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A secret great leaders know: Employee trust matters more than anything - the boston globe

Originally posted on the boston globe

November 30, 2022

fter four decades in the workforce, Linda Berry knew what she didn’t want in

a new job. Toxic environments where employees are referred to as

“resources”? Nope. Late-night e-mails that require quick responses?

Definitely not.

Her guidelines were simple: She wanted to find a company with good values — and the action that backed up those values.

Berry found this culture at Triverus Consulting, a Woburn IT consulting firm whose company name roughly translates to “three truths” in Latin. A friend recommended the founders as a collaborative group with “a wonderful way of working together.” That bore out in Berry’s interviews, where she witnessed a warmth and openness among the three partners, including a conversation that became a full-on brainstorming session, complete with impromptu diagrams.

“The management team is so open, and you could sense that right away,” says Berry, who joined the company as a principal consultant last year. Shortly after starting, she recalls the leadership team saying: “If you have any issues, any concerns, you come to us.”

“I remember when I first heard that, I’m like, Yeah, sure. They all say that,” Berry recalls. “But you know what? [Triverus] meant it. They really meant it.”

Employees are challenging organizations to demonstrate connectedness and humanity in ways they never did before the pandemic or the racial reckoning of 2020, says Ella F. Washington, a professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and author of The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion.

Along with communication and transparency, workers are seeking leadership they can trust. Nationally, just 23 percent of employees strongly agree they trust their organization’s leadership, according to a 2021 Gallup survey. Americans’ confidence in major US institutions has dipped to record lows, according to another recent Gallup Poll, with confidence in big business tracking at just 14 percent.

And with 1 in 5 employees seriously contemplating changing employers, according to a recent PWC survey, companies are paying more attention to workers’ demands. “People are not just taking the words of companies for granted. They want to see some action,” Washington says. “Organizations that are prioritizing people and prioritizing real connections are the ones that are going to last.”

Some companies have been operating this way for years. Christopher Oddleifson, chief executive of community bank Rockland Trust and its parent company, Independent Bank Corp., makes a point of attending new-hire orientations or calling new hires personally, working to foster a sense of connection and trust. Making those calls and connections is a big time commitment — there were 324 new hires between January and early November of this year— but it’s worth it.

“Our belief is nothing good can happen unless you have the trusting relationships amongst each other,” Oddleifson says. “People will go through walls, they’ll climb Mount Everest, they are with you, when they feel that you have their back.”

What’s more, Oddleifson hosts a “Conversations with Chris” lunch every six weeks, spending an hour with 15 or 20 randomly selected employees. (Pre-pandemic, the event was “Lunch with Chris,” but the event has since shifted to Zoom.) The bank’s executive leadership team also routinely visits Rockland Trust’s various branches for in-person meet-and-greets.

Oddleifson for years wrote a monthly letter to employees, and post-pandemic it has morphed into a video in which he interviews members of the leadership team, using questions from employees around the company. The queries range from the professional to the personal — asking the chief investment officer for thoughts on interest rates, for example, before shifting to Rockland’s chief financial officer, who has East Boston roots, to find out whether he puts “sauce” or “gravy” over spaghetti.

The industry has had a greater appreciation for the importance of trust and communication in recent years, Oddleifson says. He recalls making presentations at investor conferences where, when he mentioned community and connection, he’d lose audience members to their mobile devices, only for them to look up when the slide switched back to numbers. But that’s changing.

“Really great companies start here,” he says. “They don’t start with looking at the balance sheet and managing the balance sheet. They start by creating a great place to work.”

Employees at an October “field day,” a team-building event held by Adams + Beasley Associates, a Carlisle-based custom home-building company.ERIN CLARK/GLOBE STAFF

Paying attention to employees’ engagement, and building a place they want to stay, is incredibly important to AJ Meyer, chief executive of Pickle Robot Co., the Cambridge warehouse robotics startup. Not only is it disruptive when employees leave, but with the rise of remote work, Pickle Robot is now competing with remote tech jobs on the West Coast and elsewhere.

So Pickle Robot hosts twice-monthly all-hands meetings, and Meyer works to build rapport through small group lunches. Managers take time to meet with employees for at least an hour every few weeks, typically while walking around the company’s Inman Square neighborhood.

Building a company where employees feel safe vocalizing honest thoughts is key. “You want them to say: ‘This is not going to work,’ or ‘I have a better idea,’” Meyer says. “And they won’t do that unless you build up the kind of rapport where they feel safe to speak up.”

Startups are notoriously stressful environments, and the Pickle Robot team also looks for ways to add some levity. Even the company name evokes a grin — and that’s by design. Beyond “pickle” being a fun play on words for robots that pick stuff up, the name was meant to make the idea of interacting with robots more approachable. Establishing values early on matters, Meyer says. “It’s going to be really hard to make big changes when we’re bigger, rather than getting it right in the DNA from Day 1,” he says.

Ironwood Pharmaceuticals’ DNA, on the other hand, had to be rearranged following a recent turbulent company split, with the spin-off of Cyclerion Therapeutics. Cyclerion would focus on rare diseases; Ironwood on gastrointestinal health. With a new management team and core focus, Tom McCourt, Ironwood’s new CEO, needed a strategy to stabilize the company. Much of it came down to communication and building trust.

He started out with monthly cross-function meetings, dubbed The Breakfast Club, for the company’s staff to get to know him and one another. McCourt would ask for songs that employees thought spoke to Ironwood’s culture — he suggested “Born to Run,” another suggested, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, “The Long and Winding Road.” McCourt writes a regular blog, “It Takes Guts,” that focuses on family life, outside interests and passions, and asks for feedback from employees.

“People have to be able to trust you and believe in you, and that was my number one priority when I first took over,” McCourt says. “The primary objective for me to understand them and for them to understand me . . . that starts and ends with communication.”

Seeking that feedback — and valuing it — was striking to Patricia Valencia, the new vice president of global patient safety at Ironwood. A 25-year veteran of the biotech industry, she’s been at companies big and small, and knew that culture mattered to her when it came to her new job.

When she interviewed, Valencia was struck by the welcoming community atmosphere. She’s worked for companies that discouraged sending “thank you” e-mails, because they clogged inboxes; Ironwood, meanwhile, was full of “gratitude builders” who didn’t shy away from recognizing their colleagues’ work. A few weeks in, Valencia commented on a blog post celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Linzess, Ironwood’s lead product. “The next day I got a comment back from Tom. I’m like, ‘Wow, he reads this stuff.’”

Authentic communication is also a hallmark at Adams + Beasley Associates, a home-building company in Carlisle, which shares the company’s financial information with its 65 employees. Eric Adams and Angus Beasley had debated whether to broadcast that information company-wide — would it highlight a sometimes precarious financial picture, particularly in the often unpredictable residential home-building industry following the COVID-19 pandemic? But, they decided, obfuscating the truth didn’t help employees bring their best perspectives to work.

“You can solicit a ton of feedback loops, but if you don’t shine a light on the hard questions, if you don’t have a culture where critical feedback is actually loved and encouraged, you don’t actually address them,” Beasley says. “If you give people a voice, then they want to work. If they believe in the vision, and they feel like they’re part of having created it, and they feel like they can affect change within it, then they want to come to work.”

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