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Establishing Trust in High Performing Executive Teams

At its core, running a business requires senior leaders to clearly communicate the ideas and strategies powering the organization to its talent base and then allow its employees to execute the vision. Unfortunately, business leaders often lose sight of this in the never-ending pursuit of growth, costing their companies money, time and people.

The best, highest-performing executive teams strip away unnecessary complexities and rely on one thing to power their organizations: trust. These teams forge strong relationships through frequent contact and routinely “bet” on one another, developing an implicit trust that has a positive and transformational effect on the company as a whole.

Psychologists, academics and business leaders in tune with their teams have long understood the benefits of sound management. It can be easy, however, to lose sight of the impact leadership has on a company’s workforce. According to Robert Sutton in his McKinsey Quarterly article "Why Good Bosses Tune in to Their People," managers and individual-level contributors watch their leaders and mimic their behaviors “constantly.”  Meaning if a leadership team is able to establish a trusting, collaborative culture, the same behaviors will permeate every level of the organization.

The trickle-down effect

We spoke to multiple executives for this article and many shared how by setting a positive example at the leadership level, their companies and workforces have seen tremendous improvements in corporate culture, efficiency and performance.

Although this trickle-down effect can have a profound positive impact on an organization, it also serves as a reminder that poor habits will have the same effect - and are unlikely to remain isolated. Several of the executives witnessed first-hand the damage caused by poor behavior across leadership teams. For all, the challenge was how to forge strong bonds based on trust and respect at the leadership level. Fortunately, developing these kinds of relationships isn’t beyond anyone’s grasp.

With dedication and adherence to several core concepts, leaders can put themselves, their teams and their organizations on a positive track that sets them up for sustained success. While the precise solution will vary amongst groups, there are a handful of factors that apply to most companies:

  • Transparency: With familiarity comes trust, and cultivating trust starts with frequent, regular communication. One CEO said he tries to communicate directly with his colleagues on the executive team daily, preferring to do it face-to-face. In these exchanges, he believes there is no substitute for honesty. The outcome is an informed leadership team that can galvanize others throughout the organization and contribute to the conversation in meaningful ways.
  • Respect: No factor was cited as a prerequisite for trust more frequently than respect. Respect can be shown through simple actions such as having the courage to politely disagree with fellow executives to their faces rather than behind their backs. One VP of HR noted that side meetings, which occur when people secretly voice disagreements, can rapidly erode trust within a group. Multiple executives said they ask if the parties had already attempted to find a resolution before stepping in to mediate a dispute. By exhibiting a willingness to have an open and transparent conversation or debate, executives can show they respect and care about their colleagues, that the needs of the team and business come first, and that the contributions of teammates are valued.
  • Problem-solving: One of the best ways to develop trust is to allow fellow executives to use and showcase their skills and leadership abilities. One CEO said each member of his executive team has an opportunity to set the agenda and lead discussions in meetings. Other companies assign projects to individual leaders and expect them to lead all discussions related to that project. These practices encourage executives to tackle problems head-on and develops their communication and problem-solving skills, both of which need to be exercised regularly to remain effective.
  • In-Person Contact: While frequency and consistency of communication are a key component to developing trust, how this communication takes place is of equal importance. The benefits of reading a person’s emotions and reacting in real time cannot be understated. Rather than let bad feelings fester during the pauses in an email exchange, meeting face-to-face allows you to address them immediately and prevents a mere miscommunication from becoming a real issue. For geographically dispersed leadership teams, phone calls or video conferencing can help. One CFO emphasized the importance of regular gatherings where the leadership team can come together in one place. In these settings, executives can participate in problem-solving sessions and social activities that foster a sense of companionship, familiarity and trust.
  • Technology: Although email and other forms of digital communication have made it easy to rapidly exchange large amounts of information, the best executives recognize these conveniences can at times undermine the foundation of a team if relied on exclusively. Every executive we spoke with said it’s unlikely any executive team depending primarily on digital communications will develop the rapport necessary to realize its full potential. Quick questions and straightforward requests can at times be sufficiently addressed via email, but any strategic or multivariate problem should be solved in person or over the phone. These in-person interactions will inject clarity into the conversation and confirm its importance in the minds of the participants, meaning they will approach it thoughtfully. Many leaders said this added focus often leads to multiple problems being solved in each meeting. 

Building trust

Leadership groups looking to build trust can benefit from implementing and adhering to some of the strategies and concepts outlined above. What may make this process easier, however, is if executives want to trust their fellow leaders. When executives want to trust one another, they spend more time implementing and executing the strategies that drive the company’s growth and less time creating busywork by verifying or double-checking the work of their colleagues.

While implicitly trusting colleagues can occasionally backfire, one CEO said this is rare and the positives of doing so always outweigh any perceived negatives. The presence of just one person who is unwilling to trust his or her fellow leaders can handicap an entire team. It isn’t always easy to detect people willing to openly trust others, but one CHRO said she believes a history of implementing positive change and delegating important responsibilities to colleagues to be good indicators of someone’s willingness to trust others. 

For as crucial as trust and effective communication are to the performance of executive teams, it can be surprisingly simple to improve. One EVP of Employee Engagement likened developing trust amongst a team to developing friendships outside of work. Generating trust, the lifeblood of any high-performing team, means developing strong relationships in the same ways one would develop a friendship: proactively reaching out to start conversations, remaining honest and transparent, and empowering one another to take risks and push boundaries. The best executive teams do these things daily and it ultimately creates a positive working environment where people are excited to engage and solve problems together.

These behaviors, if practiced consistently by everyone on a leadership team, will trickle down to the rest of the company, positioning the organization to succeed and creating a working environment that the best and brightest will be eager to join.

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