Where did all the trust go?

What’s the most important ingredient for business success? And the single thing without which no business can succeed? Trust. Trust is at the absolute heart of any relationship, large or small and without it failure is an inevitable consequence of whatever endeavour is undertaken. And it’s a big ask.

Recent failures of trusted company pension schemes, where workers have invested not just money but the hopes of a happy retirement; mis-sold payment protection insurance, where financial institutions willingly misled thousands of borrowers; social services failing to provide care for frail elderly people who paid their national insurance ‘stamp’ over a lifetime’s work – is it any wonder that trust is in short supply right now? And don’t get me started on Brexit, or indeed the current turmoil surrounding the US Presidential Elections.

In an environment where trust is thin on the ground, how can businesses and leaders engage to build a firm foundation from which to grow? The truth is that trust is about shared human experience, about interactions that deliver what they have promised and that truly engage. As agencies and as practitioners we build trust by the way we work with our clients, by keeping our promises and by being open and honest about what’s working (and what’s not).

As leaders, we build trust through authenticity of speech and action.  It’s all very well saying the right things but if you don’t do them, trust is lost. If you set yourself up as a listener and then you don’t listen (or act on what you’ve heard), it’s over for you.  Sounds really simple, doesn’t it, but it’s easier said than done. And it’s not black and white either.

The thing about trust is that it’s not infinitely flexible – but then again, it’s not so easily fractured. At its simplest, the bargain between employer and employee is based on trust that each will play their part from a transactional perspective, but when companies come under financial pressures and ask more of their people, the expectation is that trust is emotionally rather than fiscally driven. It’s a basic human need, to want to believe in others whether they are organisations or individuals, otherwise the world is a very lonely place indeed.

Perhaps then, the route to building trust as a leader, a manager and an employer, is to remember to be human above all else. That’s not simply about empathy, it’s about understanding people’s fears and frailties as well as their strengths. Trust is about predictability, reliability and confidence, about reassurance and integrity, but it’s also, and most fundamentally, about responsibility.

At its most basic, the crisis in trust afflicting our society is about responsibility or, more properly, the lack of it. At the heart of the client-agency partnership is an agreement that we take responsibility for delivering what we’ve promised. If we fail, then the partnership is up for re-negotiation. When we stand up as leaders, we take responsibility for our teams not just when it’s going well, but more importantly when it’s going wrong. You can’t buy it, you’ve got to earn it, and the best leaders I’ve worked with have it in spades. So the next time you’re faced with a colleague or a client who’s finding the going tough, take responsibility for working through whatever the issue is with them and trust will grow exponentially.

Where’s your plan for you?

Last week’s post on looking after yourself in the workplace got quite a number of responses, and it got me thinking about what else we should be doing as leaders for ourselves, not just for the people who work with us.

How many of us, for example, have ever really made an investment in our own careers, outside of what’s provided for us by the organisations we work for? Not many I suspect. How many of us have looked at courses and seminars and thought how useful they would be for a member of our team, instead of considering whether it would be good learning for us to attend instead? Sometimes we become so blinkered that our focus ends up being all about supporting our teams in their professional development rather than looking inwards to see how we can develop. And if you think about it, investing in our own development can only ultimately benefit those who look to us to lead, mentor and help them build their careers.

I think it’s partly bred into us, this view of ourselves as supporting others rather than looking at what we personally need to help us achieve our potential, but also perhaps a little learned helplessness where we rely solely on the companies we work for to spot what we need and supply it, rather than ourselves. Does it feel a little like rejection or disloyalty to say “no, what I would really like is…x”, I wonder?  Last but not least, for some people there’s a reluctance or an inability (we all have mouths to feed) to invest in ourselves, feeling that it truly is the responsibility of the organisations we are employed by to help us to develop.

Like most things in life, we probably need a little bit of everything when it comes to professional development. Many agencies and agency networks, large and small, have excellent professional development programmes available to people at all stages of their careers and it would be wrong not to take up what is so readily offered.  As an entrepreneur building my business (before acquisition) I didn’t realise how much I had missed out on that kind of professional development, so I commend it – just not as the only tool to help you grow your skills.

A number of forward-looking companies provide leadership and business coaches, also incredibly worthwhile, although some people feel uncomfortable that the coach is retained by their employer. To be fair, it would be highly unprofessional for a coach to share anything that they hadn’t discussed and agreed with you first, but if you’re worried about that, see if you can find your own coach outside of the business. You might be surprised that it isn’t as expensive as you think, and we all benefit from a sounding board whether company provided or not.

Reading widely helps. I don’t just mean subscribing to your industry journal, I mean going beyond it to things like the Harvard Business Review as well as keeping an eye out for books about business that might challenge your thinking.  Setting aside a small budget for business subscriptions and books each year isn’t going to be a huge investment and you can share them with your senior teams too, to help broaden everybody’s thinking.

And when you’re looking at conference attendances, don’t neglect your own learning – you might be surprised what you pick up if you go beyond conferences closely linked to your own business sector. As an example, some years ago I went to a one-day course run by John Seddon based around the manufacturing industry and focused on the benefits of moving away from the traditional “command and control” way of managing businesses and towards a systems-thinking model. It had a profound effect on how I operated as a leader and yet it had absolutely nothing to do with healthcare communications, running agencies or the pharmaceutical industry.

