Billy Joel was right... it's always been a matter of trust

In what can only be described as a surprising finding, it turns out that Billy Joel was right. When it comes to contemporary business leadership - it's always been a matter of trust. Does the Piano Man's 1986 hit single "A Matter of Trust" contain Dan-Brown-Da-Vinci-Code-style hidden messages for modern business leaders? Okay - probably not. But there's no doubt his lyrics have had an impact well beyond their apparent surface merit. By way of example, Lindsay Lohan had Billy Joel lyrics tattooed on herself, namely "clear as a crystal sharp as a knife, I feel like I'm in the prime of my life" (if you want to see a picture of the tattoo, just search an online dictionary for a pictorial definition of the word "irony").

So what can Billy Joel teach business leaders about the importance of trust? And why has trustworthiness in senior leaders become so critical to driving business performance?

After you've heard lie upon lie, there can hardly be a question of why...
There was a time when organisations themselves were largely trustworthy entities. You'd sign up for a job which you'd perform to a competent standard and, in return, were offered stable employment, almost guaranteed career and annual pay progression, and a job for life (pause for collective gasp from anyone born after 1980). In keeping with the song theme, those days are gone my friend. In Australia the "recession we had to have" and the more recent global financial crisis lead to organisations taking drastic actions to contain costs and maintain profitability. This translated into "letting people go" - and often relatively large proportions of the workforce headed out the door. Even when this process was managed well, for those who left and those who remained there was a clear signal that the "deal" between employees and their employer had changed. We also saw relatively large and, by all appearances, successful organisations collapse overnight (Enron ring a bell?). Could you trust your employer to maintain your job provided you were competent and put in a reasonable effort? The short answer was "no".

You can't go the distance, with too much resistance...
Despite the relatively recent shift in the employee/employer "deal", many senior leaders still seem surprised at how difficult it now is to engage and retain employees. Comments like "these Gen Y's show no loyalty" are common place, to which I respond "why should they be loyal?". Nearly all employees have seen organisations close their doors and have had friends lose their jobs - what's to say it won't happen to them? At the more extreme end, we see organisations where the relationship between employees and their employer has become openly adversarial. The ongoing dispute between Qantas management and the unions representing employees is a classic example of trust being eroded with the employee/employer relationship becoming corrosive. While on a recent Qantas flight I saw a flight attendant spend about 10 minutes having an open conversation with several passengers about her concerns about job security and the direction the airline was taking. This was followed by an announcement from the pilots about the need to "keep Australian pilots" in Qantas planes. When employees feel the need to enlist the support of customers against their own leaders you have a serious problem. You wonder how long it will take to rebuild trust, independent of where you think the blame lies in that particular instance. And one can only imagine how much individual and collective productivity drops off when employees don't trust those running the organisation.

I can't offer you proof, but you're going to face a moment of truth...
So you're thinking "that's fine, but we're not Enron or Qantas". I suggest that in the coming years every organisation will face their own "moment of truth" around the trustworthiness of their leaders. The absence of trustworthiness is far easier to observe than its presence - so it's what I call a "high risk" trait. Trustworthiness isn't a "fake it until you make it" competency. It's a behavioural trait born out of your values. It is demonstrated through ongoing dependability, reliability, honesty and consistency. Sounds more like "character" than "behaviour" to me. So now employees are no longer looking at the organisation itself to assess trustworthiness - if you're a senior leader, they're looking at you. High profile industrial relations "events" like that at Qantas will only heighten the interest in the trustworthiness of leaders across all organisations.

And I'll walk away a fool or a king...
As Billy Joel suggests, trust is a high stakes game. So as a leader, demonstrating trustworthiness will require:
  • Resilience - the ability to maintain perspective and respond calmly to challenging situations
  • Consistency - being predictable and reliable in the way you interact with others
  • Visibility - being present and available for your people
  • Honesty - telling the truth, and being open and transparent in your interactions (and honesty is such a lonely word)
Any leader can work on each of these aspects of trustworthiness. Are you up to the challenge?