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Memo to CEOs: Your Workforce Can Handle the Truth

So resist the temptation to be relentlessly upbeat.
Honest CEO communication is the best way to build leadership trust
photo by Michael Coghlan

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What do employees really want from company leaders? The answer may surprise you — and, more important, may prompt you to change some of your practices.

“I don’t think the people who work for you want you to be an optimist anymore,” says GE CEO Jeff Immelt. “They want you to be realistic. They don’t want hollow promises, they want action: What’s your plan, and how are you going to solve problems?”

The hallmarks of what Immelt calls “positive leadership” are authenticity, transparent communication, a focus on the future, and the ability to solve problems and take action.

Recent management studies support the idea that workers respond best not to cheerleading or a continuous stream of happy talk, but to evidence of a strong connection between words and deeds. Employees are much more likely to trust their immediate supervisors than top corporate executives, according to global consulting firm Blessing White. Why? Because employees can match what managers say with what they do. That’s more difficult to do given the layers of management that may separate them from top leaders, which makes it imperative that top leaders spell out specific actions the company will take, explain why, and offer proof that such actions have been taken.

Increase Transparency, and Make Strategy Clear
Spelling out those actions has to happen in public. At every level, therefore, realistic leaders do not hide in their offices, or try to soften difficult news, or turn a blind eye to difficult market conditions. Rather, they keep employees continuously informed about the current reality and outline clear strategies for mitigating those challenges. The best leaders turn troubles into a call to action for employees, reminding them that such times can be a chance for individuals to shine.

“Too many leaders forget the basic law of influence: A leader can exercise influence only if people are willing to be influenced,” says leadership coach Kent Lineback. “Other than outright coercion, trust is the only way to create that willingness. No trust equals no influence equals no leadership.”

As important as it is for a leader to communicate clearly with the entire employee population, there is an equally challenging, but often far more invisible, area in which communication can go awry: within the senior management team itself. Lack of alignment is an insidious disease, often hard to diagnose, and it can impede any individual leader’s effort to perform at his or her best.

One of its most common causes is confusion around roles. This issue is particularly prevalent at fast-growing companies where many leaders start off doing a little bit of everything. As the business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to distinguish one role from another in order to get optimal performance. That means developing trust within the group so that executives feel free to let go of some responsibilities and concentrate on others, without feeling a sense of competition or a need to expand individual spheres of influence.

No executive is an island: The work you do to refine your leadership skills so that they are in sync with company strategy won’t pay off unless the leadership team itself is aligned and operating efficiently toward a common purpose.

If there is a single principle at the heart of great leadership, it’s this: Create clarity. The means of communication may change, the tenor of the message may change, and the areas to which you devote the most focus may change. But if you are always clear about the company’s strategy, and if all levels of the company hear the same message and are aligned behind it, you can be confident that you are operating as an effective leader. Positively.

How to build leadership trust

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This article is adapted from “Leadership 2013: What Matters Most,” part of the Action Resource Series produced by GE Capital in conjunction with The Build Network. For more, download the free Access GE app, available at http://app.accessge.com.

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