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Nathan Elvery: the four stages to building trust

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Much has been written in LGC in the past year on the changing role of the chief executive and the skills they require to be successful.

But while some attributes of chiefs change, others stay the same. One of the things that struck me as I read these articles was the absence of the concept of trust from the conversation.

Very simply ‘trust’ is the foundation of everything. Trust is a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

Without this focus, however skilful a chief executive is, the challenges they have will never be conquered. The past year has seen Grenfell, sustainability and transformation plans, devolution and delayed transfers of care. Let us question the extent trust featured – or was absent – in the relationships underpinning these issues.

Undoubtedly in most of these examples we have had dedicated and skilled professionals working tirelessly, with a passion for public service, to achieve improvements in outcomes for their places and their communities. Yet why is it that we sometimes see differing outcomes in different places? Why has failure been in some cases clearly apparent? Why is it that outcomes are not more predictable? To me, this all comes down to trust.

The trouble with this key ingredient is that you cannot ‘do’ trust and therefore it is not a skill in itself. A range of skills is required to ensure trust can be earnt and built.

Without understanding these skills trust could remain no more findable than the holy grail. Of course, it takes time to build up this bank of trust and as we know all too well trust can be destroyed in a moment. This makes it even more important that we always keep trust in our minds and ask the question: ‘Am I banking trust through my skills and behaviours or am I eroding or destroying this rare commodity?’.

A focus on trust to build the strongest of foundations is necessary if we want to navigate the seas ahead of us, work in the required partnerships and manage the risks necessary to succeed. There are four stages of trust I would like to consider:

  • Reliability. We must build up a succession of experiences that make our behaviours and attitudes predictable and dependable. In all chief executives’ relationships across the multiplicity of teams we belong to, people are watching everything that we say and do: our impact as leaders on our organisations is paramount. If you are unpredictable or not dependable you will not create trust in these relationships. Phrases you want to hear are ‘I felt very supported’, ‘That conversation has given me clear direction’ the phrase you don’t want to every hear is ‘Don’t go in there, they are in a bad mood’;
  • Confidence. As someone experiences reliability they will grow in confidence that you, your decisions, the team and the solution can be relied upon. As confidence improves, fear or uncertainty diminishes. As confidence grows you will be forgiven for the occasional setback (we are not all perfect). But confidence is a tipping point like a set of scales, confidence must be positive or trust is in deficit. One needs to consider what the ‘confidence scales’ reveal about us and our organisation;
  • Empowerment. As we make progress with the first two stages we can let go of control and empower. The very essence of empowerment is trust. This is the most challenging of the steps but is achieved by leaders feeling assured about the reliability and confidence of their staff and teams. Only you hold the key to unlock these steps but, of course, you do this together as trust is a partnership, a relationship between us. You empower individuals in your organisation most where you have the most confidence in them and you reach this conclusion through reliability;
  • Finally Inspire. Empowering others leads to people feeling good about themselves and they will feel good because you have shown trust through empowerment and thus confidence in them. An inspired workforce is one that creates its own success and after all success breeds success. To crack this stage is the holy grail.

Now a chief executive is only one member of staff in any organisation and most of the time by no means the most important. Our organisations are only successful if we inspire our teams to be the very best they can. The quest is not one of skill but one of building trust, the skill is to recognise it. Success is can be seen as skills plus or minus trust (which is made up of reliability, confidence, empowerment and inspiration). So let us think of this equation and build strong foundations through a focus on trust.

Nathan Elvery, chief executive, West Sussex CC

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