The jobs we do are not easy, they can be all-encompassing so we owe it to ourselves to make sure we’re developing our own skills to the max in order to operate at the highest level we’re capable of. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you (said the quizzical chicken in this week’s photo)? Take a clear look at your plans for the next year – now’s the time for budget-setting after all – and make sure there’s enough room in there for some professional development for you alongside whatever you’ve got planned for your people. Let me know how it goes.


Under pressure?

Our industry is populated by bright, driven individuals who often work stupidly long hours to meet client demands and who take their work incredibly seriously. The pressures can sometimes feel overwhelming and I know I am not alone in having worked with colleagues who’ve come close to burning out simply because they have worked themselves to a standstill.

It’s not just about the client who calls at 4pm on a Friday afternoon with a crisis that simply MUST be worked on late into the evening or over the weekend though. Sometimes it’s about an individual who finds it hard to delegate because they are so anxious that their work is perfect that they have to do everything (yes, I’ve been there in my earlier years), or who has to check and double check the work of others (also been there) to make sure that they don’t fall foul of a client who’s similarly driven (oh yeah, I’ve definitely been there too).

This week there has been much discussion about mental health in the workplace to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Monday, and I do believe that as an industry we are much more sensitised to this issue than we were in the past. As leaders and managers, we’re more able to spot the individual most at risk of burning out because they’re often our best performers, the ones whose clients depend on them utterly and whose teams love them because they’re always picking up the pieces.

The bigger question for me is how we, as practitioners, can help ourselves. Not just in terms of managing our mental health but also our physical health, because people who work too many hours for too long struggle physically too. Not enough time for exercise, not eating properly, and most important of all, not taking care of ourselves when we are sick. I know I’m not alone in repeatedly struggling into the office when really I should have been at home under the duvet, and I can think of many high performers who push themselves far too hard physically as well as mentally.

The nature of our business is that it is not a 9-5 environment, and we need to encourage each other to look after ourselves, to give ourselves permission to recover properly from physical illness by taking appropriate rest and pacing ourselves.  Too often physical illness is the harbinger of mental health problems, with the body breaking down because the mind won’t allow sufficient rest or relaxation.

So this year, as the evenings draw in, and coughs, colds and flu start to spread (not to mention norovirus), give yourself permission to take a couple of days off to properly rest, to consider what your body needs rather than what your team or your client needs. We are none of us superhuman – and you can’t lead a team from a hospital bed. Too extreme? Maybe, but as leaders, one of the examples we need to set is that of how to build a career with longevity – one where you can still get to the top but in a way that’s more sustainable. Don’t just think about the wellbeing of your teams, make your own wellbeing another one of the touchpoints you review when you’re thinking about the health of your business.

Room for improvement?

How funky is your office? Are you working from one of those desperately trendy spaces – you know the sort of thing, chairs and walls in primary colours, posh wallpaper, or maybe a neon slogan urging you to “Go for it” or “Live Life”?  Do you have access to table football or a mini pool table sited conveniently near the kitchen? Is your office china part of an artfully mismatched, fabulously retro set of ‘70s greatest hits? Is there a drinks trolley that comes around mid-afternoon on a Thursday or Friday to make the fact that you’ll be there until 8pm just that little bit more palatable?

If you can answer yes to most of the questions above then congratulations, you’re probably working in a communications agency. Or perhaps an internet pioneer that’s hit the big time and is now coining it in every time you hit the search button in a desperate quest to find a bar that nobody else has heard of.  Anyway, whether you’re working in an office that’s been designed to death or somewhere that could just as easily be an insurance brokers as a creative agency, chances are you’ll be working in an open-plan environment.

Open-plan has distinct advantages when it comes to efficient use of the space – not least because you can accommodate greater numbers of staff than within individual offices, but there are also cultural and developmental advantages. So long as you’re flexible enough from an admin and operational perspective it’s possible to rearrange seating plans to ensure that someone struggling with a specific task is seated next to someone who excels at it. Or if you spot some office politics starting to emerge, it’s simple enough to move people around.  So far so good.

How about grouping people by client? Or by seniority? Er – maybe not such a good idea after all, unless you want everyone working on a specific client going stir-crazy from boredom, or all your account executives plotting a mutiny. Maybe by task then, so that the people who want quiet can all sit together quietly and the people who need a bit of banter to get them through the day can whoop it up in a corner to their hearts’ content?

Either way it’s not easy. A recent What Workers Want survey (YouGov for the British Council for Offices, sponsored by Savills), showed that whilst 75% of participants valued a quiet space for focused work, only 30% were actually satisfied with its provision in their offices. Researchers from the Auckland University of Technology in Australia have just released data that showing that as the number of people workers have to share office space with increases, the less productive and friendly they become.  As people become ever more closely co-located, the noisier their space becomes, the less control they have over their individual environment (I’m thinking here especially of hot-desking), and the harder it becomes to concentrate and deliver great work.

I am a great believer in the impact that physical space has (positive and negative) on people’s engagement, commitment and investment in their work.  There are times when it’s important for teams to be physically together, and times when for maximum creativity, quiet space for thought is crucial. The latest approach to office design speaks to the need for a rethink when it comes to open-plan working, emphasising the need to ‘sneak in’ more quiet space and more privacy, whether that’s using bookshelves or plants to create separation and screening, or creating more bookable spaces to allow room for people to think.

Why does this matter? Well, our businesses are built on creativity, and a pool table and neon sign just aren’t going to cut it if what our people really need is quieter, less crowded spaces in which to think and be inspired. It’s hard to hold people accountable for doing their best work if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for creating the right environment for them to work in.  Food for thought.