ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott is a master storyteller. “Trust is the ultimate human currency,” he says: Earned in drops and lost in buckets. From there he can riff to his origin stories, drawing links to customer satisfaction, leadership principles, or sales strategies. I was privileged to work at SAP during his tenure and heard him talk often about trust. I never tired of it, because a) it’s relevant b) cuts across multiple audiences, and c) allows him to build trust by talking about the thing itself.
It’s a two-way street, and Bill knew it.
A recent Gallup workplace article reports “The red lights are flashing on America’s leadership dashboards.” Trust in leadership and employee engagement are diminishing. The connection between the two is inextricable. Employees are skeptical of their leaders’ ability or their companies to do the right thing, or to act ethically.
Yet according to Gallup, employee engagement was at an all-time high just three years ago, in 2020. I saw it firsthand as VP of Executive & Internal Communications at a privately held company at the time. On Friday, March 13, 2020, we huddled at the company’s office near Bryant Park in New York City, prepared to close all locations and send people to home office, an entirely new concept for the culture of the company.
“You’ve now got the most important job in the company,” the CEO said to me.
We launched a weekly town hall via Zoom. Participation rates of 80% were not uncommon. The CEO hosted the call from home. He gave staffers confidence in the company’s ability to navigate the crisis (and indeed, they did). Leadership scores jumped and engagement climbed that year.
Communicate: It is always among the top recommendations for leaders who want to build trust.
Here’s how not to do it.
At one company, a number of questions were submitted in a townhall related to bonuses, cost of living adjustments, and salary. None appeared in the live Q&A. They were pre-screened. Leadership didn’t have the answers and HR hadn’t given any guidance to the employees.
But in a virtual world, where there is little or no opportunity to make face-to-face connections, what are the options to build trust and engagement?
To go one step further, could the lack of trust Gallup has identified today be a result of the new world of virtual work?
I’ve heard from people at one major corporation that since everyone started working from home, the spirit is gone. No one wants to go back to commuting to an office every day, but there has to be a way to replace the social interaction and the coffee corner camaraderie while communicating from a screen.
Increasingly, I believe that transposing traditional communications channels and strategies into the new world of work just won’t work.
- Go small. Find time to speak to small functional teams – and their leaders – where the teams know and trust each other. Townhalls are great for broadcast, but dialogue builds trust.
- Authenticity needs substance. Bill McDermott won his audiences by being true to his roots. He never lost his Queens accent and built a catalogue of stories based on his real-life approach to making customers happy that are told and retold.
- Share the process. If you can’t answer the question (e.g., about inflation related salary increases), explain the process. Say it’s complicated, it’s taking time, you’re working on it with the HR leaders and will come back once you’ve got a clear answer.
You’re building trust, one drop at a time.