a small department, an entire division, a company, or even a Boy Scout troop, the first thing you must get is the trust of the members of that entity. When asked, most leaders will agree to this notion, but few do anything to act on it.
Without trust, it is very unlikely you will learn the truth on what is really going on in that organization and in the market place. Without trust, employees won’t level with you—at best, you’ll learn either non-truths or part truths. I see this all too frequently. Sometimes employees will go out of their way to hoard and distort the truth.
The best way to start building trust to take the time and meet as many individual contributors as you can as soon as you can. In addition to meeting customers, meeting rank-and-file employees should be your top priority.
This is not a common approach. Many leaders see their role as directing and giving information, rather than gathering. There is pressure to “come up with the answer” quickly or risk looking weak. Too many new leaders believe they’re expected to know the answer without input or guidance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Doing this correctly takes time—but less than you might think. The meetings can be on one on one or small groups. The sessions can’t be rushed. In the first few weeks I’d suggest you spend up to half your time in these meetings. Take a pad and take notes. Listen intently. A simple but effective open-ended question is: “If you were put into my role tomorrow, what would be the first three things you’d do and why?” Or: “What are the three biggest barriers to our success, and what are our three biggest opportunities we have?” Really great ideas can emerge from these meetings—along with some really mediocre ones—but it’s your job to filter and prioritize them. First, gather the information.