Theresa May on the Trust Crisis – ‘A Change has Got to Come’

We live in interesting times. Every day executive leadership is in the dock. Scrutinised. Criticised. Vilified. Take the last month as an example: Deutsche Bank shares have fallen over 50% this year and the bank’s CEO recently wrote to all employees desperately trying to shore up confidence in the beleaguered bank. In the email he stated, ‘Trust is the foundation of all banking’. Is it? Really? Then why had the bank just been fined $15bn dollars by the US courts? Meanwhile, in the cinema the latest blockbuster is not a Cold War thriller or a Disney spectacular but ‘Deepwater Horizon’ – the sad story of corporate manslaughter in the Gulf of Mexico.

To cap it all, the soundbite that got the biggest cheer at the Conservative conference last week was not a bold condemnation of terrorism or a compassionate plea regarding global poverty, but this withering assessment of the corporate landscape from our new prime minister, Theresa May –  ‘If you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra, a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism, a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on anymore. A change has got to come.’

Welcome to the trust crisis! A crisis that affects everyone in business leadership because we are all tarred with the same brush. We are all guilty by association. I don’t know about you but I didn’t come into business to be a pariah of society. I joined British Gas in 1985 as a graduate trainee because I thought business was a force for good. How naive? How ridiculously ideological of me? Yet I am still with the author Charles Green who said, ‘The world needs leaders who rely upon the power of trust rather than those who trust in power’. I’m with Howard Schulz, CEO of Starbucks, who said, ‘If you’re an organisation whose sole focus is profit you’re on a collision course with time’. I’m with Theresa May who said, ‘A change has got to come’.

It’s one thing to accept we need to change it’s another to know how to do it. How do we do trust? The way to do trust is partly to look at the purposes of our businesses and partly to look at our own leadership behaviours. Earlier this year I went to a talk by Dr Tim Jones of the organisation Future Agenda. Dr Jones and his team have travelled the world interviewing over 100,000 people across 192 countries on the topic of future mega-trends. One of the ten mega trends that he shared with the audience was the bold statement that ‘organisations who sole focus is profit will be unsustainable by 2025’. Is the sole focus of your organisation profit or do you go beyond profit to embrace the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet or, as I like to call it in my book, results, relationships and reputation.

And the second component of doing trust is to change our own leadership behaviours. Leadership by example is one of the most powerful levers for building organisational trust. So how will our behaviours need to change? In the past it was sufficient to be intellectually clever and to have a position of authority in order to be trusted. As the Brexit referendum clearly revealed, now if you are intellectually clever and in authority we definitely don’t trust you because we think you are just out to line your own pockets. If 9 out of 10 experts tells us to vote remain, we vote leave because we don’t trust you experts. We think you’re one of ‘them’. The establishment. The global elite. The ones that don’t care about us.

In order to be one of ‘us’ and to be trusted we need to see more than just your competence in the role. More than your expertise. We need to witness your integrity, your honest, open ‘walking of the talk’ and, most of all, we need to witness your benevolence. We need to see that you care about something bigger than lining your own pockets. We need to feel that you care about us in order to be trusted as one of us. The three pillars of building trust are ability, integrity and benevolence. We need to do all three if we are to be trusted in a diverse, global, social-media driven world.  Let me leave you with some questions. Some questions that will allow you assess whether you are showing ability, integrity and benevolence in your own leadership:-

  • Do you help others through mentoring and coaching?
  • Are you consistent or are you a different leader on Wednesday to a Thursday to a Monday?
  • Are you ruthlessly honest with yourself and with your expectations of other?
  • Are you open to show vulnerability?
  • Would others describe you as a humble leader?
  • Are you brave to make personal sacrifices for the wider good?
  • Do you share the good news of your vision passionately and consistently come sun or rain
  • Do you go above and beyond the profit motive to deliver random acts of kindness to your stakeholders?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to those questions then you are well on your way to doing trust. You are well on your way to building a sustainable competitive advantage that will drive results, relationships and reputation. For the amazing thing is that doing good is also good for business. According to Trust Across America, America’s most trustworthy public companies have produced an 81.6% return on investment since 2009 compared to the 46.3% of the top 500 organisations. If you answered ‘no’ to those questions then, be careful, because you may be on a collision course with time.

John explores the nine habits of trust in his new book, ‘The Trusted Executive: Nine leadership habits that inspire results, relationships and reputation’. Available to order now via Amazon UK.

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