How bosses can build trust by baring themselves to staff

simon rutherfordIn this guest post, Simon Rutherford, CEO of Slingshot Media, argues that bosses should be vulnerable in front of their staff.

Winston Churchill once said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Often in business our leaders are good at standing up to fear but fail to acknowledge we also need to listen. Listening doesn’t mean just hearing the words, it means listening with all of our senses. Also, it often means we don’t necessarily need to solve everything. Sometimes our staff just needs us to be a sounding board; in verbalising their problems, they will often solve them by themselves, leaving them feeling more empowered (versus us showing how smart we are by solving the problem for them).

As a follow up to my previous piece previous piece on staff wellness, Iwanted to express my thoughts on building a foundation for trust with your staff through courageous leadership.

Courage in the workplace can be seen or come across as arrogance, because certain leaders in confronting fear or pain don’t want to look bad or to show weakness in front of their staff, or anyone for that matter. For me demonstrating courage is about knowing when you have to stand up and also when you need to listen and importantly be vulnerable or authentic with your people and with others.

To do this, there has to be a willingness to feel uncomfortable at times. As a leader it can often mean giving something of yourself to others first, so that they feel comfortable to do likewise.

five dysfunctionsBy way of example, shortly after establishing the Slingshot business, I came across a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I’d read it over a weekend and although we had a good culture, I realised that we weren’t having honest conversations with each other… starting at the management level.

The morning after finishing the book, I rang mybusiness partner Steve. We soon found ourselves having a very honest conversation with each other at the Oaks Hotel in Sydney’s Neutral Bay over a beer. There was an exercise in the book that involved looking at individualstrengths and weaknesses, so I proceeded to tell Steve all of the things that I admired about him and the positive skills he brought to our relationship. I had done a self-assessment of the same for myself, to which I sought his input and agreement. We then went through the more awkward conversation of discussing our respective weaknesses and how we best overcome those together.

Whilst it was initially uncomfortable, we both walked away from our meeting with a real sense of clarity, around how we might work together to get the best out of each other and each other’s skills and also a clear plan for moving this kind of thinking into the business.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but at the root of all dysfunction is the absence of trust which stems from an unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group; team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust. The absence of trust then leads to the in-ability to engage in open communication about business issues and a number of other issues stem from that.

For us to truly have trust in one another, we need transparency… we have to better understand each other.

We then got the entire agency to perform the strengths and weaknesses exercise. So 20 people broke up into groups and they workshopped each other’s strengths/weaknesses based on self-assessment and input from their co-workers. We then all presented that back to the rest of the agency.

I kicked it off, first recounting to everyone a story about my first ever business presentation and beginning my career with a massive fear of public speaking.

As part of an agency scholarship program, I had to present to the George Patterson Bates board, the likes of Geoff Cousins and Alex Hamill – I was terrified – and to say I completely fucked it, is an understatement.

So why did I talk about my fear of public speaking? It gave everyone permission to be vulnerable. If the CEO can stand there talking about his failures and be real, then others can too.

What came out of the exercise from the top down was a much deeper understanding of different people’s strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies and people being more comfortable with not being perfect.

We’ve been able to do a few things with that.

  1. We focus on highlighting people’s strengths in the agency. Shining a light on someone’s strengths is far more valuable in building team esteem than focusing on their weaknesses.
  2. We match people’s opposing strengths and weaknesses, so they balance each other out.
  3. We’ve also since begun implementing external coaching programs to help people address some of the weaknesses and or fears so that they don’t become paralysing for the individual or for the business.

As leaders we need to provide a positive, nurturing and safe environment, and an ongoing conversation where people feel open to communicate their mistakes, and talk about their fears.

As a group we’re certainly not afraid to have difficult conversations stemming from the trust we have built.

It’s certainly not easy, you have to have the courage to stand up and speak; and also have the courage to sit down and listen, because we’re always learning, regardless of our job title.

Simon Rutherford will be speaking more about courageous leadership at the next Humanity in Business evening on July 1 in Sydney. 


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.