Trust- what’s in a word?

October 2018


What comes to mind when you read this word?

If you are like most people, to help clarify what it means, immediately you will think of a personal situation where you felt trust or experienced the lack of it.

Maybe you will think about a time when you trusted someone or something and were rewarded for that trust. Your co-worker showed up early, as she said she would, to help you finish up an important project that was due at the end of the day. Perhaps it was simply that the shuttle bus was on time. You trusted it would be. Completing everything on your busy schedule depended on it.

Conversely, some people might recall a situation when they experienced a breach of trust, where they were let down in a situation where they expected one outcome and got another, disappointing result. A friend promised to pay back a small loan, and then did not, leaving you short of cash. The critical components you ordered online for a repair job, did not arrive in the mail, in time, as promised. Your project was delayed, and your customers were very disappointed.

Trust implies dependence and confidence, and is personal, even at work. It stems most often from our interactions with others; in relationships all of us develop a sense that things will go as expected or promised. When they do, our trust is affirmed. We feel secure and satisfied. We feel confident. We can do as we’d planned. Stress goes down. When things don’t go as expected or promised we feel disappointed, uneasy. Perhaps we feel a sense of betrayal and anger. When trust is absent we feel insecure, even suspicious. We make up stories.

In a recent study, noted by Stephen M.R. Covey and Rebecca Merrill in their book, The Speed of Trust, they site these survey findings:

  • Only 29% of employees believe management care about them developing skills
  • Only 42% of employees believes that management cares about them at all

Where do you and your employees stand on the issue of trust? Do you care about them? Do they care about you and your company?

To build and maintain trust, personally, and professionally, one must have integrity and show respect to others. When mistakes are made they are admitted honestly, and any wrongs are made right. Trust requires people to talk straight with each other and to listen when others share thoughts and ideas. Each person works to deliver the results they promise. A culture of improvement exists, and employees and owners work together to achieve mutually agreed upon results.  Acknowledgement and validation are the norm.

There is nothing magical about developing an environment of trust, although it does take time, conscious effort, courage and intention, to create. When trust is present, people feel empowered to move ahead. When it is absent, it’s practically impossible to give their best effort. As Covey and Miller relate, “Leaders who extend trust become mentors, models and heroes. Inspiring trust is the prime differentiator between a manager and a leader, and the prime motivator of successful enterprises and relationships.”  Trust is clearly a cornerstone of good jobs and great companies.

The Value in Your Values

September 2018

“Values create the foundation of every successful organization. All the choices we make in life are influenced by what we value most.”

–Michael Wiseman, Founder, The Values Institute

I can still remember my Dad’s comments as he and I were walking out of LL Bean’s flagship store in Freeport. He turned to look back into the building before we headed over to the car to drive home and said “That is the best customer service I’ve ever received. They do everything right.” This was high praise from a quiet, thoughtful naval engineer turned corporate leader. He meant it.

Clearly LL Bean’s cares deeply about the experience that their customers have. It shows. From the openness and natural brightness of their store spaces, to their giant iconic Bean Boot outside the entrance, the huge fish tank and stairwell pond, emblematic of their outdoor history and culture, their excellent displays, merchandizing and the quality of their highly trained staff, this Maine business icon has intentionally set out to create a culture where the customer is number one. The employees know this company value, buy in, and they are trained to deliver it!

So, how can such values expression work in a small business? How can a small business create an experience for its customers based on what it values, or clearly identify and act upon the things that are most important to its owners, employees and customers? It’s easy to say that as a business owner you care are about something. But how do you make it show? How do you live out the core values of what you care about; what makes your small business meaningful to all involved?

To start you must understand that your values are inherent in your organization and define how it does business. To be intentional about how you do business you need to figure out what your important values are. Here’s a link to a Harvard Business Review article that provides a solid argument for the idea that identifying and living out company values makes a difference in your business success.

High-performing small business understand that they must focus on, value and create a positive relationship with customers and employees not only by talking about and advocating for issues like fairness, value, openness and opportunity, but moreover, the owners must exemplify the behaviors they want their employees to emulate and their customers to experience. This is what Kouzes and Pozner call, “Modeling the Way” in their five practices of exemplary leadership approach.

