Brooke B. Sellas

Can Entrepreneurs Rely on Trust as a Leadership Style?

By: Brooke B. Sellas | July 13, 2017 | 
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Can Entrepreneurs Rely on Trust as a Leadership StyleSomething that has stuck with me since my days as a non-profit employee is the saying, “Trust and verify.”

The term is nearly as old as I am.

“Trust, but verify” was famously said by Ronald Reagan in 1987 when he signed the INF treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Entrepreneurs rely on trust out of necessity. But should we?

If you look at the two phrases individually, which is appropriate as a leadership style?

Trust and verify or trust, but verify.

Trust AND Verify 

When we used this saying at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, I was responsible for raising nearly $750,000 every year with 12 different events.

It wasn’t humanly possible for me to do everything needed to execute one event, much less 12, so we relied on an army of volunteers to help us go from ideation to execution.

“Trust and verify” was our mantra; a measure of trusting that our volunteers would get their “jobs” done, AND that we needed to check in with them regularly to verify that things were truly being completed.

The “AND” certainly feels more appropriate for non-profit work and dealing with dedicated volunteers who are giving their precious extra time to help us raise money.

“BUT” feels like you’re saying #SorryNotSorry.

“I like your new haircut … BUT … why’d you go with bangs?!”

See what I mean?

I don’t think that works well in the warm and fuzzy non-profit world.

But … what about the “but” in business?

Trust BUT Verify

In five years I’ve been in business, I’ve gone with the “trust AND verify” approach.

I don’t like to micromanage people and high-trust relationships are paramount to me and the way I do business.

In fact, high-trust relationship are WHY I own a successful business.

However, my view on this leadership style recently changed when our team went through a restructure.

During the shuffle, both team members and clients complained about one team member who was labeled as our “shining star.”

This person got paid the most, had the most responsibilities, and arguably was smartest person on our team.

I “trust AND verify” with each of our team members each week to ensure things are going smoothly and (most importantly) our clients are happy.

Each and every week this team member verified that everything was A-OKAY.

But it wasn’t. Not even close.

We received seven formal client complaints when this person was no longer on our team; the clients were bursting to tell me things were going awry, but didn’t want to do it while the person was still around.

You can imagine my shock.

Sickened is more the feeling.

Any time you put that much trust into someone and that trust is betrayed, you look at yourself to figure out what went wrong.

Why am I such a sucky entrepreneur/leader/manager?

Trust as a Leadership Style 

We’re often told that believing “people need to earn our trust” is bad leadership.

An entire study was dedicated to this thinking in the 1960s.

Douglas McGregor proposed in his Theory X and Theory Y—regarding Theory X—hat when pessimistic assumptions of the average worker are present, leaders cause:

  • A hostile work environment;
  • Minimally cooperative workers; and
  • Team members who “harbor resentment towards management.”

Those three things alone would encourage any entrepreneur to take my “trust AND verify” approach.

BUT … there’s a but that fits here, too …

Theory X also proved to be the most effective in terms of consistency of work, citing:

Although managers and supervisors are in almost complete control of the work, this produces a more systematic and uniform product or work flow.

Theory Y, which promotes high-trust relationships, was ultimately deemed “optimal with some drawbacks” … such as:

  • Error in terms of consistency;
  • Workplace lacks unvarying rules and practices; and
  • Inconsistent product or quality standards.

So which is it?

To trust or not to trust, that is the question.

My New Leadership Style 

My leadership style has always been more AND.

However, considering this recent shakeup (and some really uncomfortable client calls), I’m learning the lesson and fixing gaps where I can.

Here are some of the changes I’m making, in case you want to go with this new leadership style, too.

Implementing a “Trust AND Verify” Automated Process

Each month, clients receive a survey emailed to them with only two answers to choose from:

  • My account manager is awesomesauce!
  • My account manager could do better.

We use YesInsights so all it takes is one click to log a client’s answer—and “do better” clients will get a phone call from me within 24 hours.

This allows the client to “tattle” with gentle prodding by me—something they weren’t apt to do previously.

Trusting BUT Verifying Client Deliverables

One thing we found in the “Great Reshuffle of 2017” was our “star player” wasn’t updating client documents with the necessary information needed to manage their accounts correctly.

I’ll now be running through these documents with account managers on their weekly calls. (show me, don’t just tell me).

Implementing a Team “Safe Harbor

Another WTH moment for me was when other team members came forward to tell me that our “shining star” was often delegating work to them.

LOTS of work … sometimes most of it!

Like our clients, they didn’t want to come forward and rat on someone.

We elected one team member to be the “safe harbor” which means she will come clean on the behalf of someone for the sake of the team.

I’m hoping these three changes allow me to better balance the art and science of being a successful entrepreneur AND a well-liked leader.

Do You Rely On Trust? 

Perhaps I’m still reeling from the sting of broken trust.

Maybe this happens all the time to entrepreneurs and I’m just newly jaded.

In any case, I’m curious, what leadership style do you tend to lean towards, AND or BUT?

Can we rely on trust as a true leadership style?

Let me know in the comments section below!

About Brooke B. Sellas


Brooke B. Sellas is an in-the-trenches digital marketer & owner at B Squared Media, blossoming blogger, and a purveyor of psychographics. Her mantra is “Think Conversation, Not Campaign” so be sure to give her a shout on Twitter.

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