Leadership: Creating a Climate of Trust

Team Capital Guest Blog by Laure Tournefier, former Vice President Human Resources for EMEA at Boston Scientific.

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When trust exists between employees and management business will thrive. It must however be built into your culture from the very start of any new leadership role.

Speed is of the essence for new business leaders and companies must report faster than ever with fewer resources. But savvy leaders at the start of any new leadership role recognise that relationships are the fuel that feeds the success of the organization. It is of course critical at the start to communicate your goals, business vision, and your expectations. Everything you do from this point onwards will be put under the microscope and whether you realise it or not, it’s the underlying communication and relationships you forge which can be the cornerstone of your success.

When joining a new organization or when appointed from within to lead it, business leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver results – and fast. This clock race often trickles down at various levels of the business, with newly appointed managers “hitting the ground running”, dealing with “emergencies”, going through business reviews, and scheduling client meetings. However, research on the success rate of hiring or promoting executives shows that in 25 to 50% of the cases they fail to deliver what they were hired for. Whilst all of these actions remain essential, one step is often missed out and if included could greatly amplify any leaders’ success in the medium to longer term: New Leader Assimilation.

Real focus and care should be paid to the overall process of “on-boarding”- in itself an assimilation process: “assimilation into existing teams, the team the executive leads and the team of the boss in which the executive resides as well”.

A “New Leader Assimilation” process is not about going off to a nice golf resort for two days to have fun (although a “fun” team activity can be a useful part of the program). This is about the leader, early on in their new function, spending a series of days (as a foundational exercise) with their direct reports and having the possibility to lay out the foundations for a solid, winning, cohesive team. This, in turn, will inspire the rest of the organization and drive its success. And the good news is: it doesn’t require fancy or expensive resources or a risky team building activity such as bungeejumping! A leader’s openness and authenticity, genuine goodwill from all participating members and a skilled external facilitator are key ingredients for a highly effective “New Leader Assimilation” session and to get crucial relationships on the right track from the very start.

The availability of the leader and of each of their team members is a must. It is essential that the entire team be present. Should one team member not attend, this will lead to significant disconnect within the group and the team’s cohesiveness will be impacted. But physical attendance is not enough – mental presence and engagement are key. It is important that during this time, the hearts and minds of the participating individuals be fully engaged in the exercise – one of the ground rules must be to shut off all phones & portable devices.

The Leader’s Openness

The newly appointed leader must accept upfront that there will be pre-work and consultation involving the team without his/her presence, facilitated by a third party to the group. This will allow the team to work together, under strict confidentiality, on identifying what they know about the leader; what they don’t know about him/her but feel they would need to know to work more effectively together; what their expectations and concerns may be and to agree to share them, as a group, with their new leader.

During the feedback session, when the team will share with their new leader the outcome of their pre-work, it is vital that each team member is genuine, honest and transparent in their answers and reactions. The leader may reserve the right to respond to some of the questions at a later stage, in which case, this commitment must be honoured to maintain credibility with the team. The leader’s willingness to open up, respond to what has been expressed by the group and also at times to disclose certain information, will be key to creating an open dialogue, all the more so  as the team is likely to mirror the leader’s attitude and behavior.

Time should also be set aside during this session to allow the leader to share with his/her new team questions, concerns, but also expectations he/she has of the leadership team.

Finally, during these two days, the group can also decide to define together the foundations as the new leadership team: establish their ground rules, their vision and mission; elaborating or clarifying the purpose of the team and its critical success factors – all of which will provide the platform for the team to succeed and be inspirational for the rest of the company’s employees.

The Participant’s Goodwill

For all participants to really extract value, each team member must also approach this exercise with great candor and leave all political games aside. This is the time to be genuine and to disclose real questions and concerns. This is not the time to drive a personal agenda or to be politically correct.

Active participation of each participant will allow the leader as well as the team members to get to know one another in a protected environment; to obtain clarification on their respective leadership styles; to bring down pre-conceived ideas, and avoid many misunderstandings in the future.

Although the facilitator is firstly communicating the participants feedback to the leader, on behalf of the team and in his presence, at that stage it is common to have individuals within the team intervening and clarifying what the team meant but also eventually what they meant on an individual basis. Provided the leader uses this opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue, this will lead to further authenticity and will build trust in the team.

A Skilled External Facilitator

For this exercise to be fruitful, the role of the facilitator is key. He/she is there to first and foremost obtain the agreement of the leader on the benefits and conditions of the exercise.  The facilitator should then clarify with the team upfront the purpose, objective and framework of this exercise as well as the rules of engagement (confidentiality should be one of them for example), ensuring that such rules are respected and vouching for the integrity of the process.

Although it could be tempting to ask the HR partner supporting the leader to facilitate this discussion, this is likely to position him/her in a conflict of interest since he/she certainly needs to become the trusted adviser to the leader but is also a member of the leadership team and should be positioned as such. It is therefore highly recommended that such facilitation be done by a professional coach who is not a member of such team – whether he/she is internal or external to the company.

The facilitator can use personality assessment tools to support this process. A tool like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can provide the leader and the team with visibility on another dimension which may be very useful for the team to perform more smartly together. Knowing and understanding their own personality preferences and sharing them with the rest of the team, will most likely support individual interactions. It will also help the team as a group to identify situations where it will at times become more challenging for the group to efficiently work together and where additional work on the team dynamics could be required whether using external support or not.

I have witnessed at firsthand how powerful this exercise can be – both as a new HR team leader and as an HR executive supporting a newly appointed business leader. I was able to clarify for my team my modus operandi, share with them my leadership philosophy and to have an open dialogue about our respective expectations. The trust created throughout the team as a result of that exchange was decisive given also difficult restructuring decisions which lay ahead. The New Leader Assimilation process was pivotal in creating that climate of trust.

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