The essential leadership skill that often gets overlooked

If I asked you to list the skills you think a great leader needs, you’d probably include things like negotiation, communication, strategic planning, assertiveness, and time-management. And you’d be right. But what you may not have included is the ability to create trust.

Many of us assume that trust exists but don’t actively take measures to ensure that it does. Sometimes, we say we trust someone but then unwittingly undermine that trust by not allowing them the opportunity to express their ideas or make their own decisions.

Experienced CEO, leadership coach and organisational specialist, Cameron Schwab, is an expert on the role of trust in great leadership. Schwab says that in his coaching sessions, participants tell him the main thing they want to earn from the people in their charge is respect. Yet, he believes respect is a subset of trust. You can’t respect someone if you don’t trust them.

He believes that leaders need to learn to trust themselves as well as foster trust culturally and strategically within their team or organisation. He discussed this concept in depth in his recent interview on The Mentor List.

Let’s consider these points a bit further.

Leaders need to trust themselves (and others)

Would you trust a boss who has difficulty making decisions or voicing their concerns? No? Well, they probably don’t trust themselves either.

On the other hand, some bosses are so convinced that they hold all the answers, they don’t trust anyone else but themselves. This can lead to self-doubt in those around them, too. (“They don’t seem to trust me, so maybe I’m doing it wrong or I’m not good enough?”)

Ideally, there needs to be a balance between both forms of trust. In her article on, Great Leaders Trust Themselves...And You, Erika Andersen calls this a ‘sweet spot’.

“Over the years of working with great and not-so great leaders, I've come to see that truly excellent leaders live in a very interesting sweet spot of trust: they have enough trust in themselves to totally commit to a point of view, a decision, a course of action. And they have enough trust in others to be open to hearing about and deeply considering alternative points of view, decisions, and courses of action.”

Leaders need to foster trust culturally and strategically

Trust needs to be ingrained in all activities within an organisation. In their HBR article, Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them, authors Holly Henderson Brower, Scott Wayne Lester, and M. Audrey Korsgaard note that there are at least three reasons why leaders and organizations don’t demonstrate trust in their employees.

These include:

·      A lack of awareness by managers that their own actions, such as periodic check-ins on a project, may communicate a lack of trust. They may think their employees know they are trusted, even if the manager has never vocalised that trust. However, people need to hear assurance they are trusted before they start to believe it.
·      Risk-aversion by design. Organisations with centralised authority and with highly-regulated procedures often have this set-up to minimise risk and optimise efficiency. However, this can also imply that employees can’t be trusted with information, resources and decision-making.
·      A ‘Bottom line’ mentality. When managers are under pressure to meet targets and deadlines, they may slip into ‘command and control’ mode, especially if they feel their own job might be at risk. This approach is counterproductive to fostering innovation and employee relations.

Schwab calls factors like these the ‘enemies of trust’. He includes incompatible systems, people and processes in his ‘enemy’ list.

Trust also needs to extend to those outside the organisation and especially to its clients. When you trust your clients and provide them with ways to have input in your organisation, they can begin to trust your brand and develop loyalty to it.

Mackenzie Fogelson and Mathew Sweezey discussed this concept in detail in their article on, 4 Ways to Build Trust and Humanize Your Brand.

“As businesses, we should not look at marketing solely as the ability to sell things, but as the conduit for building relationships. Nourishing this conduit requires all the same steps as any relationship building: For reasons both emotional and practical, you have to build a real connection, listen and take action based on what you hear, prioritize the relationship itself, and deliver on the promises you make.”

When Schwab became CEO of the Freemantle Football Club, he was faced with a situation where there was no coach, no captain, major board upheavals and massive club debt. He needed to quickly generate trust in the team, in the management, and in himself as CEO.

At that time, the club had only been part of the Australian Football League for 6 years. However, the game had a rich history at state and local levels in Western Australia and the fans loved it. Schwab realised he needed to engage the fans first and show them that the club was worthy of their trust.

He did this by making all the team’s home games memorable occasions for everyone involved. The club capitalised on their home-ground advantage and in the following year, they won 9 out of 12 home games. This brought the crowds in and their excitement spilled over into their homes and communities. It created a momentum that had positive repercussions throughout the club and beyond. They had sell-out crowds every week and were league finalists within several years.

Building trust within your organisation

As a leader, there are many ways you can go about building trust.

·      Take stock of your structure, procedures and corporate vision. Look for things that are working well and that fit with the culture you want to generate. Build on these first and change other areas a bit at a time, with input from all those involved.
·      Learn to delegate control and create clear and efficient systems for decision-making processes to flow smoothly.
·      Be honest, reliable, and accountable in your role at all times.
·      Remember to trust in people first – including yourself.

Call to action…

Cameron Schwab has had extensive experience within the Australian Football League, including a total of 25 years as the CEO of the Richmond, Melbourne, and Freemantle Football Clubs. He is also a leadership coach and organisational specialist. Schwab is currently moving towards running workshops with CEOs focusing on the concept of building trust within their organisation.

You can hear Schwab’s story and pick up many of his leadership tips by listening to his in-depth podcast interview on The Mentor List website. Trust him, he knows what he’s talking about!

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