I know I’m not alone when I say that I’m welcoming this new year with open arms. While I would never be naive enough to suggest many of the problems that plagued the world in 2020 won’t follow us into 2021, I am hitting the proverbial reset button. Focusing on what I can control, I’m approaching this year with optimism and a growth mindset. This includes doubling down on one area in particular I think we all need to focus on more: trust.
Trust is eroding across nearly every aspect of society, from government and NGOs to the media and businesses, and it’s only getting worse. According to a recent report by Edelman, only one third of respondents said they believe businesses protect their interests, while 56% believes capitalism in its current state does more harm than good.
There’s no question trust is the foundation of any great brand and business, so needless to say, there is a lot of room for improvement here. This holds true especially for us business leaders, who play a critical role in rebuilding this lost trust.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those who do it right and those who, err, don’t. Starting with the latter, the first that comes to mind is the airline industry. I mean, really, what other industry do you put complete blind faith and trust in? It’s plagued with stories about airline staff accidentally killing people’s pets or dragging people from a plane (ahem, United), or mechanical and design flaws that resulted in crashes and lost lives (Boeing), making it the perfect example of a complete erosion of trust. Every company makes mistakes, as they’re run by humans, after all. But when these same companies refuse to own up to them, or worse, cover them up or deflect blame, it only perpetuates the lack of trust in these businesses (and unfortunately, capitalism as a whole).
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a company like Salesforce. From the beginning, trust has been a core company value, and they have been transparent about addressing things like the gender pay gap (well before it became a mainstream issue), diversity, and sustainability. With a website dedicated to real-time system performance and security, Salesforce has remained ahead of the curve, acknowledging customer concerns, bringing to the forefront what’s happening with the system, the data, and how they’re remaining compliant. This is a type of transparency I’ve tried to emulate into my own leadership style.
A key difference in the approach of both of these businesses reminds me of one of my favorite books, Ultimate Speed Secrets, by Ross Bentley. As an avid race car driver, it’s oftentimes books like these that inspire so much of the approach I take to leadership. In it, he discusses the difference between being an assertive driver and an aggressive driver. An aggressive driver is out of control, and tends to subvert the rules in a “ruthless desire to dominate.” Like in business, an aggressive driver is usually trying to hide a weakness. An assertive driver, on the other hand, can exploit that weakness by relying on self-confidence, control, and a relentless persistence to win in a positive way. In comparing these two businesses, it’s clear to me that Salesforce represents the assertive driver in this metaphor. They’ve asserted their position, given a point of view, and lead with transparency, whereas someone like Boeing is the aggressive driver, obscuring from view what’s really going on. You may be thinking, “Eh, that’s just semantics” but the difference between the two is critical. If you have a ruthless desire to dominate and to put your success above all else, by definition, you will not be trustworthy. Instead of being unpredictable, there is a way to be deliberate, and assertive, in a more positive way. Racing only works when drivers, and the teams that support them, are predictable and follow the rules. An unpredictable driver who cheats doesn’t make it. In business, our rules are spelled out in contracts. Honoring contracts is what keeps our capitalist system thriving. Thoroughly understanding, then meeting your contractual obligations in business, is the key first step in being assertive versus aggressive.
“‘The more I learn, the less I know for sure.’ I suppose that is why I love doing what I do.”
– Ross Bentley, Racing Driver, Coach, Author
I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have it all figured out, by any stretch of the imagination. But as Bentley says above, doing that work to get there is what I love. I believe a good leader does not make all of the decisions and cultivates a culture of continuous learning while making people the cornerstone of everything you do. Between our mission, our operations, and our methodology, that’s certainly what we strive to do at Studio Science. In fact, it’s why we’re in business – to tell the unique story of our clients’ businesses and products in a way that builds trust. It’s just good business.
Now, more than ever, we need leaders (I include myself in this statement) to start (re)building trust in their own operations by investing in people, rethinking the workforce, rethinking investment choices, and rethinking how we do business. We may not be able to control what the media or government does, but we sure as hell can control what happens in our own house.
I know for me, that’s where I’m starting. Between my role as a leader and someone who can help shape company culture, I view this not only as my responsibility, but also as an opportunity. It starts with owning our mistakes, being honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, recognizing what we need to improve on, and holding ourselves accountable to making it happen. I call on other business leaders to be assertive, not aggressive. Remember that this imperfect capitalist system that we operate in relies on trust, playing by the rules, and meeting the terms of our contracts. I look forward to diving into this more in the months ahead.