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Do People Trust Your ‘Willingness and Ability’ to Deliver on Change?

The NCAA hired a law firm earlier this year to conduct an external review of how the organization deals with “gender equity issues,” especially when as it relates to its championship events. While I’m interested in that story, it’s not something I feel compelled (or qualified) to comment on directly. But there was one quote in the 118-page report by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP that really stood out to me in the context of my approach to transfluent leadership.

“While there is near universal support for treating student-athletes equitably,” the report said in its executive summary, “there unfortunately is also deep distrust in the NCAA’s willingness and ability to make the necessary changes to achieve that goal.”

And there it is in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen. Whether you lead a small group of volunteers, a chain of restaurants, a marketing agency, a Fortune 500 company, or the NCAA, the most important component of achieving lasting, meaningful success toward your aspirational goals is building trust with those who ultimately must make it happen.

Do the people you lead trust in your “willingness and ability” to create transformative change? Regardless of whether you can answer that question today with a yes or a no, you can never stop working to ensure that the answer tomorrow will be yes.

The specifics of how you do that will vary based on many factors, but here are some guiding principles for building trust that apply to every situation and that have helped me in my leadership journey.

Embrace your reality

While this seems obvious, it’s often not executed well by leaders. One problem is that we tend to confuse our aspirational goals with our reality. We think that because we aspire to be a company that values environmental stewardship, for instance, that we are a company that values environmental stewardship.

Another common problem is that we lack empathy for those around us. As I point out in a bonus chapter of my book, real empathy is hard and at times it feels impossible. But if we open our ears and heart to those around us, then they will feel seen and heard and we are better positioned to respond with compassion, even when we don’t fully understand what they are experiencing.

When leaders deny realities that their followers can easily see, however, trust suffers. After all, how can you expect others to trust you to fix something when you don’t acknowledge that it’s broken?

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Share the truth

It’s not enough to “not tell lies” as leaders. We also must share the truth. That could mean sharing financial data about the company’s struggles, or it could be admitting that you don’t have answers to certain questions. There are times when legal and ethical reasons will keep you from sharing certain information publicly, but a transparent sharing of relevant facts promotes understanding and a sense of inclusion that fosters trust.

Speak with actions

The first two suggestions demonstrate your willingness as a leader to address things that must change to achieve difficult goals. That willingness, however, must be backed with tangible actions: changes in policies, commitments of resources, and daily decisions that demonstrate your words have hands and feet.

Robert Fulghum, in his classic book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, pointed out, “It doesn’t matter what you say you believe, it only matters what you do.” And my friend Tommy Spaulding sums this up poignantly with a story about his grandfather’s final words: “Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”

In Transfluence, I tell the story of going to New York and speaking to investors and other stakeholders shortly after I was named CEO of Prologis. The company was in a tailspin financially and some observers predicted it would end in bankruptcy. It was a fair assessment. So my CFO and I began our presentation by listing our mistakes. We were embracing our reality and sharing the truth about where we were as a company and how we had gotten there. Then we laid out our plan to fix it, but with this caveat: “Don’t trust us. Watch us.”

We expressed both a willingness and an ability to create change, and, little by little, we proved ourselves trustworthy. As a leadership team, we made every effort to prove it daily to each other and to our employees. And the trust we built made all the difference in our company’s recovery.

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