Employees will follow an authentic business owner or manager who stresses the purpose of the company’s work. (“We sell happiness,” to paraphrase the CEO of Zappos, the highly successful on-line shoe retailer.) Looking at the dark side, it is also clear to most people that an owner who put profits before purpose and employees risks diminishing the esteem and importance of his or her workforce, creating a negative and non-productive work environment. By valuing employees and the importance of their work to the company’s purpose, and recognizing and validating the quality of the work being done by each person, the small business owner builds a sense of appreciation and teamwork. People like to engage successfully in their work. They like to be recognized for their contributions to the greater good and the company purpose and values. Having and exercising a strong value to encourage and allow people to really make a difference through their work shows that an owner recognizes that an investment of time in the well-being and development of her people is really an investment in the overall success of the business.


Time to Yourself

August 2018

“If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.” -Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

There is little question that owning and operating a small business is a challenge. The owner performs numerous functions in any given day: marketing and sales, customer service, communications, shipping, receiving, bookkeeping, bill paying, invoice generation, vendor and supplier relations, human resources management. I know from having worked with rural small businesses for the past 30 years that the effort required to survive and succeed as a small business owner is tremendous. I often say in my small business start-up workshops that the difference between working for yourself and working for someone else is another 40 hours per week.

In an attempt to get everything done during the day, I have found the one critically important task that so often is ignored or forgotten by small business owners is that of taking time out to reflect, to think through, and to plan for what needs to happen next to achieve success. The value of taking time to oneself, to slow the world a bit and to consider what is really going on, is unfortunately underestimated. This time is ignored at one’s own peril, though. Firefighting and shooting from the hip management come at both a financial and emotional cost.

It makes sense that not everything is as important as everything else at work. Priorities need to be set so the most important things get done first; Each decision and action should be made to achieve one’s goals.

Taking twenty minutes a day to seek a quite space, put aside the cell phone and paperwork, to still the mind and reflect non-judgmentally on your vision and why you are doing what you are doing can add focus and energy to your efforts. Checking in with what’s going on for you, as owner, manager, supervisor and boss can bring important self-awareness and build perspective. Self-awareness and perspective add certainty to your decision making and can help create a job that is more enjoyable and a business which is more successful.


where are you going? how are you going to get there?

July, 2018

In my workshops on how to start and run a small business, I generally ask participants some variation of this question:

“If I promised to pay you a hundred dollars in cash, could you meet at the Kittery Trading Post by 6:00 PM tonight?”

Most people in my classes say, sure, they could do that. The reason I ask this is to highlight some basic management concepts that are as applicable to life as to running a small business. If we know where we are going and are sufficiently motivated, we can make a plan, implement it, succeed and get rewarded for our efforts.

Next, I up the ante and the reward, and ask, ‘OK. And how many of you could meet me on the top of Seattle Space Needle, by noon tomorrow, if I were to promise you five thousand dollars?”  People start thinking and sharing ideas. This task takes more planning, more time, more money, has more risk but also a greater reward. Is this affordable? Will it be worth it? Can they succeed?

I explain my point to them this way. In small business management, the day to day, close to home challenges take less time and less effort and can be done fairly easily. They are still important and need to be addressed. Bigger plans with bigger rewards are more complex, take more thought, more planning, more time and more effort; not unlike the long term successful of your small business. In either case you need to know where you’re going to get the results you want to achieve.

Let me ask you this, then: Long term, do you have a vision for where you are going? If your company has employees, do they know where you want everyone to end up, and do they know what their jobs are to help you succeed? Do they know what it is in if for them? Will they follow you there? Will it be worth it?

Really great companies to work for have many things in common. They are great places to work because:

  • The vision of where the company is going is clear to everyone.
  • The goals for getting there are also clear as are expectations for everyone’s performance.
  • People trust each other and value the work being done. They enjoy what they do and are recognized for their positive efforts. They get support to be successful.
  • Everyone, especially the owner / “boss” plays by the same rules.
  • Communications are open and focused on what’s important to the business, each other, and the community.

Salaries and wages are always an issue of fairness and affordability, but the intangible concepts listed are some of the employee-focused parts of a business that each owner can begin to address at no cost, to create a successful small business and a great place to work.


relationship at work

April, 2018

This morning I read a Harvard Business Review article on the intangible things that employees really want at work – those things which are so important to workers that when they are part of their work experience, employees feel very connected to their employer and to their work. When this is the norm, people work better.

You may have guessed that none of the points had anything to do with money. Pay is something we are either satisfied with, or not.

What makes the difference for employees, whether they are Baby Boomers, Gen X, Y or Z, or Millennials, has to do with their relationship to their company.

In a nut shell, the article pointed out that the keys to employee loyalty and performance stemmed from a basic philosophy that enlightened companies live by: that “employees are as important as the paying customers who consume the products and services they sell.”

