March 10, 2014

Build Trust Through Training, Transparency and Trials

When I was in Afghanistan, it was not uncommon for my sniper team to encounter the following scenario: Our six man unit would be tasked with running a mission deep into insurgent controlled territory, far beyond the immediate reach of traditional ground troops. We would be asked to spend a few days detecting enemy activity or movements, and if necessary, compromise our position by taking some precision shots. If compromised, we would have to rely on our supporting units to roll out into a firefight to retrieve us, and possibly even call in close-air support from Danish pilots who barely spoke English.

What was it that enabled six men, lightly armed, to accept such a high risk proposition? What enabled us to believe that our counterparts would be willing to jump into the line of fire and risk their lives in our order to save ours? What could possibly make us comfortable with calling in an air strike that would possibly have one-thousand pound bombs dropped within a hundred yards of our position, by a pilot we’d never met who likely barely spoke our language? The answer is trust. The military, in all its manifestations, is a culture built upon unwavering trust. This trust is inculcated in the Marine Corps from the moment a recruit steps on the yellow footprints at boot camp, and stays with him until long after he’s taken off the uniform.

Many leaders and organizations give lip service to the notion of trust. But trust isn’t something that can be instilled through a one-time company retreat or team building event, or written into a corporate mission statement. Instead, trust must be actively built across three areas, by ensuring that 1) all individuals have prepared themselves fully for the task at hand; 2) all individuals have the same aligned goals; and 3) that each member is willing to sacrifice some part of his or herself (in the military this is that person’s life, in business it might be that person’s holiday plans or bonus check) for the good of the team. Trust, in other words, is built across four “TRs”:

TRust = Training + Transparency + Trial or Tribulation

The first, training, is the bedrock of trust. But it’s not enough for your team members to simply receive some training; on high impact teams, each member not only receives training, they all receive a common training. In the Marine Corps, as with every developed military force in the world, every member, whether a cadet or a general, goes through nearly the exact same basic training. Uniform training indoctrinates team values, serves as a filter for those unable to meet basic requirements and creates a shared common ground. It creates standards and ensures they’re met across diverse and far-flung units—so our sniper team on the ground knows that a Danish pilot and a US sniper unit both follow the same close air support protocol, and is able to trust that they are competent in their execution and courageous in their willingness to expose themselves to danger on our behalf.

Common training is also the cornerstone of many of our most successful companies. Ask associates at ten different McKinsey offices how to approach a client’s problem and those associates will cite precisely the same methodology. Join the team at Zappos and you’ll soon learn that every single employee, regardless of their role, goes through the same basic cultural training.

A Team Rubicon member trusts another volunteer to help remove debris from his eye. His trust is based on his knowledge that the other member was a military medic. Photo taken in Moore, OK, 2013.

Transparency is equally critical to building trust. Transparency means laying situations bare, regardless of how dire the circumstance. It means democratizing thought processes (although perhaps not decision making), and providing tools that allow unvarnished feedback on decisions. At Team Rubicon, we place an enormous emphasis on transparency. All leaders are accessible via email or phone to thousands of members; calendars are open for all to see; feedback is solicited both directly and anonymously through numerous methods; and financials are laid bare for all to critique.

It is important to note that leaders cannot cultivate transparency unless they push themselves out among the troops to converse with them openly. Whether an Army Captain dropping into fox holes on the front lines or a manager doing a couple of shifts in the call center or on the factory floor, leaders must lead from the front and be accessible. At Team Rubicon it’s been made mandatory. Headquarters leaders sent to the field are told to spend time “in the trenches.” Nobody lives this virtue better than our co-founder William McNulty. William has made a name for himself by flying into disasters like the Moore, Oklahoma tornado and spending the first three days competing to be the sweatiest, filthiest and hardest working person in the field. He has an uncanny ability to establish trust in these efforts, and through this trust our volunteers know he has their best interest in mind.

Transparency cannot happen unless your leadership regularly visits the “front lines,” wherever that may be in your business. Photo from Moore, OK, 2013.

Finally, trust generally requires trial or tribulation. What does this mean? You’ll often hear a football coach, after winning the first eight games of the season only to lose number nine, state that the loss will ultimately make his team better. While no fan likes to hear this, there’s an element of truth to it. Disappointments – trials – like these force individuals to band together and form stronger bonds; in fact, they require it if the team or group is going to move forward and succeed. We see this in all elements of society: fraternity and sorority hazing; crucibles at the end of military basic training; grueling twice-a-day practices in athletics; brutal internships in investment finance and residency in medicine. The goal is to ensure that only the best emerge, and emerge galvanized together.

Team Rubicon was forged in a pretty fierce fire. Our initial mission to Haiti thrust us into a situation that immediately required trust; even among individuals who had only known each other for 24 hours. Luckily, for the medics and military veterans – no strangers to trial and tribulation – there was an inherent trust born of common training and prior experience under fire. We further cultivated that trust through transparent leadership and, finally, the shared trials of our situation cemented it.

Believe it or not, creating, or magnifying, trials and threats is an age-old trick that’s been used by leaders since the beginning of time. It is the classic underdog theory that has won wars, turned around teams, transformed flailing companies into forces to be reckoned with, and catapulted struggling professionals to the tops of their field. It is harnessed by every coach—“Nobody is giving us a chance to win.” David vs. Goliath. Barbarians at the gate. There is nothing like the threat of a bigger and badder competitor to motivate teams and individuals to harness their fullest potential.

For the startup entrepreneur that threat might be skeptical investors, or a new market entrant; for the product division leader at a consumer goods company it might be internal competition; for the district attorney it might be the lawyer from the white shoe law firm, etc. To tap into this wellspring of drive and motivation, be careful not to overplay to your team the threats you face, but do make sure that everyone on your team knows that threats to their existence (in a professional sense) are everywhere. If you’re Apple, there’s nothing wrong with putting the Microsoft logo on a bullseye in the break room.

I hope I don’t have to convince you that trust is critical to the success of high-impact teams. Certainly anyone that has ever had it all on the line knows that few things are more comforting than being able to look across the table and know that the team around you is trustworthy. Trust can be inherent to some degree in certain situations; however, all teams can increase their level of trust by cultivating or utilizing training, transparency, and trials.

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