During a recent presentation on fostering trust, collaboration, and transparency for effective board governance, an audience member raised an important question: "But HOW do you build trust?"
This individual shared a frustrating experience with a community organisation where the departure of previous board members and the arrival of new ones led to organisational challenges. The root of the problem stemmed from an egotistical CEO who proved difficult to manage, coupled with board members who possessed business acumen but lacked familiarity with the charity's work.
This exchange intrigued me, prompting me to share some tips on managing this issue and cultivating accountability and trust within the work environment. First and foremost, boards and CEOs must communicate and establish mutual expectations for a successful organisation. CEOs need clearly defined key performance indicators (KPIs) to guide their plans and activities. It is unfair to expect a CEO to guess these expectations, and constantly shifting goalposts create an unhealthy environment for both the CEO and the board. KPIs should encompass cultural and leadership goals, and regular meetings between the board chair and CEO are essential to ensure the CEO's professional development aligns with the organisation's overall trajectory. Balancing support and accountability requires time and commitment from the board.
Thorough board member induction, which includes the CEO describing the core business, is critical to board members understanding of the organisation. Providing opportunities for board members to experience the business first-hand and meet staff from various divisions and programs also helps them immerse themselves in unfamiliar territory. Board papers should offer sufficient detail about the organisation's work to facilitate meaningful engagement with management. Furthermore, facilitating interactions between board members with relevant expertise and management team members can deepen their understanding of the organisation's operations.
These ideas stem from my commitment to accountability and trust, which form the foundation of my leadership approach. Accountability involves following through on commitments and promises. If circumstances prevent the completion of tasks, plans, goals, or outcomes, it is essential to be transparent and accountable for the reasons why. I have witnessed individuals go to great lengths to avoid accountability. When events beyond our control hinder our progress, it is crucial to acknowledge the impact of external factors objectively and transparently.
Effective accountability requires agreed-upon goals and measurable KPIs. Merely stating "grow the business" without specifying the desired growth, purpose, and timeline is insufficient.
Holding individuals accountable can seem time-consuming in our already busy and over-scheduled world. It is common for leaders to wonder why others can't simply do their jobs. However, in today's fast-paced environment, dedicating time to set goals, establish measurable KPIs, regularly check progress, address obstacles, and support problem-solving is more critical than ever. Individuals who are silently struggling and who may be underperforming or unaware of their responsibilities have the potential to derail crucial aspects of the business. Allowing underperformers to continue unchecked is a surefire way to disengage high-performing staff.
If holding difficult accountability discussions proves challenging, leaders can rely on the expertise of human resource professionals who excel in supporting these conversations. The courage to have the hard conversations, performance manage staff that aren't performing, and fairly support them to achieve the agreed goals is critical for all leaders to demonstrate they can be trusted to do what they say they will. In the scenario our audience member described, encouraging the dysfunctional CEO to make a contribution to another organisation and clearly stating why the working relationship is no longer viable is a process to be managed carefully, transparently and with written instructions and time for feedback between Board and CEO. One final point on achieving KPIs – if staff are behaving unprofessionally or undermining colleagues or positive culture in the workplace to achieve their KPIs "at all costs", then that is as damaging to trust and effectiveness as not achieving the KPIs at all.
Building trust is both a personal and professional endeavour. I often tell my staff, "You bring your whole self to work, so let's ensure we can trust each other personally and professionally." Trust can be challenging to describe solely as a business proposition since, for me, it is an emotional noun tied to one's character as both an individual and a professional.
Trust is built when we do what we say we will do, fulfil our promises, act authentically in our interactions with others, and foster honesty and transparency in our relationships. By embodying these qualities, we can cultivate trust with others in the workplace.