Think about this for a moment. Who are your customers and why do they shop with you? They are those regular patrons who have chosen you as their “go to” company, for one or more of the things they buy day to day. Right? I imagine you could pull together a good list of all the ways you’ve spent developing and nurturing your relationship with them.

If you see your employees as just as important as your customers to your business success ask yourself: What are you doing to develop your relationship with those people who come to work for you every day?

Maslow, through his hierarchy of needs, tells us that physical safety is an essential human need and so the work environment your employees step into each day has a real impact on how they feel about their ability to do their work.

To the extent that people feel physically safe, it is the employees’ psychological needs that make the biggest difference to their performance. Your employees are your people, and they need and want clear communications about what is expected of them. They want to trust those who supervise them. They want to feel that their employers are fair. As people, they need to know why their work is important. They want to be acknowledged and validated for their contributions.

When work relationships are trustworthy and fair, when employees understand what is expected and why and have the resources they need to get the job done, when those for whom they work acknowledge and validate their efforts, and coach them when improvements are needed, when they take to time to get to know what is important to those who work for them, the effects are positive for your employees, for you, as the owner, and for your customers. Everyone wins.


Having a Good Job vs. Doing a Good Job

January, 2018

A colleague asked me the other day, “What’s the difference between a having a good job and doing a good job?”

I think my answer surprised her, “You know, they are definitely related,” I replied.

Most of the time we think that when someone is doing a good job they are driven by their work ethic. They show up on time, they are ready to work when they arrive, they have the talent and they perform their job with a sense of pride in what they do. They exceed their job’s minimum requirements and continue to produce solid results. They “do a good job.” We love these people on our teams, right?

When we look a little deeper into how employees perform at a high level, we start to realize that their efforts are supported by many elements in the workplace that create “a good job” including:

  • They were hired to do work at which they can excel.
  • They feel safe both physically and emotionally at work.
  • They have the resources required to do their work.
  • There is a culture of appreciation for the work they do, and a sense of being part of a team.
  • They are given a chance to contribute and receive recognition for their efforts.
  • Job performance is communicated in ways that highlight strengths and encourage and support improvements.
  • Employees are paid fairly and receive other benefits in exchange for their efforts.

While these qualities are not all that make a good job, they are part of a list that shows that a small business owner understands what it takes to help their employees perform well and has intentionally created a work place to help employees succeed.

Ask yourself: Are there areas in your small business you can see where improvements will help employees succeed in their work?

Remember, these are the people you have hired to help you achieve the business results you want. Creating a good job improves employees’ chances of doing a good job for you.


I know a Good Job when I see one!

December, 2017

Several years back my wife and I were sitting in the base lodge of one of Maine’s amazing ski areas, buckling up our boots and getting ready for a day on the slopes.

As we were heading out, a woman approached us and introduced herself. She told us she worked for the ski area and wondered if we’d be willing to help with an employee focused program that the company was running. We said “Sure.”

She explained that she wanted us to observe the Sunday River employees we saw or met during our day of skiing. “If someone is doing an exceptionally good job,” she explained, “I’d like you to give them this envelope. It awards them $100, a paid day off, and a lunch with the President of the company.” We could choose anyone we thought deserving.

What a great program!  Ask customers to pay attention to the quality of the work that is getting done all around them, and award one employee a valuable acknowledgement of their efforts.

Of course, this was not as random an exercise as it might appear. Good job performance does not just happen. To have the confidence to run this sort of program, where a company intentionally brings attention to their employees, a company must:

  • Have a vision of what it wants to accomplish
  • Know how employees will help make the vision happen
  • Organize and create polices for the work that must be done
  • Recruit, screen and hire to get the right people into the right job.
  • Provide initial and on-going training to employees and regular feedback about their performance
  • Pay a fair wage or salary, and offer on-the-job support and leadership that motivates and encourages strong performance
  • Offer perks or benefits befitting the company’s focus good jobs and employee retention

In my posts I’ll offer insights, observations, short interviews, points from guest bloggers and more on the art and management of good jobs for your employees – the people who help to make you successful.

CEI is a mission-driven investor, a private non-profit community development corporation that helps its client companies and communities to grow good jobs. We know that it is challenging to start, grow and run a small business and lead and manage employees. We also know the benefits of doing so – and are strategically focused to assist.

(By the way – my wife and I awarded the recognition to a energetic ski instructor who in a fun but firm manner managed to organize and maintain the energies and actions of nine very excited 11-13-year-old girls who had just burst into the crowded lodge to warm up and have lunch. Great job!)

Bradshaw Swanson is a Maine Certified Master Business Advisor with the Maine Small Business Development Centers at CEI in Brunswick and Augusta.