Leadership in the Long-Term

Trust = Relationship multiplied by Time

When people describe the characteristics of a good leader, boss, manager, or supervisor, one behaviour that comes close to the top of most lists are adjectives like “integrity”, “trust-worthiness”, “honesty”, “credibility”. If you think back to a boss you’ve really enjoyed working for, and worked hard for, chances are you never thought they were lying to you.

One of the first teams I had the luck to be in charge of didn’t start very well. The earlier team leader’s idea of employee relationship management was sitting down with the software development team in the lab once a week and asking them “What the f*** did you do this week? What the f*** are you going to do next week? Get the f*** back to work.”

The level of trust wasn’t very high.

When I took over the two remaining developers left were ready to quit. The rest of the team had already quit, and the customer wasn’t ready to give us relief on the schedule. Trials for the land-mine detection system were less than a year away, and software control of the remotely controlled vehicles’ driving, marking, and detection systems was a critical part of getting through those trials successfully.

Luckily the technical lead assigned to the team was the best in the company. He told me who to hire (“A” players always know who the other “A” players are), and it was my job to work the corporate levers to get them. After that and agreeing to a realistic schedule, the biggest part of my job was to shield them from interference and distractions so they could focus on the work, report progress to company leadership, and get the resources they needed when they needed them. Included running out to the local cable manufacturer to fetch custom-made test harnesses if need be.

A year later we met the original schedule and budget, and successfully trialed the land-mine detector. The lesson I stumbled on there was that great people working together can do almost anything.

Those of us that have worked for somebody we didn’t trust (or didn’t trust us) have experienced some version of a living hell. Everything they say, do, or order is second-guessed, challenged, or double-checked. If employees don’t trust a supervisor how does that affect their productivity? Even if they were still trying to do a good job – which many aren’t. They’ve given up and are just trying to get by until they can find another job.

What does this mean when a boss has integrity? What can we see, feel, or hear with an honest boss? What makes us trust anybody, let alone somebody who controls our addiction to food, clothing, and shelter?

When a relationship lacks trust, everything we say and do can and is interpreted in the worst possible way. Innocent remarks or minor misunderstandings become a major crisis. Drama goes way up, and work & fun goes way down.

But trust isn’t something we can demand. It is earned. How do we build trust with anybody?

For us to get to know & trust somebody we have to feel that we understand them and that they understand us. Somebody who listens to us, answers our questions, and spends time with us is much more likely to earn our trust than somebody who talks more than they listen, avoids addressing our concerns, and gives the impression that we’re not important enough to spend time with.

Think about the people who you trust now. It’s not a big risk to say that these are relationships were built over time with people we know and like. We trust them because we know them and who they are. What they’re likely to say or do in a particular situation, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they do when things go wrong or when they’ve made a mistake, how they behave when they think nobody is looking, or what they do when things are going well. We know what to expect.

And they know us, like us, and have spent time with us.

So it comes back to the truism that there are no shortcuts or silver bullets in leadership. To build trust we need to spend time with and put energy into relationships with the people who work for and with us. We need to figure out who they are, what they’re good at, what they’re not good at. Where they want to go with their career and their life, and how that fits in with our team, company, or enterprise. This takes time and effort.

We have to care.

We need to understand what challenges or road-blocks they’re facing, and what we can do to remove them. We need to really listen to and understand our best employees, so we can figure out how to hire more like them (not more like us), put them in the right place doing the right thing for them and for us.

Here is the biggest strategic advantage any company, club, or business can have: hiring the right people, giving them a clear goal, and getting the hell our of their way.

This sounds simple, but it is hard, repetitive work that sometimes doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and by attention I mean time in our calendar. How much time have you blocked off in your calendar to meet individually with every one of your direct reports? Does is happen regularly? How often?

If the answer is zero, what are you going to do about it?

A good leader is a trusted leader. Trust isn’t something we can demand. It is earned. Face-to-face.

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