How to build a bank of trust

As published in Atlanta Business Chronicle Leadership Trust on November 4, 2021.

Recently, at a casual dinner, a chief executive asked me candidly how to best ensure his company is genuinely seen as a good actor. Like many CEOs, he was looking for a road map that enables him to concentrate on his core business while feeling secure in the fact that “his people” have confidence in his leadership and, frankly, feel proud to work for him. All while avoiding any unforeseen pitfalls, missteps and employee exodus. Sound familiar?

His questions are at the root of most executives’ motivation. Talented, typically deeply thoughtful, driven people, their quest for a profitable business model consumes the vast majority of their time. Yet, their mindset looks less like a Wolf on Wallstreet stereotype and more like Fred Rogers — leaders who inherently care about the people in their lives and would like their business to have a positive impact.

The conversation around the table centered on the notion of building a bank of trust. Simply put, establishing an “account” of sorts with the people in and around your business — the stakeholders — and the importance of a disciplined, consistent “deposit” into the bank of trust to ensure a mutually beneficial outcome — a sustainable, profitable, truly good business.

Recent studies reinforce the importance of building trust and share some of the warning signs when it’s weak. Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer shares the good news that the vast majority of people (77%) name their employer as the most trusted institution in their lives. PwC’s recent study claims that trust increases key business measures from customer loyalty and reputation to revenue growth and access to capital. But each of the studies includes forewarnings. According to PwC, 73% of those surveyed hold the CEOs accountable for their trust in a company followed closely by the CFO. Edelman’s study cautions that winning and retaining talent must now include a visible commitment to the greater good. Recent findings from my own company’s survey highlight that 96% of business executives claim they are investing in the key elements of this bank of trust.

Obviously, without profits, there’s no way for good companies to employ people, provide needed jobs and benefits, or offer services to their communities. The concept of building a trust bank speaks to this emerging precedent that business viability includes actions that back up good intentions. Here are the top ideas I’ve gleaned from studies and dinner conversations.

Purpose is no longer optional

If you can’t articulate for your employees the “reason for being” — the “why” that makes them come to work each day — you will need to make this a priority. Increasingly, any employee under the age of 40 will not only come to work for you but more importantly will walk out the door if they do not see their efforts connecting to a larger purpose. Building trust comes when that purpose moves off the paper into daily decisions and becomes visible in how you execute your business.

Silence says something

This doesn’t mean you need to make public proclamations on dicey issues. What this means is that a regular cadence of communication builds trust, where silence simply leaves people wondering. If you want your employees to know you run a good business, communicate often on the character of the business and frankly on the humanity of the leadership. Creating a routine communication that focuses on how your business is living out its purpose helps people recognize the daily good and put a positive credit in your trust bank.

Understand how social issues affect your business

The younger the demographic of your employees or customers, the more attuned they are to the social issues swirling around them. The key here is to have a keen understanding of which of the social issues affects your business across the entire value chain and work to be proactive rather than reactive when crafting your compassionate and strategic responses.

Mind the action gap

As with all things in life, actions need to back up words. If you want to be known as a good company, then reflect intentions with clear, daily action. This means everything from work-life balance, compensation, healthcare, safe and inclusive work environments to products that leave people better off versus depleting or damaging people or the planet. With an established trust bank, charitable efforts that support community needs or address social distress become a positive addition to what people already know about you, not the sole reflection of your values.

The question of how business can be a force for good has never been so close to the bottom line. It’s no longer a side conversation relegated to a silo foundation or volunteer program. Being a “good company” is now central to being a profitable, viable business. When consistent, recognizable actions back up your purpose and breathe life throughout your business, your bank of trust will overflow.